BEREA, Ky. (LEX 18) — Workers at the Berea College Forest are keeping a close eye out for some unusual visitors. In the last few weeks, people have released a domesticated rabbit and four Russian Tortoises near the trailhead for The Pinnacles.
"The Berea College Forest has an amazing amount of biodiversity. Part of my job here is to survey and track that biodiversity," said Berea College ecologist John Abrams.
Abrams said the first animal was a domesticated rabbit. He said someone's pet rabbit was playing in their yard when a passerby mistook it for a wild animal. Abrams said that person drove it out to the Berea College Forest and released it, thinking it would be better than in the city.
"The owner was out here every day. We looked for it and we set up live traps for it and put its litter box out here. It was super sad. If anyone was here and picked up a black domestic rabbit, please give me a call," Abrams said.
Then, as he was leaving work one day, he noticed something on the road.
"Right as I was leaving, I noticed a turtle crossing the road, so I pulled over to help it. After I got closer, I realized it wasn't an Eastern Box Turtle. It was actually a Russian Tortoise, which is a common tortoise that you find in the pet trade," he said.
Introducing non-native species to the forest, Abrams said, can have serious consequences.
"You run the risk of introducing disease or parasites that those animals may be carrying, and you don't want to introduce that into the populations here," Abrams said.
Abrams took the tortoise home, where he said his family fell in love with her and named her Zelda. Unfortunately, though, Abrams learned there were a total of four tortoises released.
"I suspect they probably didn't stick around the forest. They probably headed out to the fields and things nearby," Abrams said.
The tortoises travel further and faster than people may realize. Abrams said Zelda was found about a mile from where they were dropped. He said people in a six-mile radius of the Pinnacles area should keep an eye out.
"Check your yards, check your fencelines especially, under decks maybe, if you notice any new burrows built in your yard all of a sudden, it may be one of these guys," he said.
Abrams said Russian Tortoises make good pets, and if anyone finds one and chooses to keep it, he asked that they email email@example.com or call Berea College Forestry Outreach Center. He also wants to emphasize that the only animals who should live in that forest are the ones already there.
"I encourage everybody to come out here, hike the trails. Have a wonderful time. Take your pets with you, but take them home when you're done," Abrams said.