BERKELEY (CBS SF) — A warning Wednesday evening about the increasing popularity of a certain type of tortoise that could leave pet owners in an alarming predicament.

Celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and 49er quarterback Colin Kaepernick reportedly have African spurred tortoises, commonly referred to as sulcatas.

But rescue groups are advising people to stop buying that type of tortoise.

They’re small and cute and can be super smart. Some sulcatas even respond to their names.

“Of all the tortoises I’ve worked with, they have the most interesting, complex and best personality,” said Owen Maerks of the Berkeley’s East Bay Vivarium

However, Maercks warns these tortoises come with a huge downside.

Take, for example, Tank. He may have started out about the size of a tennis ball, but now he weighs close to 250 pounds.

Sonoma County animal rescuer Al Wolf said Tank was surrendered 20 years ago weighing in at a mere 32 pounds.

“He’s about 28 years old,” explained Wolf. “Tortoises can double, even triple in size each year and can live to be over 100 years old.”

And like most sulcatas, Tank is a destructive powerhouse.

“They can bulldoze through your yard, break all your lawn furniture, break your ladders,” said Wolf. “I’ve seen ’em break above ground pools.”

Its a growing problem for the growing number of sulcata owners, some who buy the reptiles impulsively online  or at reptile shows and  don’t realize what they’re getting into.

“They eat just like a horse does. And when it comes out the other end, it’s the same thing: like a horse,” said Wolf. “Do you want to keep a horse in your house? No.”

The American Tortoise Rescue says rescue groups average three or four calls a week from owners who want to get rid of their sulcatas, usually when they reach 50 pounds or 10 years old.

It’s calling on the pet industry and breeders to stop selling sulcatas.

“We’re straight with people,” said Maerks. “Not everyone is straight with people.”

Maerks says he will sell sulcatas for educational or scientific purposes only. And thanks to his warnings, for every 100 customers who come in shopping for the type of tortoise, only one may actually buy.

Maerks says he asks kids who want a sulcata if they plan to have grandchildren who can take care it.

The tortoises cost between $50 and $200. Contrary to some sales pitches, they do not stay small if kept in small tanks.

There is no resale market for the full-grown tortoises and, for the most part, zoos won’t take them off your hands.

Comments (3)
  1. That Guy says:

    This article is spot-on. I know from experience that many sulcata are abandoned when they get too big to be cared for at home. Zoo’s don’t want them – they have all that they need. Most are eventually euthanized and I’m sure you don’t want to see that happen to a pet you have loved for 10 or so years.

    What the article fails to tell you that Russian tortoises are cute as a button and never get to me more that 10 or so pounds – even when decades old. They are much easier to care for too; their dietary requirements are not as restrictive as the very specific dietary needs of sulcata.

  2. Robert Christoph says:

    Wonderful article. I have 2 that i and my son rescued. People think it’s a joke when you say it’s like having a horse. This is such a true statement. When I go over to there living areas it’s smells just like a horse stall. Oh when they fart. Oh man. Poop right now is the size of softballs. And getting bigger. Lol. But they are so loving. We love our sulcatas. (Separated). Never put together please.