Sunday, 16 February 2020



The story of how Phoenix became an unlikely hotbed of Galápagos tortoise breeding, thanks to one dedicated matchmaker.

Tortoises aren’t very romantic.

So when Jerry Fife brought home a 17-year-old male Galápagos tortoise he purchased from a fellow breeder in Las Vegas to mate with his two female tortoises, he wasn’t sure how it would go over.

Then, he started hearing their rearing groans.

Fife could tell the male tortoise had a preference, “because, well, he was breeding with that one a whole bunch,” he says, pointing to one of his female tortoises going to town on a piece of prickly pear cactus. “And the other, not so much.”

This is how Fife has bred more than 200 Galápagos tortoises on his property, a sprawling acre of land in Laveen, just southwest of Phoenix – basically, by letting them eat and socialize. It sounds simple, but it often isn’t. Notoriously tricky to breed, the Galápagos has found an unlikely but prolific spawning ground in the Valley of the Sun, some 2,500 miles from its natural habitat. But the tortoise’s amenability to backyards in Arizona is itself part of a larger international controversy over the trafficking of exotic animals – one that splits lovers of these slow-moving, long-living giants into equally passionate camps.

To be sure, the reptiles – which weigh around 600 pounds as adults and grow to the size of a small coffee table – have made Fife’s desert property their own, guarding the gate into the backyard like lion statues. They graze on his huge plot of grass, and saunter over to a place just for them – it looks like a dog run, but has bushes, trees and plants shading the area. And that’s just for the five full-grown Galápagos tortoises currently in his care – the other dozens of reptiles include baby and adolescent tortoises, snakes, lizards and plenty more, finding their home in man-made structures throughout his yard.

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