Chillin’ with Chelonia — A Visit to Garden State Tortoise

Jul 7, 2016
The Reptile Report
by Judy Clothier

The Reptile Report - I recently had the great pleasure to visit Chris Leone at Garden State Tortoise. We took a tour of his gorgeous facility where he houses and cares for about fifty different species of tortoises and turtles. A handful of the many species we saw are just passing through, taking up temporary residence, usually on their way to a much better home after being removed from bad situations. Most of them, though, are permanent residents and about 65% of them have successfully bred, with more hopefuls in the future.

A cheeky little black-breasted leaf turtle (Geoemyda spengleri)

A cheeky little black-breasted leaf turtle (Geoemyda spengleri)

Garden State Tortoise is a paradise for Chelonia. The enclosures are as large and as naturalistic as they can be. Even the smaller, indoor enclosures are beautifully arranged and filled with living plants and other features that make them feel like little slices of nature. Chris’s dedication to his animals shows plainly when he talks about plans to move to a new facility with even more space to create much larger and more elaborate enclosures for everyone.

Nature runs all over the outdoor enclosures at GST!

Nature runs all over the outdoor enclosures at GST!

Safety is paramount. Many of the smaller enclosures have locking, screened lids. All of them have electric fencing around them, and humane live-capture traps are placed around the property to catch any rogue raccoons. Cameras are set up throughout the area, keeping an eye out not only for intruders, but also watching over the inhabitants, monitoring for any trouble or egg-laying behavior. And all of this is watched over by two loyal dogs that alert Chris and his wife when anyone comes to visit.

This sneaky little fella got caught the morning I arrived. He’ll be taken to a safe place for release.

After the awesome tour, Chris and I sat down on the shaded deck outside his home. We enjoyed the afternoon breezes, birds chirping, and had a great talk.

Tell me how you got started.

I was five years old and I was playing in my sand box with GI Joes. My father hit a box turtle with the lawn mower. He didn’t really hurt it, just chipped a little bit of the scute. He gave it to me…and that’s it. I don’t remember much of it; he tells me the story. Funny thing is, I remember that turtle being huge, as a kid, but it wasn’t. It was just a little box turtle. And that’s what started it all. I’ve had turtles my whole life. Sometimes a little collection, sometimes a big collection, but it never really lasted as long as I wanted it to because I was a touring musician. Towards the end of my music career is when I met my wife and then I didn’t want to be away from home anymore. I needed to figure out what to do and we came up with the idea of starting Garden State Tortoise.

Lots of lovely turtles in these ponds!

GST is only five years old? It seems like you’ve been around for ages.

I have. I’ve been doing this my whole life. It’s just that the official business itself is only five years old. People already knew my name on the forums, I guess, and it snowballed from there. GST a conservation based company at heart, but you have to sell the offspring because the money has to go back into the animals and bills have to be paid. This way I can be with the animals 24/7, which is exactly what I think this kind of collection needs. You have to be with them all the time.

All Chris has to do is wiggle his fingers and the Blanding’s turtles come running!

So you’re a big believer in captive propagation and keeping as a means of conservation.

Totally behind that…with the right people. And I think there are a lot of the right people. The few and far between bad ones have ruined it for a lot of the good ones and I understand why Fish & Wildlife and other administrations have to put regulations and laws into place. I fully understand that and support what is there, but eyes need to be opened, or reopened, to the thought that WE are the actual future and voice for the animals. Just saying “Leave them alone” is NOT going to work.

Anyone who knows a thing or two about reptiles, exotics, or wild animals in general, especially the ones that are in trouble, has to feel the same way. You can’t just leave them alone. We’re never going to stop building. New roadways are going to continue to cut through habitats. Because of that, things like turtles and tortoises are doomed. Chelonia species are the most endangered group of vertebrates on the planet right now. Just leaving them alone is no longer an option. The only way we’re going to preserve these animals is to breed them in captivity.

Radiated tortoises (Astrochelys radiata)

Do you get actively involved with every clutch or do you ever let any just hatch naturally in the enclosures?

Every single clutch is sought out and placed in the incubator, unless I miss it by accident. We don’t fear that predators will get in, you’ve seen all the different ways we keep them out. The reason we remove the eggs is that you never know what’s going to happen with weather out here and that could kill an egg, depending on the species. Certain species, like the wood or Blanding’s turtles, will eat the young. Even if you miss a nest, you try to gauge when it must have been laid and start watching for those babies to show up.

Baby Burmese star tortoise (Geochelone platynota) coming out of its shell

How often does that happen?

It’s rare. I’m happy to say that, but I’m able to be with them 24/7, so it’s rare that it happens. I do know I missed a spotted turtle nest this year. They’ll hatch out there naturally and we have to hope that the Blanding’s turtles don’t see them before we do.

Look at that innocent face! Blanding’s turtle (Emydoidea blandingii)

How do you know you miss a clutch?

Certain species you can palpate and feel the eggs. This one spotted turtle, I knew she was gravid. I’d felt the eggs in her and she’d stopped eating, which was normal. And then a couple days later, she’s running to me for food and I thought, “Uh oh.” I picked her up and she was empty. So she must have done it overnight while I was sleeping. And they’re small, so the cameras don’t pick them up too well. Eggs that small, from a 4” turtle, you’re not going to be able to find the nest. In all the years we’ve been doing it, we’ve never had a young hatch and an adult eat it…I just know it’s possible, so I do all I can to avoid it.

Bourret’s box turtle (Cuora bourreti)

This is your day job, which is pretty amazing. Most of the reptile lovers I know that breed their own, whether it’s snakes or lizards or tortoises, dream of doing this for a living one day. How did you do that?

I’ve always been extremely stubborn and kind of a rebel…not in a cool way, I just didn’t want to listen and had to do things MY way. My parents would take us to Disney World as kids and everyone else wanted to go on the rides. I just wanted to chase lizards around and I wouldn’t take “no” for an answer.

So, like my music career, I just had to take a chance. No matter what was going on in my life, I always came back to the turtles. They always make me happy. They’re such peaceful animals. When everything else in my life is fast-paced, I can just sit back and watch them and feel at peace. I wanted to make that my life and my wife was fully on board. The journey has not been easy. It’s really hard, but it’s worth it.

I don’t like it when people say, “Oh, you’ve got the life!” I do, and I’m thankful for every minute of my life, but this is NOT, under any circumstance, easy. You’re dealing with heartbeats…living, breathing creatures…some of which are extinct in nature. And when things don’t go well for them, it’s a heartbreak that you can’t put into words. It’s not a break-up. It’s not getting fired from a job. It’s not an overdraft on your account. This animal is hopeless and helpless and you’re responsible for it. If it starts doing poorly and going downhill, or worst case, you lose it…it sucks. It’s terrible. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen here often. When something does go downhill, we do everything in our power, financially, physically and mentally, to bring it out of that state. 9 times out of 10, we’re successful, but it’s a cross to bear at times.

To offer advice to anyone else, I’d just say you have to be willing to take a chance. The way I looked at it was that life is way too short. I could die yesterday. I don’t ever want to have that “what if” factor and now I don’t. I did it.

So many box turtles in here…world’s best “Where’s Waldo” game!

How does someone cross over from a day job to doing this 24/7? Did you ever have a regular day job between being a musician and a tortoise breeder?

Yeah, I was in construction, home improvements. I worked for my dad’s company for a while, and a friend’s. It all started, when we first decided to start the actual business, we took out some loans to have the capital, so that if things go south for a little while, we’d have a nest egg. You have to buy the animals AND the equipment. One of the things I see is that people are quick to buy expensive animals, but they don’t invest in the enclosures. Be ready to invest more, if not double, the price of the animal to be able to house it properly. The transition was very difficult. I’d work during the day, and in the meantime, I’d be building clientele, getting my name out there, building enclosures…

Beautiful indoor enclosure for Egyptian tortoises (Testudo kleinmanni)

Financially, how challenging is it to keep all this going? What are some of the tricks of the trade?

You learn to resource almost everything. Buy foods in bulk. Network with local pet stores. I have a very good friend who runs a pet store in the local area and he breeds his own rodents, so I get supplies at cost and rodents for next to nothing. My father-in-law just dropped off a bunch of bait fish he had. Those will feed the Blanding’s for a week. You learn to resource everything. Another simple thing is to look for sales. I like to build pens out of landscape timbers from Home Depot. You just go at the right time and they’ll put those timbers on sale for a dollar each. Just go load up. Buy a hundred of them and stack them somewhere in your yard. You’ll need them at some point, even if not at right that moment. If they’re regularly four dollars each, that hurts the wallet a lot more.

There are some things that you just can’t get around. The electric bill is always high. That never goes away. And vet bills. I’ve created a really good relationship with my vet. He gets me discounts and he understands what I’m going through and he doesn’t just see me as dollar signs; he’s done a lot of favors for me, which is great. And in return, I send a lot of people to him. I try to network with everyone I possibly can. Anyone who is doing anything wildlife based or animal based, so long as they’re doing it for positive reasons, I’ll buy their shirts and wear their shirts and hopefully in return they’ll send out links to my website or share a photo of mine or something like that.

One of the biggest tricks I’ve learned that I highly recommend for anybody keeping turtles or tortoises is go big or go home. Make a pen as big and as naturalistic as possible and the animals will find their own food. You can go into any of these pens with wood or box turtles at any given time, they’re searching for their own worms, snails, slugs, pillbugs. I’ve even seen our wood turtles take a bird down. Thinking things out like that and making them naturalistic, the animals will behave more naturally and will feed themselves. We still have to feed them, but it helps!

Even the smaller outdoor enclosures are bursting with life.

What is it about Hermann’s tortoises…?

That makes me pathetically obsessed with them? (He laughs) Again, back to childhood. I was 9, I think, when my Grandmother had gone to visit Italy. She brought back a baby Hermann’s tortoise that my uncle had hatched in his garden over in Italy. From that moment, it opened up a door to a whole new world. I was used to the neighborhood painted and box turtles that we’d find as kids, or red ear sliders that I’d get for Christmas or something. To me, this little tortoise was a completely different animal, and to an extent they are. Something just changed that day. I don’t know what it was. I spent about 13 years researching and figuring out what it was that I’d had because unfortunately, that first one only lived for about a year. We just didn’t know anything about it then and it didn’t live long.

Everyone has their own opinion, but I think they are the most beautiful animal on the planet. Especially the Western subspecies…that black and yellow contrast, you just don’t see it on anything else. And obviously, you know from being here that we’ve got extreme diversity in the collection. Everything from radiateds to box turtles to sideneck turtles to softshells and everything in between. But Hermann’s are just…. One day, far, far from now, if I pass this on to my kids and I’m just back to doing this as a hobby, it’s just going to be me and my Hermann’s tortoises. I love them.

With the Westerns, that is something that is extremely rare and endangered. They really can’t be compared to the common Easterns that we see at all the reptile shows, forums and classifieds. The Westerns are something different and special and I’ve gone the distance to learn more and teach everyone what I know about them. Separating the different locales and doing genetic work on them is huge. It’s amazing to take two animals that look almost identical, but when you look at their blood, they’re not. There is a difference.

Western Hermann’s tortoise (Testudo hermanni hermanni)

Why is it important to keep the different locales and bloodlines pure?

I use nature as a model for everything I do. As much as I believe that captive propagation is the only future for the animals, I still feel that we should never lose sight of nature and how nature did things. The way I look at it is, if nature put these animals in Tuscany and those animals in Sicily, then I have no business putting them together. We have several different things proving where each one came from; we’ve got the paperwork from the ministry and F&W that enabled me to bring these animals over, we know exactly where they came from. They all have their documentation and id numbers. Then to do the blood work on them and compare it to previous work done by other scientists (not that I’m a scientist)…that just solidifies that we know where they came from. So knowing that, they’re absolutely going to always stay separated into their groups. And, on top of that, this is still a ways off from being proven, but a lot of people that are passionate about Hermann’s tortoises, like myself, do believe that there are further subspecies.

A peek into one of the incubators with carefully separated clutches.

That was going to be my next question. Do you believe there are more species or subspecies of Hermann’s than have been currently described?

Yes, they’re definitely is. I could go on for days about this, but for arguments sake, the animals found on the Italian mainland are NOT the same as those found on the Italian islands. Even an untrained eye can see the difference. Right now, they’re officially classified as the Western subspecies, but a lot of people from Italy, France and Spain, and anyone who is really serious about them says “I would never put these two together.” From size, to color hue and saturation, shape of the head, number of eggs, size of eggs, clutch rate, frequency of clutching…they’re all different. Different tolerances for weather patterns, different temperatures. I’m really proud that I’ve been able to keep all of these things separate, and even multiple bloodlines within the different geographical variance. We went nuts with the enclosures to make sure that they can’t get to each other!

Just one of the many pieces of paradise for Hermann’s tortoises.

What are your plans for the future for GST?

Bigger, better, louder, more teeth! (Chris is quoting Jurassic Park here, he’s not planning on getting into crocodilians!)

We just learned that we are going to be moving. We don’t have an exact location yet, but we do know we’re going to stay in Jersey. We’re going to multiply this by the unthinkable. We’re going to go big. Right now, it’s hard to find our wood turtles in their pen, but when we move, it’s going to be even harder. It’s going to be an actual sanctuary.

I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to be open to the public. It would be great to be able to charge people to come and interact with the animals and learn about them, but that’s a whole other road to go down that is very lengthy and challenging. But we are definitely going to move.

We’re excited! This is our life. The animals are always going to be here and we’re always going to be with them. It’s not just about rare species here. We have a rescue pond for red ear sliders at my dad’s home. It’s a huge pond that my dad and I built when I was a kid. It’s massive. GST isn’t there, it’s here, but those sliders need a home. Right now, we’ve had to stop taking them in because we took in 160 over the last two years, but they at least have a refuge, a place to go. Eventually, that rescue pond will be on OUR property, when we get bigger.

We’re going to expand by THIS much! Eastern box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina)

What is your primary goal with GST?

I would love to one day see them go back into the wild. My dream is to be a part of a head-start program where I do the breeding, producing the offspring, and being able to reintroduce them into the wild…or at least provide them to a ministry, a Fish & Wildlife agency, or some kind of conservation organization to take them back into the wild. I’m getting close to this happening. I’m part of several genetics programs. The most recent one was on the North American wood turtles which are native to this state. NJ F&W sent two biologists out and we did genetics on every single wood turtle in our collection. We’re hoping we can learn some solid history on them, where the individuals actually came from and then section off pairs and trios to breed them so that their babies can go back into the wild. We’ll head-start them and then give them back to F&W to release them. That’s one of my major goals…to put something back into the wild. Right now, everything is in captivity, which is really the only future for them. To be able to replenish once-wild populations would be huge.

Yucatan box turtles (Terrapene carolina yucatana)

How can someone who loves tortoises and/or turtles get involved in conservation in an active way, if they don’t have a lot of land and the time or means to raise so many?

A big step for the exotic animal network, especially reptiles and endangered reptiles, is the recognition of the private sector. Zoos are starting to come around, which is wonderful. My wife is a zoo keeper and both zoos she is affiliated with are fully in support of me and her and what we do here.

I think, as the younger generations come up in the work force and become executives, like zoo execs, stuff like that, I think we’re doing to see more acceptance of private keepers and hobbyists, which NEEDS to happen. The days of ignoring the private sector are unacceptable now. What the private sector is doing is massive for the species.

We know that there are individuals doing this for the wrong reasons, but there is too much good to ignore. We really need to embrace that good because that is the future of these animals, plain and simple. It’s not just the zoos. It’s not just conservationists and nature. A lot of people are going to great lengths to save these animals and we all have a common goal of seeing them thriving in the wild, if at all possible, one day.

For someone that wants to be involved but doesn’t have 10 acres to do it, there are small species to work with in an apartment that can be housed very comfortably. And join the organizations; Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), the Turtle & Tortoise Preservation Group (TTPG), the Turtle Conservancy, and theTurtleRoom. Donate to these different organizations. Get involved with them and let them see you as valuable to them. A lot of these organizations may need help some day. They’ll need to be able to place animals for assurance colonies, but they’re going to want to know that they can trust the people they’ll approach. I think it’s all about doing your homework and working towards that. You can’t just raise your hand and say, “I’ll take it! I’ll do it!”

California desert tortoises (Gopherus agassizii)

Any last words?

There are times I think it would be nice to just work a “normal” 9-5 job, come home to my wife and eat dinner, watch a movie and go to sleep. It’s not like that when you do it on this level. It’s 24/7. When you’re on vacation, you’re not really on vacation because you’re watching your cameras, you’re talking to people in the business, you’re still getting phone calls, and you’re constantly worried about your animals. They’re not just your livelihood, they’re the blood that pumps through your veins.

Chinese box turtle (Cistoclemmys flavomarginata)

I’d like to express my deep appreciation to Chris for his willingness to share his home and his animals with me!  If you’d like to learn more about him and his animals, be sure to check out Garden State TortoiseHermanni Haven and theTurtleRoom where Chris is the Director of Animal Husbandry.

Judy Clothier

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