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.