KENNEWICK — After hours of digging, Cossett was ready to lay her eggs.
“Keep going, sweetie,” coaxed Terese Meyer as the tan-and-yellow eastern box turtle readied her nest.
Cossett burrowed into the dirt, using her rear feet like shovels, before finally depositing four eggs, all smooth, oval-shaped and blue-ish, in the nest.
By the next morning, life was back to normal. Cossett would spend the day searching for bugs and roaming around her pen, which is bordered by cinder blocks and filled with grass, hostas, logs and a wide concrete water basin.
“She is a very social girl,” explained Meyer, who took in Cossett after another animal rescue went out of business. “Very mellow. And she’s a great hunter.”
Cossett is one of more than 200 tortoises that Meyer is caring for in her backyard — and she can identify every single one of them by name.
There’s Xenia, a three-toed box turtle who lost parts of her shell to rot; there’s Lewis, a sulcata tortoise whose shell has pyramided, leaving it bumpy and uneven, due to malnutrition; and there’s Hemingway, a Greek Ibera tortoise who now does regular water therapy after he nearly froze from spending almost an entire winter outside.
About four and a half years ago, Meyer launched the nonprofit rescue Northwest Tortoise out of her 1,800-square-foot house at the end of a Kennewick cul-de-sac. There, she offers injured, malnourished or neglected tortoises sanctuary.
“There is a huge gap of correct knowledge between the pet industry and what is actually correct keeping,” Meyer, 48, said of caring for tortoises, which are gaining in popularity as pets.
Meyer bought her first tortoise, a Greek Ibera, from a reptile show in Tucson, Arizona, more than 20 years ago. The breeder gave her some advice on care and diet, and Meyer took her new pet home. The tortoise was dead 13 years later — decades short of its typical life span.
“That’s what started me on this quest to learn something,” Meyer said.
Meyer started ordering books on tortoise care, reading research papers and reaching out to other animal experts. She quickly learned a lot: Males and females should not share pens. Make sure not to hang lights at an angle, otherwise the light bounces off the wall and glares into the tortoise’s eyes. Never use glass tanks — the slippery surfaces cause deformations in how the animals’ feet develop. And diversify their diet.
She also continued adopting tortoises as pets and eventually tried breeding and selling them at reptile shows.
“What I found there was a mass money grab,” she said.
Other breeders at the shows weren’t looking to make sure these animals had safe homes, Meyer realized. They just wanted to sell the new hatchlings as quickly as possible.
In an attempt to educate the public, Meyer quickly became the go-to person at reptile shows for knowledge on tortoise care. Some people even began bringing their sick tortoises to her, asking for help or hoping she’d take the animal off their hands.
She cautiously agreed to bring some home, but word spread fast.
Her inbox became flooded with questions, and she did her best to respond to each one. She built a website filled with information, created brochures and, in 2014, started her nonprofit. Soon, her backyard was filled with tortoises.
Reptile experts agree that most people have no idea how much effort goes into caring for tortoises.
Alyssa Borek, a lead zookeeper who specializes in reptiles and amphibians at Seattle’s Woodland Park Zoo, said that because tortoises aren’t native to Washington, she thinks there’s a big problem with wildly traded animals that are often brought to the United States illegally.
“There’s a lot of people that either import animals or just try to sell them without looking at the facilities people have,” Borek said. “If someone wanted to purchase something, there would usually be no vetting.”
Meyer said more people are starting to realize the required care is too demanding and her intake numbers have skyrocketed. She rescued eight tortoises in 2017 and four in 2018. This year, she’s already taken in 15.
“Busy is an understatement,” said Meyer, who works full time in the communications department of Washington River Protection Solutions in Hanford. She also devotes at least 30 hours a week to the tortoise nonprofit. “It’s like working two full-time jobs.”
As soon as she gets home from her first job, she’s out in the backyard to do her second.
Three times a week, she cleans the tortoises’ water basins out with a Shop-Vac. She takes hours to feed them — every tortoise species requires a different diet, whether it’s leafy greens, boiled chicken, flowers, or all three. She soaks the dehydrated tortoises in plastic bins filled with water. She trims their overgrown beaks.
Once winter approaches, it’s even more hectic.
Starting in September, Meyer begins moving all the tortoises into two insulated, 80-85-degree sheds in the yard to keep them warm. The sheds are crowded with separate plexiglass-and-wood pens, hanging lamps and heating compartments. The main shed has at least 25 thermometers, she said.
“I have an unending admiration of her devotion to them … She cares about each and every one of them,” said Kathy Batdorf, a veterinarian at Kennewick’s Vista Veterinary Hospital who has worked with Meyer for years. “She doesn’t seem to get jaded from it.”
Although Batdorf specializes in dogs and cats, she often helps Meyer with injections and X-rays.
While she used to welcome volunteers, her biggest help now comes from donations, she said.
She spends about $5,000 per year on the nonprofit, though sometimes medications and vet bills can cause that number to shoot up. Northwest Tortoise is “completely sustainable,” she said, but much of the organization’s income comes from donations.
Her husband, David Spaulding, 46, is supportive of his wife’s mission and tries to help out as much as he can.
“I am not as passionate about tortoises as Terese, but I am passionate about Terese and her dedication to helping educate people, and work to care for animals who are in terrible condition through poor care, misinformation and other reasons,” he said.
While Meyer doesn’t work with many animal rescues, the Humane Society for Tacoma and Pierce County has transferred a handful of tortoises to her over the last few years, said organization spokeswoman Ashley Taulbee.
“[Northwest Tortoise] is basically one of the only rescues in the area that accepts turtles and tortoises,” Taulbee said. “And to our understanding, they’re reputable.”
On a recent Friday morning — on a day off from her paying job — Meyer sat down on her outdoor patio to tend to Tommy, an eastern box turtle whose toes were eaten off by mites. He also suffers from shell rot, so three times a week, she mixes a bactericide/virucide solution together and roughly scrubs the dead tissue off the bottom of his shell with a toothbrush (though different kinds of shell rot call for various medications).
“Hey, buddy boy, don’t be shy,” she said, encouraging Tommy to poke his head out.
Even though it’s an enormous amount of work, this job is for life. In fact, Meyer said she has her “turtle will” all planned out: When she dies, she has money set aside through the rescue and a list of people she trusts to adopt the remaining tortoises.
Tortoises don’t show affection the way dogs or cats might, but Meyer is endlessly captivated by their hardiness, their temperament, their strength.
“I love ’em to death,” she said. “They’re indestructible. If you erase humans from the equation, these guys are built to withstand the eons … They are virtually unchanged through evolution because their system is so perfect.”