Emergency Planning

An emergency can be many things: small stuff like running out of food and money at the same time, or a lost tortoise, or the reptile room got flooded. It can be medium-sized things like a power outage in the winter or an urgent need to leave the house suddenly. It can also be big stuff like hurricanes or mass evacuations.

While we cannot plan for everything, we should at least think of what to do in some basic situations.

Identification and History

Keeping a sort of “resume” of your tortoise will help in many bad situations. It should include:
  • A series of recent photos that can a.) establish patterns or colors to help ID the tortoise, and b.) establish your ownership will help in an emergency. Helpful photos would include
    • a carapace shot against a ruler,
    • a close up of some distinguishing characteristic such as a wound or unique pattern.
    • a photo of you with the tortoise.
  • Proof of ownership: the photo listed above is good, but a receipt or paperwork from the seller will help in many situations. Carry a copy and safely file the original.
  • Basic medical history, including vet’s name and phone number. Include any recent meds or procedures.
  • A “cheat sheet” for the diet and care needs.
  • A pre-made “lost turtle” poster with a recent photo or two, contact information, and promise of a reward. Having the poster already made will make life a lot easier if a tortoise escapes (and using the term “turtle” makes it less scary or confusing to the general public.)
  • A list of helpful phone numbers, including
    • People who can watch your animals for at least a while, including at least one from outside your city or county in case of a larger area emergency. A pet boarding service may be a back-up plan.
    • Your regular vet.
    • A 24 hour vet clinic. Gather information about such items as their policies, payments and pick-up times. These are tricky to deal with when you are flustered.
    • A list of places nearby that someone might call if they find your tortoise, including pet stores, vets, nature center, animal rescue, or zoos. Try to get fax numbers or email info so you can send them “lost tortoise” info quickly.
If your tortoise is lost, you have a photo to put up to help find him. If someone else claims it is their pet, your photos, receipt, and vet’s word will help police quickly settle things. If there is a disaster locally, this is the sort of info that rescue shelters will want (not that most shelters will take “exotic pets”).

First aid and evacuation kits

The list of a good reptile first aid kit is in the “Health and Medical” page. A first aid kit should be part of your evacuation kit.
The idea of an evacuation kit or “Bug Out Bag” (BOB) is to have a pre-packed kit that you keep close and can grab in a hurry. A plain BOB usually is geared to getting you through the first 24-48 hours of the emergency, buying you time to get other plans going. To modify the type of BOB you may find online designed for humans to handle your tortoises(T-BOB), you need to think about their basic cares on the road. Some basics might include:
  • A cheap, clean cooler to transport the tortoise(s) in, and store supplies in the meantime. You can further enhance your cooler by drilling ventilation holes you can cover or open as needed. You can use a pet carrier, but a cooler will be more helpful in cold weather.
  • A pile of newspapers to use as substrate, packing material, and to help insulate.
  • Paper towels to clean up messes, or dampen for humidity, or to help “pack” the tortoises to minimize movement and shock.
  • Packet of disinfecting wipes to decontaminate messes, surfaces the tortoise walks on, or your hands after handling the tortoise.
  • A sealed bag of emergency food, like Zoo-Med Natural Tortoise Diet (which seems to store longer than Mazuri.)
  • A gallon or more of clean water, and a water dish, possibly one that Velcros to the cooler wall to minimize spillage.
  • Long-lasting chemical heat packets or other heating solutions (for example a brick and a camp oven, a lightly insulated tight-lidded water bottle you can fill with hot water)
  • 2 complete copies of the identification photos and paperwork mentioned above, 1 to keep with you, 1 to keep with the tortoise.
  • Basic first aid supplies and needed meds
  • Basic care info that a pet-sitter can use to care for your animal for a while.

Some specific non-medical emergencies

Lost tortoise

  1. Search the immediate area. The tortoise probably has not gone far, but is hiding somewhere you don’t think it will fit. Get on hands and knees and search every little hole or hiding spot.
  2. Put out a pile of something the tortoise likes to eat near the wall of the pen or wherever it was last seen. Monitor the pile.
  3. Make a quick “Lost Turtle” poster with a photo, your contact info, and the promise of a reward. If you read and followed the “Identification and history” section above, you already have this ready! (As mentioned above, use “lost turtle” instead of “lost tortoise” because most people will not really know what a tortoise is, and most people think turtles are kind of cute.) Print out enough to hand to neighbors and post within a block radius. Odds are if it is not in your yard it is in a neighbor’s, so get them on your side ASAP.
  4. Email or deliver copies of the poster and info to local vets, shelters, pet shops, nature centers, zoos, and other places someone might call or take a lost turtle to. (Having these listed before-hand is a really good idea!)
  5. Repeat Step 1.
  6. Seriously, it probably has not gone far. Repeat Step 1 again.
No Heat (power outages, gas line disruptions, etc.)
  1. For the most part, do not worry about light or humidity if the emergency is going to be shorter than a few days.
  2. How long will it likely last? If for very long, can you use the T-BOB to transport the tortoises elsewhere?
  3. Does the stove still work? Heat water and pour into a sealed, lightly insulated jug (like a Nalgene bottle wrapped in some newspaper), or heat a brick to lay in the habitat.
  4. Are they small enough to put in a pocket? Many keepers just put them in a pocket against their skin, under a jacket, or even sleep with them, for fairly short periods.

Area evacuation

  1. In some cases, your tortoise can be “evacuated in place” if you realistically can leave it alone to fend for itself for a few days. Outdoor tortoises whose pens are OK can often just be left there for a short time. If you do this, try to leave contact info so rescuers can get ahold of you.
  2. If you are going to take it with you, pack the tortoise in the T-BOB. It is often a good idea to wrap the tortoise loosely in paper to minimize movement and help keep it warmer. (Note: during an evacuation, most hotels, motels, and emergency shelters will not accept pets. A tortoise traveling in an unmarked cooler may not be recognized as a pet.)
  3. Keep a set of identification and care information with you, and a set with the tortoise.
  4. Try to touch base with a local vet that can care for your animal if something goes wrong.
  5. Try to locate a local contact that can serve as a communications and coordination base and use their name and address as a back-up emergency contact.
  6. If you check the tortoise and the carrier in with an emergency shelter, clearly label the outside of the carrier with the species, name, and your contact info, and your back-up contact info.

Incapacitated owner

The emergency may be happening to you, and you should plan for that as well. Some things to consider

  • If you end up in the hospital, or getting transferred with short notice, etc., who should take immediate care of your tortoises (or other pets)? Make sure that person knows about it and is at least somewhat versed in the care. Consider giving them a book and some starter supplies to have on hand.
  • Make sure your “emergency contacts” for medical and other matters knows about the above person and can contact them.
  • If the emergency is extended (for an extreme example, you die), what should happen to the tortoises? Is there a local keeper who has agreed to take them? A friend or family member who would love to have them if you cannot? (It is a good idea to have a will in general, and it should include this issue.)
Edited 8-16-2012 (C) Mark Adkins