Friday, December 20, 2019

Q&A with Modern Tortoise

Tortoises are fantastic!

Now that's out of the way let's talk... I've been keeping a variety of tortoises for a while now, and while I'm certainly no expert, I feel that I have a firm grasp on some of the basics.

That being the case, I thought I'd take this opportunity to answer some questions that friends of mine have asked, along with a few that they didn't... caring for tortoises (in both senses of the word 'caring') is relatively easy given a basic understanding of their needs, and once you can move past some petstore-dogma lingering from a bygone era of keeping these wonderful beasts in much the same way you'd keep a jade plant.

How do you keep a tortoise so they don't die?

The biggest struggles most tortoises face in captivity are in regards to temperature and humidity. As a general rule, being cold-blooded, they have trouble digesting (and doing lots of other stuff) when their internal temperature is below 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Also as a general rule, tortoises are kept much too dry, especially younger and/or forest tortoises.

A good rule of thumb, and place to start, is in keeping your tortoise at 80°F and 80% humidity... this is most easily accomplished in a closed system, like a big aquarium or cabinet with a lid on it to keep in the heat and humidity.

If you can reach and maintain those levels consistently, then you can fine-tune the enclosure's conditions to more exactly meet the needs of your tortoise... my Redfoot seems to do best with a range from 78-86°F, humidity in the 90% range and a 12:12 light schedule with a place to bask and take in some UV rays; my Black Mountain Tortoise prefers 68-82°F and near 100% humidity (she spends a lot of the day in an underpot filled with water) and lower intensity lighting than the Redfoot; the Hingeback does well from 65-80°F with humidity in the 90s and even less light than the Mountain Tortoise; the Russian can handle anything from 60-100°F and does fine with lower humidity (largely because he's much older than the others, but also because he's a type of tortoise that just needs less humidity).

In addition, a weekly (or more often for hatchlings) soaking is beneficial for all tortoises, even adults... the water should be warm and up to just above the line where the bottom of their shell (plastron) shifts to the top of their shell (carapace). With my severely dehydrated Hingeback, I soaked him several times a week for hours at a time (to ensure that the water stayed warm, I put the container inside his enclosure).

Their UV needs aren't much, but they do need some to help them metabolize nutrients (in much the same way that many other animals, including people, do)... if you can get them outside in the sun for a few hours each week, you'll have met their needs. If you can't, or can't year-round, you can supplement it with a bulb (which is what I do.

How do you know what to feed them? 

Tortoises fall into two broad categories: grassland and forest tortoises. Grassland tortoises are nearly entirely herbivorous, while forest tortoises are more omnivorous.

This page with some basic caresheets for the more common species is a good place to start.

Regardless of which type of tortoise you get, greens, weeds, and flowers will be a big part of their diet. Their diets, especially the grassland tortoises, should be high in fiber and low in protein. Fruit is a part of some tortoises' diets, but too much can make them sick as their guts use fermentation to process nutrients and too much sugar can throw off the fermentation process.

Variety should be your goal in feeding your tortoise. I alternate foods by days so that they cannot simply pick out their favorites every day and ignore the stuff they don't like. I feed my tortoise slightly more than they can eat every day... they eat most shortly after I put the food down, then pick at it throughout the day (and possibly night).

My Russian is a no-kidding-around grassland tortoise, so he gets no fruit, no animal protein, and only occasional veggies (I give him pumpkin or butternut squash from time to time); his favorite food on earth is a hibiscus flower. The rest of my creep is made up of forest tortoises, who enjoy a bit of everything, with variety and balance being the focus across the week's menu.

Can they be microchipped like a dog? 

Yes, they can. Last winter Ben and I went to a friend's "farm", where he had dozens (maybe hundreds) of giant Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises... we spent hours exploring his ranch and feeding/meeting the tortoises. At the end of our visit, we spent an hour or so helping him take blood samples and inject micro-chips into a group of the tortoises.

Do they have distinct personalities?

My experience has been that tortoises are quite intelligent and have vastly different personalities, once they get to know you.

When a tortoise comes to live with me, they generally hide or pout for a month or so; I think this is from upset at the move and change in their surroundings and schedules and environment (they're not crazy about change).

My Redfoot likes to explore his enclosure, move stuff around, and watch me write. When I put his food down, he rushes over to sniff and pick out any treasures, then retires to bask for a while and return periodically. In the warm months when he goes outside, he walks the perimeter once, then finds a corner to wedge himself into and takes a nap.

The Russian basks first thing, as soon as the light comes on, then watches me for signs of a food delivery. Unlike the others, he maintains eye-contact while eating, and always has an eye on me. when he gets outside, he likes trying to escape (he's a digger) and after exploring the space thoroughly will cut a flap of sod and scoot under it to finish the day.

My Black Mountain Tortoise loves to soak and hide. A number of times, I've been completely unable to find her in her enclosure, and just have to wait until the next meal, when she emerges from the floor and comes over to power through a meal. She seems the least interested in me of all of my tortoises, and I often get the feeling that I work for her (and she's not fully impressed with the job I'm doing).

The Hingeback is the newest and came to me, so we're still getting to know each other. He likes to watch me write, but it's normally from undercover (being a deep forest type, his enclosure is filled with branches and leaves and hides)... I often just see a glint from his big beautiful eyes from within the depths of the enclosure.

How big will they get? 

The Russian is full-sized at 6 inches across. The Hingeback is next, he'll probably top out around 9-10 inches long. The Redfoot could grow to 18-20 inches, although I bet he'll top out at 16 or so. The Black Mountain Tortoise has the potential to be the largest in my creep eventually, and her species is the fourth largest on Earth (after Galapagos, Aldabra, and Sulcata), at around 24 inches.

How long do they live? 

Tortoises can live for a long time. captivity can either be wearing or a boon to their longevity. The Russian is already at least 20 years old and may live for another 20-50. The others should all outlive me (unless things go unexpectedly right for me and/or wrong for them), they could certainly all live 50-100 years.

I have made provisions in my will and had a talk with my son (including resources/people for him to call on if he decides he doesn't want to take them on).

Can you leash train them? 

I've seen people who do, but I'm not even crazy about walking dogs on leashes, so I'm not likely to do it with my tortoises. If that's your thing, I'm sure you could, they're smart enough.

Do they enjoy digging? Hiding in sand or mud? 

The Russian and the Black Mountain Tortoise love digging, the former for escape and exploration, the latter for hiding. The other two will, and have, dug, but they mostly seem to stay on the surface, or just under some covering branches and leaves rather than digging down.

What do your dogs think of them? 

The dogs think they're funny-smelling rocks. I don't let them check out the tortoises really close up because it might activate some latent prey-drive, and I don't want anyone injured.

Can they be salmonella carriers like some other reptiles? 

I imagine so. I wash my hands before and after I handle them and in caring for their food and enclosures... before to protect them from me after to protect me from them.

To date, because they're all relatively new, and from different parts of the world (with presumably differing gut-biota), I don't let them play together, soak together, eat together, live together. Besides the specter of cross-infection, there could also be aggression issues... tortoises are predominantly solitary creatures.

Can you train them to do tricks? 

I expect so, but I don't think I will. Again, I don't really do this with my dogs, beyond some functional ones like "sit" and "come"... I think I've already been habituating them to behave as I want them to when I'm handling them, which I guess could be classified as a trick.

Do the "spots" on their legs have a specific purpose? 

The spots on their legs are scales. The scales are mostly defensive, both to make predation harder and to prevent water loss. They probably also play a role in courtship displays.

I'd consider "rescuing" a tortoise in need but in the tiny house, I can't manage a large tortoise. Is there a tortoise that could be happy in a 2'x 3' area except during playtime?

I would recommend a Russian Tortoise. If you look at the caresheet for them, you'll see they're pretty hardy and easy to take care of.

My Russian, Chili, is a rescue who lived for 20 years in a 10-gallon Tupperware tote, under a spotlight, on wood-shavings, eating lettuce... sub-optimal conditions to be sure, but he survived.

He now lives in a 3X4 table I made from a single sheet of PVC-plywood (from Home Depot), but that's only a part-time home... in warm months he's outside most days, and he'll brumate (the reptile version of hibernation) in a fridge from January to mid-March or April when he can hopefully begin going back outside again.

He's got a great personality, and he's a vegetarian, which makes food prep and waste cleanup a less odious set of chores.

If you look on Craigslist or FB marketplace, you can ordinarily find tortoises in need of "rehoming"... even if you cannot provide them the perfect home, you can certainly do better than their last one.

Facebook seems like a fun place to post pictures, but not a great place for solid information about tortoise husbandry; is there such a place?

I love sharing pictures and articles about tortoises on FB, and there are a number of groups that I love for exactly that purpose... that being said, there is a lot of faulty, old, misleading, and just odd information about tortoise husbandry online, along with some very dogmatic (occasionally aggressive) people.

Through some trial and error, I managed to find what I feel is a very useful, friendly, and unbiased source of information, help, and recommendations at Tortoise Forum.

If this Q&A has made you more curious or interested than bored, then you could certainly get in touch with me to ask me more questions, but you'll probably have even better luck over at  Tortoise Forum.

Thanks for the questions, and for reading.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Rescue Tortoises

Two actually.... 

It originally occurred to me that I could possibly help out a tortoise while I was scouring craigslist for a larger enclosure for my Redfoot Tortoise, Darwin. He'd been living with me for long enough that we'd worked out the particulars of our arrangement, and had moved beyond survival to thriving. While combing the listings for enclosures I could both use for my torts and fit in the back of my car, I came across a listing for a Russian Tortoise from a guy who couldn't keep his any longer, and was looking to get rid of his Russian quickly.

Chili (formerly Ivan) had lived for years under rough conditions: in a 10-gallon storage tote, under a red heat lamp 24 hours a day, eating a diet of mostly romaine lettuce. Knowing what I had read about Russian Tortoise, this all broke my heart. I made arrangements to pick up the tortoise the next day (the guy left him outside of his apartment, in the tote, for me to grab).

Tortoises are incredibly tough creatures, which is why Chili's condition broke my heart. His beak was ridiculously overgrown, as were his claws, both from a long-term lack of use. For the first week he lived with me, he stayed hidden and didn't eat a thing... tortoises also don't like change. When he did start to come out of his shell, literally, he fell in love with hibiscus flowers and the fresh weeds I harvested from my lawn, crunching noisily at them all whenever I was in my office.

The first time I got him outside in the enclosure I'd built for him, he actually began jogging (slow) laps around the perimeter, exploring and nibbling and crunching his way through the leaves of maple branches I'd thrown in for enrichment. I got him outside every chance I could through the summer and the fall, and he'll be the first tort outside in the spring (Russians are hardier than my other torts, as regards NH weather).

Chili seems to be happy and healthy, and is gearing up (as the year winds down) for a few months of brumation (the reptile version of hibernation).

Shortly after Chili came to live with us, I fell in love with the idea of living with, and learning from, multiple torts... the ones that live with me all come from different parts of the world and have very different habits and backgrounds and designs and needs and personalities. I invited another kind of tortoise, an Asian Forest Tortoise, native to Thailand, to come and live with us, and loved learning about her.

It was in looking for an enclosure big enough to suit Aretha (the new tortoise, who is tiny now, but will someday be the biggest in my creep, which is what a group of tortoises is called) that I came across a post, on craigslist again, about a tortoise in need of a home.

The Hingeback Tortoise (an African species) who would eventually come to be called Nelson had been living with a young woman who purchased him at a reptile expo the year before, but hadn't been able to provide for his needs adequately... he was living in an open-topped enclosure that was both too small and too dry, she wasn't feeding him the proper foods to support his growth and health.

When I picked him up, I almost cried, almost backed away from the exchange/rescue... certain he was beyond my help. A healthy tortoise should feel dense and solid and heavy, like a mango or peach... Nelson felt more like a hamburger roll when I picked him up. He was seriously, dangerously, underweight due to dehydration. His variety of Hingeback (Kinixys homeana) live in African rainforests, and are often seen in rivers, hunting or just soaking; so for him to live in a too dry and too cold environment in New Hampshire had probably taken him to the limits of survivability.

I was entirely uncertain whether or not he would survive in my care, but was slightly more certain that he would perish in his prior circumstances. So I took him home with me, and began a course of twice-daily soaks in a slightly modified version of the UN's Oral Rehydration Therapy recipe.

By soaking him in a warm solution of this mix twice a day, he was able to absorb both water and nutrients through his skin, although on the third day of the therapies, I saw him take a few sips from his bath. In just under a week, he was able to add 40% to his weight (from 125g to 175g) and the changes in him were incredible:

  • he felt more appropriately heavy when I picked him up
  • his eyes, which had been puffy and rheumy on the day I brought him home became clear and bright
  • he started pooping, then eating
  • he began to explore his enclosure, instead of simply staying wherever I'd put him
  • when I sat down to work at my desk, he'd notice me, and walk over to the closest point in his enclosure to watch me.
I don't know that he's out of the woods yet, but he's closer to the edge of them, no longer in the dark and frightening center.

The magic of tortoise rescue is that these incredible creatures are at once so tough and so fragile... they can survive horrific conditions for a long time, but once they've started to decline, it can be tough to bring them back, to alter the downward spiral. I have the time and patience and space and means to care for the tortoises in my creep adequately, and I love the feeling of helping another being turn a corner in their life. 

Chili was pretty easy, he simply needed a bigger and better enclosure and the appropriate food. Nelson provided, and continues to provide, a bigger challenge, one I hope to meet successfully enough that in a few years I can help him become a part of a breeding collective for his flavor of hingeback, so that we can help rescue his species from their endangered status in their homeland (or at least help to create a genetically useful reservoir here in the US, against some possible reintroduction at some point in the future). 

I live with four tortoises now, my creep is full (seriously, I love that word/term), I've hit the practical limits of my system, my house, my family in terms of keeping torts. I love that I've been able to bring a couple of rescues into my life, and my hope going forward is twofold:
  1. that someone (or multiple someones) reading this will carve out the space to help out a rescue tortoise, at a level of help they're able to give
  2. That I can help that someone (or someones) by giving them advice or more material support, in the form of shuttling a tort to a new home or helping out with the gear needed to support tortoises in an alien environment.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Tortoise Mondays

This is a picture of my Russian Tortoise, Chili, on one of the last days he got outside this summer... today is significantly less nice outside, certainly not the kind of day any of my tortoises could enjoy some time in the outside enclosure.

It is however, a Monday, and Mondays are both special and busy for the tortoise and me because it's the top of their week. I soak all of them, evaluate all of them, make them all special meals, and give all of their enclosures a once-over.

All of the tortoises have dedicated soaking tubs, and while I try to soak all of them a few times a week (and Aretha, the hatchling, almost every day) Monday soaks are longer. Soaking helps the torts stay hydrated, and also to poop. It also gives me a chance to spray each one off and get them clean at least once each week.

I have a health and wellness checksheet that I run each tortoise through each Monday which includes:

  • weight
  • length
  • eating
  • activity level
  • carapace
  • plastron
  • beak
  • nails
  • eyes
Filling out the form takes me about 15 seconds per tortoise, per week, but insures that I give them a good looking over at least once a week.

I feed the tortoise pretty much every day, but Mondays I make a bit more effort, and for the forest torts that also means a meal heavy on animal protein. Monday meals for those three include:
  • reptilinks
  • rehydrated silkworm pupae, crickets, mealworms
  • mushrooms
  • pumpkin
  • green beans
  • opuntia pad
  • mixed greens
  • dandelion greens
  • papaya
  • strawberry
  • Mazuri kibble
  • RepCal kibble
  • rehydrated hibiscus flowers and wakame seaweed
The rest of the week, they get a rotating mix of everything but the top few items, which are foods rich in protein. My Russian Tortoise gets fresh greens and flowers on Mondays, and a mix of greens and kibble the rest of the time.

I take advantage of the time the torts are all soaking to spot-clean and neaten their enclosures, including checking for poop or spilled foods, cleaning all bowls and soaking tubs, putting in new branches of leaves, etc.

It takes some time each Monday, but it's a nice chance to connect with the torts on a closer level than I often have time for during the rest of the week.


Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Boric acid bait to kill ants in your tortoise enclosure

Note: wear gloves and do not breathe the powder during the preparation of the bait.

  • One half-cup (350 grams) boric acid - looks like white powder and is available in pharmacies
  • one cup flour
  • two heaping spoonfuls of sugar
  • water
  1. Mix boric acid, flour, and sugar.
  2. Moisten with just enough water to make a paste that can be formed into small cylinders or balls.
  3. Make as many of them as you can. 
  4. Distribute them in critical concealed places.
Yvonne Gee

Adopting a Tortoise

by Yvonne Gee

You really like desert tortoises, but acquiring one has been influenced by what you've heard people say about them being hard to keep or that they are all sick or that they all have the dread UPPER RESPIRATORY TRACT DISEASE (URTD)!!

Well, let me put your mind at ease. Yes, some of the tortoises I receive here at the Clovis Turtle and Tortoise Rescue have symptoms of a respiratory infection, but then again, some do not. URTD is not necessarily a death sentence. You may have heard that it kills off the native populations in the desert, and that is true. But a tortoise with URTD in a captive situation has a good chance of living a long and healthy life.

URTD is caused by a mycoplasma that has no known cure. Once your tortoise becomes infected with this mycoplasma, it lives forever inside the tortoise. Antibiotics will clear up the symptoms, but the mycoplasma never dies. Once the symptoms have been cleared up, the tortoise, for all intents and purposes, can live a completely healthy and long life. If you allow him to be a tortoise and don't stress him out, chances are good that the symptoms may never recur. Studies are underway that reveal that some tortoises are developing antibodies to the mycoplasma.

Tortoises are not the easy-to-keep pet that most people think they are. They are very fragile and get stressed-out easily; this is when the symptoms recur. Stressors that can trigger an outbreak include hibernation, breeding, moving from one home to another, a change in scenery of the tortoise's habitat and probably more. So, the answer is: provide your tortoise with a safe and comfortable habitat and allow him to be a tortoise, that is, leave him alone! He is there for your viewing pleasure he is NOT a pet. A tortoise is a wild animal and hasn't suffered years of human intervention to make him be domesticated.

So, you bring your new tortoise home and next thing you know, he has bubbles coming out his nose. This is not a cause for concern. It doesn't necessarily mean he has the dreaded URTD. What it means is that the poor tortoise has been uprooted yet again and plunked down in yet another new habitat, and yes, folks, he's stressed out! What you do now is adopt a wait-and-see attitude. You leave him alone to wander his yard and eat the grass and weeds that are planted there for him. You leave him alone to go into his shelter to cool off from the sun. You leave him alone to nap under the tree. But you keep a close watch to be sure he is eating. After he settles into his new environment, more than likely, the bubbles will clear up.

If the nasal discharge doesn't go away in two weeks, or if it turns thick and colored and he stops eating, it's time for veterinary intervention. The usual treatment is Baytril injections every other day for 10 days. Some vets inject every day for 5 days. Baytril is very invasive and causes the tortoise quite a bit of pain, so it should be used as a last resort after you have given the animal a chance to heal on its own.

A good tortoise yard includes:
1.) A safe fence. If the tortoise can see light shining under the fence, that is the place where he will start to dig. They always want to get to the other side of an area they can see through. So naturally, a chain or wire fence isn't good.

2.) A gate with a spring so it closes on its own. Or a padlock so it can't be opened by someone without a key.

3.) No access to the whole yard unless there are people there to keep an eye on the tortoise. Especially with no access to an area where there is a built-in pool. Tortoises can't swim and they seem to have poor depth perception, walking right off the edge of the coping and into the pool. A good place for a tortoise pen is alongside the house. Usually, your neighbor has a cement walk on the other side of the fence, and on your side is your house. But if not, you can place bricks along the fence or other obstructions to keep him from digging. Just be sure to provide shade so he can cool down, water and plants.

4.) Safety from the dog. Eventually, a dog WILL chew on your tortoise. So keep the dog out of the tortoise pen.

5.) Grass and weeds to graze on.

6.) A dry pen. During the summer, being dry isn't as important as it is during the winter. Warm/wet = ok Cold/wet = deadly

But his hiding place should be dry and away from where you water the yard.

7.) Don't put more than one male in a pen. Males will fight, and even if they don't tip one another over to die in the sun, just living within the same boundaries will cause them stress. In the wild two males stay out of each other's territory, but in a pen, they have no way to keep out of each other's territory.

The last point I want to make is a very important one: DON'T EVER MIX SPECIES!!! If you have a desert tortoise and want to buy a Sulcata or a Russian, build a separate pen. Tortoises that come from other continents have different microorganism which occur naturally in their bodies. Over the years each species of tortoise has developed an immunity to his own naturally occurring microorganisms, but when you place tortoises from different continents together, these little pathogens could kill the tortoise from the other continent, either the desert tortoise or the one from Africa or Afghanistan. DON'T DO IT!!! It's not worth the chance of killing your tortoise. I like to use the Native American/Pilgrim analogy. It's not exactly the same thing, but you get the idea: when the Pilgrims came to America, quite a few of the Native Americans got sick and died from diseases brought here from overseas. It might not happen today or tomorrow, but it will happen. It could take years for those pathogens to compromise your tortoise, and then just when you think all is well, he doesn't wake up from hibernation or he dies in his sleep or he develops URTD and doesn't bounce back from it. DON'T MIX SPECIES!!!

I hope I haven't killed your enthusiasm for adopting a tortoise. They can be so rewarding and with the proper care and habitat, will live a long life. Adopt a tortoise and let him be free in his habitat free to be a tortoise.

Rescue Tortoise Challenges: Rehydration

Nelson, the Hingeback

A bit less than a week ago, I brought home a Hingeback Tortoise (Kinixys Homeana) to join my New Hampshire creep. He's a spectacularly beautiful tortoise, which is perhaps how he wound up in trouble.

The keeper he'd been living with had purchased him from a dealer at a Reptile Expo but was unable to keep Nelson in the manner that would support his growth and health, so she tried to find a better living situation for him... something I'm hopeful that I can provide.

I find his irregular scute pattern interesting.
When I met with the young woman to bring Nelson home with me, I picked him up and instantly knew something was wrong... that he was seriously underweight for his size, seriously dehydrated. A healthy tortoise of his length should have a density, a heft to them, like a mango... Nelson felt more like a hamburger roll.

All of the Hingeback Tortoises come from Africa, Nelson's type typically lives in rainforests and swamps, but he'd been kept in an open-top tortoise table.

When I got him home and washed and weighed him, he was 125g. I began an aggressive campaign of rehydration therapy.

Oftentimes, the advice is to soak a dehydrated tortoise in a mixture of a carrot-heavy babyfood and warm water, but I wanted to take a more scientific approach, and did some online reading about tortoise rehydration and oral rehydration therapy, and averaged a number of the articles and forum posts that made the most sense to me to come up with the following formula and method:

 I've soaked him twice a day, for an hour at a time; after nearly a week, his weight has increased to 180g, a 44% increase from his initial weight, due almost entirely (I believe) to rehydration... I've seen him eat a bit, but since starting the rehydration therapy, he seems to poop at least that much (things coming unblocked with the addition of more liquids into his system).

Nelson has a carapace length of 10.0cm, and employing the Donoghue Ratio (a formula for suggesting an 'ideal target weight' for tortoises) implies an ideal weight of 191g for a tortoise of Nelson's length... my thinking is that when he reaches this weight (even though it's a generic formula developed using 11 species of tortoises and turtles), I'll back off to soakings once a day, then eventually every other day.

I hope that Nelson continues to improve and that once he gets beyond dehydration, I'm able to provide him a living environment that supports his health and growth.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Creeping up on a Year in the Life with Tortoises

 My journey into the world of tortoise began nearly a year ago.

On the morning of September 26, 2018, our FedEx guy pulled into my driveway and carefully, nearly reverently, handed me a small box with "LIVE ANIMAL!" written on all sides, along with numerous this side up arrows. He asked what it was, and in a small and excited voice I answered, "a tortoise hatchling".

Darwin in the sink, getting his "just out of the box" soaking, 9/26/18

It was a bit nerve-wracking to take the tiny life, not bigger than a chicken's egg, and give him (I immediately felt that Darwin was a male, although neither of us will likely know for years to come, until he reaches maturity) his first bath, a soak in warm water.

It was the first of many firsts, but the soaks would be a near-daily thing for both of us for the next year (all hatchlings, most especially those hailing from the rainforests of the world, benefit from daily soakings to help them stay hydrated and to poop). Despite (or because of) my nervousness, I knew a lot about Redfoot Tortoises (Chelonoidis carbonaria) and had set up Darwin's enclosure ahead of time such that the heat and humidity was in the range that he needed, and had an abundance of food that he could, and would, eat. In the year since he arrived, we've gotten to know each other quite well, and he has thrived in this transplanted life in New Hampshire.

Darwin enjoying some outside time on a warm day as Fall approaches, 9/21/19
 In early August of 2019, I came across a posting on Craigslist for a Russian Tortoise (Testudo horsfieldii) and hesitated only long enough to ask my wife if I was crazy to want to rescue this tortoise and bring him into our lives (she assured me that I was crazy, but that it was fine to go fetch this Russian, then named Smirnoff). Smirnoff, now known as Chili, had lived in a ten-gallon grey plastic tote for the last 20 years, subsisting on lettuce and a heat lamp... it's amazing that he's in as good shape as he's in, given the givens.

Chili enjoying the outside
Since he came to live with us, I try to soak him a couple of times a week, he lives in a much bigger indoor enclosure, I try to get him outside to stretch his legs whenever it's warm enough, and he enjoys a much richer and more varied diet. He's still not fully used to his new life, but he hisses at me less than he initially did, which I assume is progress. 

Aretha eating her way through a hibiscus 
 At the end of August 2019, the FedEx guy came with another "LIVE ANIMAL!" box, this time with a Black Mountain Tortoise (Manouria Emys phayrei), a more exotic and demanding and specialized tortoise. Out of the box (literally), I had a feeling and named her Aretha (after the Queen of soul, the first anniversary of whose death we had recently marked).

Aretha hasn't been living with us for a month yet, but she seems to be thriving in her new home, and we're both learning more about each other day by day.

1972, Seychelles 5 Rupee
The name for a group of tortoises is a "creep", and I live with an interesting and varied creep:
  • Darwin's tribe is from a tropical rainforest in South America, he's omnivorous, brightly colored, and doesn't brumate (the reptile version of hibernation)
  • Chili's tribe hails from all over the place in that zone between Europe and Asia, that I like to think of as "the -stans", he's strictly a herbivore (mostly grasses and weeds), a mix of sandy colors that blends in nearly any environment, and they tend to sleep through the coldest (and sometimes the hottest/driest) months where they live (occasionally for as much of 9 months of the year in the wild)
  • Aretha's tribe lives in the mountain forests of Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Bangladesh, and India, she's omnivorous (although with less fruit in her diet than Darwin), dark and low-slung compared to other tortoises, and also doesn't brumate.
As with any shift in lifestyle, with the introduction of the creep into my world, there's been a steep learning curve, lots of "Fire, Aim, Ready", numerous missteps, and lots of adjustments on the fly. 

Something I learned early: 
There are a lot of things that "everyone in the tortoise-keeping world knows" that simply aren't true... outdated information and practices passed down long enough that they became canon; people feel very strongly about the things they "know" to be true about keeping tortoises.

The fundamentals of living with tortoises have to do with establishing and maintaining the optimal range of heat and humidity and light, provide a varied and targetted diet, give them enough space and the occasional opportunity to explore outside if the weather permits.

I learned not to discuss or debate these things on Facebook, the rulers of those groups/fiefdoms shout down and ban anyone who disagrees or dares to offer alternative methods... the place I've found that offers great information and fosters discussion and debate and growth /expansion of the knowledge base of tortoise-keeping is Tortoise Forum

A reproduction of a "turtle", a coin from about 500bc, from the Greek island of Aegina
Without necessarily trying, or thinking about it (at least consciously), I've managed to bring a diverse creep together in our home... a trio of tortoises that give me lots to think about when planning for the presence, and present, and future. The different parts of the world that they come from, different climates, and the ways those things affect 

Darwin, the first to arrive, was selected for ease and interest. I liked that I didn't have to worry about hibernation, that he could eat so many things, that he wouldn't grow huge, and that he would be so attractive. I had no idea that he'd be so interesting to me, and interested in me... he both watches and tracks me in our office, moving from place to place in his enclosure to keep me in view; his habits in his indoor and outdoor enclosures show curiosity and a sense of adventure; he chooses to act in ways that confound my expectations of his behaviors/needs, expectations born of lengthy, deep, and broad research into his kind.

I invited Chili to join our family, not expecting much more than serving as a retirement home for an aging and ailing guy who'd be less able and interesting than Darwin; the tortoise I'm getting to know is a fascinating creature who is much more than the sum of his parts. His diet is simply greens, weeds, and the occasional flower; where I'd liked the complexity of prepping Darwin's food, I find I enjoy not having to think about Chili's meals day-to-day. Similarly, while I have tracked Darwin's growth (both carapace length and mass) closely since Chili is an adult I don't worry about it (but still do a monthly evaluation using a chart I developed for weekly use with the younger tortoises). While Chili seems less interested in me than does Darwin, he seems more interested in his environment; he constantly explores his enclosures, test-nibbles everything growing in the outdoors one, and is generally much more active and engaged than the Redfoot he lives near.

Aretha is still a hatchling, she is not old enough for me to really know her yet, but I can already feel a difference in her from the other two. Her species is perhaps the oldest remaining on the planet, and they have behaviors and physical features that set them apart from other, more modern, tortoises; her aquatic nature is one. She likes more moisture than most tortoises, and while she's spent even more time in the pool in her enclosure than I'd anticipated, the other day she buried/hid herself in a swamp I established in the enclosure (made from a roll-painting tray filled with mulch and water itself buried in the mulch of her enclosure) to an extent that surprised, and eventually scared, me; it took me literally hours to find her in the enclosure, so well and completely was she hidden. When she's older, my hope is to get a chance to breed her, with an eye towards returning some of her offspring to the wild at some future date, as her species is critically endangered in the wild.

1967, Tonga, 2 Seniti Coin
I'm not terrifically handy, but last week I built a new indoor enclosure for Chili, as a test run for possible future projects in tortoise-habitats.

the PVC sheet, cut to order
With the help of the good people at Home Depot (they did all the cutting), I transformed a single sheet of expanded PVC into the component elements of a 4X3X1.5 foot home for my Russian.

the view of Chili's new enclosure from my desk

It's a simple, open-topped, tortoise table, which Chili, as an adult member of a drier-climate species can tolerate more easily than could either Darwin or Aretha... I'm now thinking of building Darwin a 6X3X2 closed habitat this winter.

the tortoise's outdoor enclosure

The other thing I built (although again, it's so simple it doesn't really count as building anything) is the outside enclosure complex that the two older tortoises have enjoyed this summer (and that Aretha will be large/old/tough enough to make use of next summer). Using raised-garden corner pieces and Home Depot cut lumber, along with some shade-netting, they have a nice place to get some sun and fresh air on warm days.

Finding ways to foster their health and well-being while not exceeding my skills and willingness to try and build stuff is a useful exercise for me, and improves their overall lifestyle. It also provides an interesting "lab" in which to contemplate and explore the similarities and differences between and among these species.

A particularly interesting aspect of tortoise keeping, one which I'd purposely avoided initially, brumation, is rearing its head as the summer draws to a close. Chili, my Russian Tortoise, is a member of a species that enters periods of greatly reduced activity (hence the term brumation as opposed to calling it hibernation) in the various places they live, either in extremely hot and dry or extremely cold and dry times of the year. 

the fridge for Chili's brumation
It's not necessary to brumate your tortoise if you can keep the light and heat cycling at optimum levels for the species, but a number of the sources I read suggested that it can be better for the tortoise to brumate from an endocrinological and reproductive systems viewpoint. Since Chili seems in good health, I thought I'd try it this winter. 

I've got a fridge set up and cycling at its warmest setting, much of the space filled with water to provide thermal mass in order to keep the temperature as stable as is possible, and after a couple of undisturbed days, it's settled in to drifting gently between 37 and 39 degrees, which should be safe for Chili once I have adjusted the temp/light cycling in his enclosure, and gotten him through a two week fast (with numerous soakings to boost his hydration prior to the brumation). We'll likely do a 12-16 week brumation, starting in November.

1977, St. Helena, 25 pence piece
As my first year in the world of Tortoises comes to a close, I find myself excited, intellectually invigorated, surrounded by (and part of) a creep that I don't find creepy at all.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

Being a Creep can be difficult, but it's worth it!

I have always loved the names of groups of animals... herd, flock, pod, murder, congress, and so on.

A group of tortoises, when assembling or living together, is called a creep. 

I assume this is because they, well, creep along. In a perfect world, I might call a group of tortoises a mosey or a saunter or a sidle, possibly even a sashay, but I like the term creep well enough, even with its unintended (I imagine) associations and connotations.

I have a creep living in my house (author's note: that sounds awesome!). A year into my life with tortoises, I have three of them living with me, and together (since I'm a part of the group, just ask them) we're Westmoreland, New Hampshire's most diverse and august creep.

The newest addition is only a few months old, and joined the rest of us two weeks ago. Aretha, a Black Mountain Tortoise, her ancestors native to Southeast Asia.

She's settling in to life in New Hampshire nicely. Although she's tiny now (63g and 6.5 cm at her last weekly check), she'll eventually grow to be the biggest of the current members of our creep... her kind is generally considered the fourth largest species of tortoise on the planet. In the wild, they're critically endangered, and it's our hope that at some point in the future we can work to help repopulation efforts in her homeland.

The next newest member of the creep is also the oldest. Chili is a Russian Tortoise whose previous owner no longer wanted him (having kept him for years in sub-optimal conditions); Chili's ancestors (and possibly Chili himself, as they're often wild-caught for the pet trade) come from Russia and any number of the -stans.

The first order of business upon folding Chili into the Spofford Road Creep was to work on getting him back into better shape... this meant daily soakings to combat longterm dehydration, getting him outside so he could get some UV and also learn to walk again (years of living in a 10g tupperware container meant a stationary life, which goes against everything this species of tortoise is about), and improving his diet (he'd been living mostly on lettuce for the last few decades). He's adjusted to his new life quickly and seems well on the mend. He's essentially full-grown at 462g and 13.5cm (picture a slightly squat can of soda).

The first tortoise to come and live with me, the founding member of our creep, is Darwin, a Redfoot Tortoise, native to South America. He's been living with me for a year.

Darwin came as a tiny hatchling, and has grown to about 520g and 14.5cm (roughly a tenfold increase in weight since his arrival).  I was initially attracted to Darwin's species because they're lovely, eat a varied diet, and are relatively hardy and don't require particularly tricky care. Of the members of the creep, he knows me best and is most comfortable with me (understandable, as Chili lived in his tiny prison 2/3 as long as Nelson Mandela and Aretha is a tiny hatchling, genetically programmed to hide from anything she can't fit in her mouth).

The hard part about living with a creep of tortoise with diverse backgrounds, sizes, diets, environmental needs, and gut microbiota is that while they're a group it's generally best to keep them apart. All tortoises benefit from as much space to live and explore in as we can give them, and the realities of living in a finite house in a part of the world that has long and cold winters means that space is necessarily limited, but when possible, I get them outside on sunny and warm days to enjoy and explore and nibble at the world beyond their inside enclosures.

Chili can handle the broadest range of temperatures and humidity, so he gets outside the most. Darwin is limited to days when it gets over 75, and the low humidity of our summers means he needs extra soakings after outside playdates. Aretha is not old enough to get outside this summer, but next year she will be, and she'll be able to handle lower temps than Chili when she's grown. It's partly hidden by the netting that provides both shade and shelter from birds of prey, but the outside enclosure pictured above has a divided between Darwin's (on the left) and Chili's (on the right) section.

The truth is that they could hurt each other, either intentionally through aggression brought on by territorial or sexual tensions, or unintentionally by the sharing of macro- or microbiota that are a part of their healthy systems but totally alien to tortoises from other parts of the world. Once they've lived with me for a year or more, this is probably less of a concern, but for now, they live under not-so-strict quarantine conditions from each other.

I don't know how the creep will evolve and change over the years to come, but I am looking forward to  what comes next, and to being a part of it.


Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Mission Statement and Introduction

Modern Tortoise:

To facilitate outstanding (and continuously improving) tortoise husbandry through a discussion of the best practices and provisioning choices, making use of information based on real-world experience, supported by science, supplied by actual keepers, with a goal of improving long-term outcomes for individual keepers and their tortoises.

I fell in love with the first tortoise I ever saw. 

It was at the Central Park Zoo in New York City, where I grew up. It was large and slow and older than anyone alive; it seemed both wise and laid back. The love affair between myself and the various members of the family Testudinidae continued at a slow burn for almost the next half-century, until the day that Darwin came to live with me.

Darwin is a redfoot tortoise (also called red-footed tortoise), Chelonoidis carbonarius, a native of South America by way of Florida (where he was bred and hatched). He arrived almost a year ago at the age of a month or two, small enough to fit in a teacup; now he is about the size of a salad plate and just passed one pound of weight. Inviting him to live with me has been a rewarding, if sometimes stressful, experience.

It's not that there's no information about how to raise a tortoise hatchling available in books and magazine and online... just the opposite, in fact, there's a superabundance, a surfeit, and much of it is incorrect, at best useless, at worst harmful or even deadly. The only thing working in favor of new tortoises and new tortoise keepers is that they, the tortoises, are tough little creatures.

I spent a lot of time sifting through various sources, in print, online, and the people I met (face to face and through the internet), trying to sort the wheat from the chaff from the shards of glass. General patterns began to emerge over time, allowing me to figure out how best to promote Darwin's health and well-being; keys that helped me learn which sources and people promulgated faulty, dated, or baseless advice on tortoise husbandry.

My plans for Modern Tortoise include:
  • share the things I've learned (and am learning) about tortoise husbandry, providing references where and when appropriate;
  • invite long-term keepers to contribute based on their knowledge and experience through articles and/or letters;
  • offer links to interesting articles and papers on keeping tortoises;
  • review equipment and food and other materials beneficial in making the best home possible for your tortoises.

Jamie, NH, 8/7/19