Although tortoises were famous for moving slowly, many of them were headed for extinction far more quickly than they’d like. These reptiles, while making up just a small slice of the 16,000 endangered animal and plant species, long served as a bedrock of the ecosystem and an inspiration for nature lovers everywhere.
Fortunately, tortoises had a good friend in Arizona who was willing to turn his life upside-down for their survival. When he shattered one incredible record, zoologists everywhere applauded his efforts. His neighbors, on the other hand, couldn’t help but feel a little miffed.
Jerry Fife’s backyard has gotten more than a little attention from Phoenix residents. Anyone curious enough to peek into his acre of land was likely to spot a beast that’s never been seen before in the American Southwest.
Eschewing the typical cat or dog, the Fife household was a haven for the Galápagos tortoise. The 600-pound creatures roamed around his home, and Jerry woke up at 7 am each morning to care for them. Of course, he saw them as much more than pets.
The Arizona native was part of an international conservation effort, and his passion for reptiles went back to his earliest memories. A pet iguana, courtesy of his parents, got Jerry hooked on all things scaly. He passed entire afternoons by searching for lizards in his yard.
Instagram / trexpets
Nobody was surprised when Jerry embarked on a career in animal care. For a number of years, he worked at the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas. As rewarding as that experience was, the position showed Jerry that zoos were limited in their conservation efforts.
Facebook / Gladys Porter Zoo
With their resources pulled in many different directions, zoos could only devote so much attention to breeding threatened species. But Jerry learned that individuals could legally raise these animals on their own. That realization led to a huge purchase in 1994.
Jerry purchased his first Galápagos tortoise from a private owner and set out to raise him 2,500 miles away from his original habitat. Many gawked at the prospect of raising a tortoise in the Sonoran desert, but the reptile expert configured the perfect plan.
YouTube / Kamp Kenan
As it turned out, Phoenix wasn’t too different from the Pacific biome the tortoises were used to. The climate was warm, and the dry grasses and prickly-pear cacti satisfied their dietary needs. Granted, Jerry did need to intervene to some degree.
One of his daily tasks was giving out neck scratches, which the shelled animals loved, by the way. In addition to earning their trust, this practice allowed him to pick off nasty ticks and insects. He soon found that caring for one tortoise was a breeze.
That early success motivated Jerry to bring two female tortoises into his home. Jerry had to redraw his entire budget, as he was now shipping in 50-pound bags of carrots on a regular basis. However, he was willing to justify any cost.
Sedgwick County Zoo
The reptile nut, as some considered him, had joined the race to save tortoises from extinction. Jerry gave them everything they needed to thrive and multiply, though darker forces were shrinking the tortoise population each day.
Up until a couple hundred years ago, these particular reptiles were thriving. The diverse islands of the Galápagos archipelago produced ten different species of tortoise, which spurred possibly the greatest scientific discovery of all time.
Charles Darwin, observing various specimens on his 1835 expedition, cited them in support of his theory of evolution. One tortoise, named Harriet, became a celebrity when she met Darwin and lived for 171 more years! Tragically, the publicity devastated the reptiles.
Reddit / WeWhereWhy
With imperialism en vogue, trappers and whalers from all over the world converged on the Galápagos. They ruthlessly hunted the peaceful tortoises, with the bigger slaughters wiping out entire islands.
Wikimedia Commons / Colin Murray
Sometimes hungry sailors wanted their meat, but more often tortoises were targeted for their body oil or valuable shells. Modern poachers continued to stalk them, with no regard for ecological balance or the reptiles’ benefits to mankind.
Many scientists believe the durable, long-living Galápagos creatures could unlock countless medical solutions — maybe even a cure for cancer. This is just another reason why Jerry sought to breed them on this property. He listened carefully each day for their telltale groans.
Those animal cries indicated two tortoises, to put it lightly, enjoying each other’s company. Even a wildlife expert like Jerry was taken aback by just how often he heard these murmurs. What surprised him even more were the number of eggs.
His small breeding program was a staggering success, with over 200 hatchlings rejuvenating the species. Not equipped to handle so many tortoises, Jerry has sold off most of them to zoos or private owners, though not without heavy criticism.
Smithsonian Institution / Lauren Augustine
Some traditionalists argued that Jerry’s method tore animals out of their natural habitat and exploited them on the exotic pet trade. Though they were procreating, the captive tortoises weren’t being reintroduced into the wild.
The Galapagos Conservation Trust
But Jerry and his supporters point to the fact that Ecuador forbids the removal of any species from the Galápagos Islands. The only way to rebuild the tortoise population is through the network of private breeders, many of whom take the utmost care of their critters.
Global Citizen Year
Jerry is understandably proud of his accomplishment, while recognizing that his Arizona breeding isn’t quite a long-term solution. Wild turtles and tortoises also need a helping hand. Luckily, that effort is gaining momentum all over the United States.
Facebook / Jerry Fife
Rockaway Beach has been a landmark of Queens, New York, for over a century. With its well-kept shores and close proximity to Manhattan, this neighborhood has long been considered the perfect place to escape the hot summers of New York City.
As one of the area’s most popular vacation spots, it’s no surprise the crowded beaches of Rockaway aren’t exactly ideal for wild animals. However, that didn’t stop one creature from coming ashore for a very special purpose.
When the animal emerged from the sea, beachgoers spotted it almost immediately, and before long, a large crowd gathered to watch as it shuffled through the sand.
The Durango Herald
The creature was a Kemp’s Ridley sea turtle, one of the rarest species of turtle on the planet! And while turtle spottings are relatively commonplace on Long Island, finding a Kemp’s Ridley there was as likely as striking gold.
National Park Services
Kemp’s Ridleys are known to live mostly in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico, an environment much different than that offered by the icy Atlantic. So, how did this turtle wind up so far from home?
Environmental Defense Fund
Well, the crowd got their answers pretty quickly, as no sooner did the turtle settle itself in the sand that it began laying hundreds of tiny eggs. Beachgoers were amazed at the sight, but these unhatched turtles were in danger.
Sea Turtle Exploration
Despite being buried beneath a thick layer of sand, the eggs were at risk of improper incubation due to the cold climate. It was a huge gamble for the exhausted mama turtle to deposit her clutch here.
USFWS Midwest Region
After the mama turtle returned to the sea, onlookers contacted the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research (RFMR) to come and assess the situation. Arriving within minutes, rescue workers realized the danger these eggs were in and immediately went to work.
To preserve the eggs, rescuers constructed a small fence around the nest that would prevent predatory animals (and curious beachgoers) from snooping around.
Mote Marine Laboratory
Rescue workers returned to the small nest daily to check on the eggs. The RFMR was confident their plan would protect the turtles long enough for them to hatch. But even for all their optimism, mother nature had different plans.
In early September, rising tides from recent storm surges crept ever closer to the vulnerable nest. As the waters slowly ate away at the surrounding area, it was only a matter of time before the unthinkable would happen.
If the waters began to flood the nest, the turtles would most certainly drown; and if that wasn’t bad enough, those that survived would become easy prey. The rescuers knew they needed to interfere, but something was holding them back.
Most wildlife services maintain that one should never interfere in the happenings of nature. But even so, the rescuers were convinced that, in some way, human interaction with the landscape was partially responsible for the looming threat to the turtles.
With this in mind, the RFMR contacted the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service with a plea for permission to relocate the eggs. The federal agency denied the plea: the eggs must stay, officials said!
Determined to save the turtles, however, the RFMR pushed back. Despite initial protests, Fish and Wildlife relented, and the rescuers got to work on the newest phase of their plan!
Fish and Wildlife Services / Flickr
Finding an impressive 110 of the 116 eggs were still alive, rescue workers collected the unhatched turtles and transported them to a nearby animal care facility. Placing the eggs in high-tech incubators, the RFMR hoped their unorthodox hatching method would be enough to do the trick.
Because the eggs had been laid two months prior and that their average incubation period typically lasted 60 days, rescuers were concerned the turtles might’ve been injured by the flooding or by the move. Thankfully, this wasn’t the case.
After only a week or so of incubation, one of the rescue workers noticed the eggs were beginning to form small cracks on their surfaces. They were hatching! But as excited as the rescuers were, they realized that this seemingly good news also brought with it a handful of new problems.
When baby turtles first hatch, they’re born with incredibly high energy levels – known as “frenzy” – which allows them to hastily make their way into the water and overcome large waves. With the turtle’s energy boosts only lasting a short time, it was vital for the rescuers to get them back to Rockaway as quickly as possible.
In the end, 96 of the 116 original eggs hatched, sending nearly 100 baby turtles scrambling across the sand and into the ocean. The rescue workers cheered watching the tiny creatures hop into the waves.
MattandEileen / WordPress
“It was one of the proudest and [most] exciting moments of my career,” said Patti Rafferty, the Chief of Resource Stewardship for the nearby Gateway National Recreation Area. Sadly, though, this would likely be the last time these rescuers ever saw the many lives they had saved.
Gateway National Recreation Area / Facebook
Because of their small size, the workers were unable to tag the turtles and would not be able to track them as they navigated the open ocean. Still, there’s no denying the role these men and women played in the rescue of these turtles. No matter where they go, these Kemp’s Ridleys will always be New Yorkers. Don’t fugetaboutit!
shalene / Reddit