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Shelter from the storm

APPLEGATE — The Kerulos Center has operated for five years researching ways to ensure animals live in dignity and freedom. Now it's preparing to house up to two-dozen desert tortoises that otherwise might have been euthanized.

The Nevada-based Desert Tortoise Conservation Center, a federal facility that is shutting down, will transfer the animals to Kerulos in April or May. The reptiles are healthy but have been maimed or otherwise harmed by humans and would be unable to survive in the wild.

"We want to bring the message and work home to the valley," said Gay Bradshaw, Kerulos executive director. "Part of the solution is being able to provide sanctuary for animals that are in need."

Kerulos coordinates with scholars around the world on research that explores common traits animals may share with humans, including thinking, feeling, dreaming and self-consciousness.

Bradshaw grew up on the 32-acre farm that houses the center. She has doctoral degrees in conservation and psychology and has traveled the world doing research on the psychology of animals.

Kerulos has sheltered rabbits ever since Regina, an abandoned bunny, wandered onto the farm three years ago. The operation is now called the Tortoise & Hare Sanctuary.

When Bradshaw first learned of the tortoise center's pending closure, she contacted officials there. They determined that Kerulos would be an appropriate place to house the reptiles.

The Desert Tortoise Conservation Center is a collaborative effort. San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research provides management at the Bureau of Land Management facility with participation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other organizations. It is located south of Las Vegas.

The BLM has partially funded the operation through fees assessed on developers who disrupt tortoise habitat. When development dropped sharply at the end of the last decade, funding fell below sustainable levels.

Zoo institute manager Christina Simmons said Kerulos was selected to house the tortoises after extensive scrutiny.

"We have very strict standards. We are working with the Fish and Wildlife Service. It's actually the (service) that makes that determination," said Simmons.

Neither the state Department of Agriculture nor the Department of Fish and Wildlife places restrictions or requirements on housing tortoises in state, said officials from both agencies.

"They are former pets that have an injury like the loss of an arm or leg or disability because of poor nutrition and care," said Bradshaw. "They are quite robust although they have disabilities."

Southern Oregon's climate is similar to the southwest with hot, dry summers and semi-arid conditions. In their native environment, the tortoises hibernate from November through February and they will do that inside at the sanctuary.

Each tortoise will have its own area and the outside enclosure will be fenced and trenched. Females tend to be social and will have contact with others, but males will be separated. Desert tortoises can live up to 65 years. There will be some teenagers, but most will be in their 20s or 30s, Bradshaw said.

Desert tortoises have lived in the Southwest for 200 million years, but they are susceptible to respiratory infections. The San Diego Zoo institute estimates there has been up to a 90 percent reduction in desert tortoise population over the last 20 years, much of it linked to loss of habitat.

The Las Vegas center has about 1,400 tortoises and takes in up to 1,000 per year, most of them former pets. As it shuts down, healthy animals will be released into the wild. But from 30 to 60 percent of the center's animals may be diseased and face euthanasia. Federal law prohibits adoption of unhealthy tortoises and bans moving them across state lines.

Kerulos will be training volunteers to help with the tortoises and to extend its message into the community. The organization operates on grants and donations. The center is not open to the public. Additional information can be found at www.kerulos.org.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Gay Bradshaw stands at the future site of a tortoise sanctuary near Ruch. - Jamie Lusch