Kennewick — It was triple-digit heat when Rufus chose to take a lunchtime stroll.
Placing one stumpy leg in front of another, the agile +80-year-old cruised right over to a juicy hibiscus petal.
He took a bite, tilting his head: Chomp. And then another.
It’s all in a day’s work for an elder tortoise.
Tucked behind an inconspicuous home in a Kennewick cul-de-sac is Northwest Tortoise, a nonprofit sanctuary and rescue serving ill and abandoned tortoises.
A revolving assortment of tortoises from all over the Northwest occupy a backyard retrofitted by founder Terese Meyer, a Tri-Cities native.
This is where Rufus lives. He’s one of nine gopher tortoises poached from the wild and taken illegally across state lines. Meyer is federally permitted to care for the North American species.
Though his age is not known, Rufus is likely the oldest reptile at Northwest Tortoise.
Most of Meyer’s “creep” was relinquished by their owners — either for medical, personal or financial reasons — or found abandoned in dire conditions.
Although the animals can live well past 100 in the wild, the lifespan of an abused pet tortoise is often significantly less.
“The saying is that if you can get two years out of a pet store tortoise, you’re doing great — which is colossally depressing,” said Meyer, 51, walking the perimeter of her tortoise enclosures made from stacked cinder blocks.
“I clean up after the pet industry,” she said.
And there’s a high demand for her help.
Hundreds reach out to her every year ready to relinquish their pets, though she can’t take in them all. She also receives a lot of questions about tortoise care and diets, and makes an effort to respond to every email she receives.
Meyer says her nonprofit is the only one of its kind in the Pacific Northwest.
The Tri-City’s arid climate is great for the land-dwelling reptiles, and allows them to spend nine months of the year outside. She currently has about 200.
Northwest Tortoise, which is not open to for public visits, operates on an annual budget of $20,000 — all of which comes from donations around the U.S. She spends about $150 a month on food.
“I have a little 5-year-old girl down in California, and she sends me $5 every month,” she said.
As the sole worker, Meyer pours about 30 hours each week into her nonprofit and doesn’t take a dime in salary. During the day, she works in administrative work for a company at the Hanford nuclear site.
Turtles are largely water-dwelling, while tortoises mostly live in dry areas and on land.
Meyer said she’s always been an animal lover, but her affinity for tortoises started about 20 years ago.
It began with a couple of her own pets. Soon after, she began attending tortoise shows and eventually developed a reputation as an expert with a lot of knowledge in caring for and raising the animals. She read books and research, and kept in contact with other experts.
“The more I learned about them, the more I found that they’re fascinating creatures. We have a lot to learn from tortoises,” she said.
Then, people started dropping their tortoises off with her. She also began learning about the dark side of the pet industry: That there was a whole lot of money involved, but not as much humanity.
“That’s when I realized that the need to spread the word of correct care and have a place for unwanted tortoises to go — the need was incredible,” she said.
She started her nonprofit in 2014, just a few years after she began breeding tortoises, and found demand almost right away.
“I never expected it to take over my entire personal life,” she said.
Meyer also hosts four educational events per year throughout the Tri-Cities. She hopes to get kids and adults involved in the tortoises so they can have a unique and memorable experience.
Tortoises are solitary, loving and very personable animals, she said. The Tri-Cities is great for many species, but not all.
“It’s incredibly hard being a one-person operation with the amount of maintenance that it takes,” she said.
During winter, when temperatures can reach well below freezing, Meyer migrates the animals into two outdoor sheds on the property. Insulation, timothy hay and heat lamps keep the reptiles at a cozy 80-100 degrees.
Marcie Logsdon, an assistant professor in the exotics and wildlife department at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, said tortoise care is all about mimicking their native environment and diet as much as possible.
At Northwest Tortoise, every critter has a story.
Zeus, a sociable red-foot tortoise, has been with Meyer since before her nonprofit existed. He was found abandoned in 2010 in a Tacoma storage unit that was being auctioned off.
Dino, a young but large Sulcata, is more reserved and tends to hide in his round, healthy shell. He’s listed on the nonprofit’s website for adoption.
Zig, also a red-foot tortoise, has a leg deformity and a pyramid-shaped shell that developed from a poor diet.
“They just didn’t want him anymore,” Meyer said of the previous owners.
Several tortoises at Meyer’s nonprofit suffer from metabolic bone disease, a condition that develops from poor nutrition. It can turn the animal’s shell soft and collapse on them, killing them.
A tortoise’s shell is more than their home, Meyer said — it is the animal, a part spine, and can also reveal a lot about its long-term diet and health.
Getting a tortoise
Caring for a pet tortoise can take a lot of time, patience and research. Exotic animal care can also be a hefty financial commitment for pet parents, too.
“They do take a lot of space and a lot of care,” Logsdon said. “It’s a big commitment.”