Behavioral enrichment for the creep

Behavioral enrichment (also referred to as environmental enrichment) is an animal husbandry principle that seeks to enhance the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being.[1]

When I was a kid in NYC, the Central Park Zoo had a lovely collection of sad and unhealthy animals living in what were essentially jail cells; I remember the tiger and bear and gorilla all pacing back and forth in their concrete and iron box, the repetition of their actions, and even their paths, day after day wearing shiny grooves in the rough floor.

The change in thought about how we keep animals, and how we could improve their lives as our guests, our captives, was slow to come to the world of zoos. Even today, although people don't hesitate to provide enrichment for the dogs in their lives, don't feel the need to justify providing enrichment for their cats, the habitats of reptiles are still too often just boxes and kibble that meet the minimum needs of survival, without looking at how we can help them thrive.

Every captive animal benefits from enrichment. While I don't sign the tortoises I live with up for cooking lessons, I do work at finding ways to stimulate them with the aim of improving their psychological and physiological well-being.

Providing for their basic needs must come first, and it was only after I felt confident about being able to give them the heat and humidity and light and food that they need to survive that I began to think about how I could improve their lives and mental and physical well-being through behavioral enrichment.

I'm going to discuss a few of the areas and ways in which I provide stimuli for the tortoises that I live with... I'm certain there are other ways, some I'll discover as I go along, others I'll hear about people sharing their successes.

In the Indoors Enclosure

The first four of these are tactile, having to do with the tortoises' sense of touch; the four after that have to do with food, feeding, and hunting.

Deep substrate

You could probably get by with an inch or two of substrate in an enclosure, but your tortoises will be much happier with more. I found this out when I noted that Chili, an old Russian male I rescued a few years ago, liked to dig into his substrate. In his previous life, Chili lived on a thin layer of rabbit pellets (that's how lots of people used to do it); once he came to live with me I made the substrate in his enclosure progressively deeper and deeper until now he often disappears, tunneling through the coconut husk and cypress mulch, sometimes unseen by me for days at a time.

Waterbowl as pool

I use plastic underpots as waterbowls in my tortoise enclosures, big enough that the tortoises can climb in and soak themselves if they want to; the surprising thing is that they do, even the dry-country species like the Russians I live with, I've seen all of them climb in and splash around at one point or another. Aretha, a Black Mountain Tortoise, is picture above, and she spends a good chunk of every day in her pool, watching the world around her. It's more than they need, but I believe they enjoy the feel of the water on their shells and legs, and in sticking their under the water to drink from the bottom of the pool.

Mounted brush as scratching post

At every zoo I've ever visited, I've seen animals scratching themselves against a wall or branch or edge in their enclosure; I added a stiff brush to the enclosure in which three female Russian Tortoises live, and within minutes the queen, Persephone, came over and began experimenting with different parts of her shell and the brush. I chose a boar's hair brush over plastic just in case they decide to eat the bristles, figuring that it'd be easier on their digestive tract. From my desk, where I'm writing this, I can hear one of the ladies availing herself of the scratching post.

Fleece cat bed

I read about this online, and saw a number of people posting pictures of this phenomenon before it seemed worth giving it a try. I think in much the same way that the brush stimulates them, the fleece cat beds do too, but with softness instead of bristles. Since adding one to a few of the enclosures, I've seen the tortoises laying on it too often for it to just be chance. They also push and drag it around the enclosure, and as can be seen in the photo above, often hide underneath it, sometimes while moving it from one side of the enclosure to the other.

Cactus trapeze

All tortoises can eat opuntia cactus leaves, but you could certainly use another food item for this enrichment activity. I mount the food item on a carabiner with paracord tied to it, so that I can hang it just off the floor of the tortoise's enclosure. An appealing food item will certainly be a rapid draw, but I've seen them come over for lettuce and squash. The movement and interactivity of the trapeze feeding station invigorates tortoises, in my experience, and as a side-benefit the food isn't trampled or dragged into the waterbowl.

Brightly colored flowers

All of my tortoises love dandelions, and in the warm months, when the flowers are plentiful, I will often scatter them all over the enclosures, forcing (inviting?) the tortoises to hunt for the treats. It's healthful and stimulating for them to walk all over their enclosures, looking for, smelling for, their food.


I generally supplement my tortoises' food with calcium in the form of powdered eggshell over their greens once or twice a week, but at least as often, I'll chuck some whole shells into the enclosures. When not powdered by my food-ninja, the calcium uptake is vastly reduced, but the tortoises still have fun: carrying them around, nibbling and crunching noisily, rolling them around the enclosures. On occasion I'll stuff their food into eggshells so that they have to get it out of them before they can eat.

Leafy branches

From spring through fall (including after the leaves have changed colors) I'll chop maple and birch branches from the trees in our woods and put the leafy branches into the tortoises enclosures. They quickly explore the additions, climbing on and under them, nibbling them, dragging them all over. The leaves are generally stripped within a few days or a week, and then I just chuck the sticks outside for nature to compost.

In the Outdoors Enclosure

I'm lucky to live in a place where it gets warm enough for a few months a year for my tortoises to get outside on nice days, and I try to take advantage of that whenever I can. The real sunlight, breezes, occasional rain, diversity of plant life, slow moving cricket or worm that becomes a snack, all of these things are gold for tortoises that live most of the lives inside.

Beyond the natural world's stimuli, I try to encourage the following to help pack those field-trips with goodness for the tortoises.


Russian Tortoises love to dig... love it. I try to indulge them in as safe a way as I can, while not allowing them to escape and get lost in the wilds of New Hampshire. I found the balance between encouraging and discouraging them lies in lining the outside of the wooden-board enclosures I make for them with paving stones on the outside; in this way, if they're able to dig out between my frequent check-ins, they'd still find themselves under a stone, and would have to dig a further 8 inches before they could make a break for freedom.


In the spring I plant a 4X4 raised bed with microgreens and keep replanting it through the summer. I harvest handfuls at a time for the tortoises on days when they cannot get out, but on days they can, I rotate them through the raised bed for a bit of buffet-line grazing. I hose the bed down after each tortoise, and only let one visit each day to minimize the risk of cross-infection of parasites between them (and of course, I don't include new additions under quarantine in the rotation).

Wandering the fenceline

Tortoise have a good sense of smell, and when they're all outside in their separate enclosures, they can smell each other, and spend a fair amount of time jogging back and forth along the borders. When they get outside and see and smell the rest of the world, along with their neighbors, you can see their eyes brighten, see them stand a bit taller, see them walk with a greater sense of purpose.

In both environments

A few of the enrichment activities I use with the tortoises, work both inside and outside.

A ball to play with

I found that a colorful ball in either the inside or outside enclosure will always, eventually get some attention by the tortoises. Sometimes they push it around, sometimes they try to eat it (which is why I get a tough KONG ball too big for them to fit any part of inside their mouth), sometimes they bonk into it like it's an invader.


A place to hide, from the sun or from me or from the other tortoises, is always a good thing, and there's no such thing as too many hides. I periodically move the hides in the enclosures, inside and outside, around, which lets them rediscover their home and re-map the safe spots for themselves.

Speakers, and other sounds

I can see it because I took the picture, but the dark blob in the lower right hand corner is a speaker that I have set up in the middle of the inside enclosures. I have a SPOTIFY playlist that includes rainstorms, waterfalls, streams, crashing surf, jungle noises, and the like. I'll sometimes play it for the tortoises, when I'm about to head out grocery shopping or on some similar errand (as it's not my favorite music).

In the warm months, one of the items that I use to make a shady spot in my outside enclosures are a few pieces of tin roof, and they make a great sound when it starts to rain... it's great to see the torts react to the rain coming down on them when they're in the outside enclosures.

In Conclusion

I certainly don't think you need to enact all of these forms of enrichment for your tortoises, it might well be too much for them. Instead, I would suggest that you consider the tortoises that you live with, who live with you, and think about one thing, or a couple of things, that you could do to increase their level of stimulation periodically, to enhance and improve their psychological and physiological well-being... to enrich their lives.

Try something, or a couple of somethings, and see what a difference it makes in their lives; I think you'll be glad you did.


1) Shepherdson, D.J. (1998) “Tracing the path of environmental enrichment in zoos” in Shepherdson, D.J., Mellen, J.D. and Hutchins, M. (1998) Second Nature – Environmental Enrichment for Captive Animals, 1st Edition, Smithsonian Institution Press, London, UK, pp. 1–12.






Periodic health-checks with the creep


I try to keep an eye on my tortoises on a daily basis, but stuff happens, torts hide, time passes... to make certain that I don't go too long without checking in with them (and in an attempt to regularize the check-ins), I made up the sheet above.

I aim to run all of my tortoises, currently six, through the health check on the first of every month (or as close to it as I can manage).

I start off by soaking them all for an hour or so, then get their weights and lengths, then inspect them from beak to tail, then give them a rubdown in the shell conditioner that I use. Make notations for each category in the checklist and jot down any areas of concerns in the "Notes" section, so that you can re-check it next month.

It's a good chance to see how they're doing, how (and if) they're growing, and keep an eye on anything I noted in the previous month's check-in. I don't worry so much about their weight so long as it doesn't drop continuously over a few months... torts grow for their entire lives, albeit very slowly once they're adults, so there should always be a slow upwards trend over time.

I check their target weight and tBMI (Tortoise Body Mass Index) every few months, which gives me a good idea about how they're doing relative to previous check-ins. The tBMI gives a nice general aim-point for their density, which can be a better measure of wellness than simple weight measurements.

A tortoise should feel heavy, like a comparably sized piece of fruit. I've had torts feel (for their size) as light as a loaf of bread and as heavy as a rock, both of which can be indicative of a problem. Comparing the tBMI every few months can give you a good idea of the general health of your tortoise(s)... they should be pretty close to 1.00, and hopefully trending towards that if over or under their ideal weight.

My forest tortoises tend to come in a bit low in their tBMI measures, and my Russians tend to come in a bit high, but knowing that, and keeping an eye on their numbers over time, helps me know that they're in generally good shape.

I find it helpful and useful and comforting to use, but you should, of course, use it only to the extent that you feel it's helping you and your torts.

Supplements for the Creep

There are dozen, maybe hundreds, of supplements out there for tortoises; for the most part, they're not needed if you're providing a varied and appropriate diet for your tort.

Living in New Hampshire with tropical and desert tortoises means that although I'd love to, I cannot always provide the perfect diet or environment year-round, so I am sometimes forced to supplement.

When needs must, I have chosen to make my own supplements, not because I like making my life trickier, but because I wasn't crazy about the options out there (by which I mean on Amazon or in my local pet store... the ingredients in the generally available supplements are legion, suspect, and often unknowable.

To combat those specific problems, I make mine with as few ingredients as possible, high-quality organic ingredients that I would use on myself, and comprised of simple ingredients that I can easily pronounce.

Challenge: Wintertime lack of weeds and flowers

The biggest challenge facing a keeper of tortoises, especially in NH, is that the weeds and flowers that my torts love to eat in the summer months are dead and/or under snow for much of the year

My answer to that is a mix of plant matter I know is great for any tortoises, which I shake over the mixed greens I feed my creep in the winter months; it's comprised of: moringa, echinacea, wakame, calendula, nettle, chamomile, raspberry, rosebuds, dandelion, hibiscus.

It's presence in their morning salads a few times a week increases the nutritional value of the greens they're eating by a lot.

Challenge: Calcium deficiency 

Many of the plants they'd be eating in the wild contain more calcium than they get from the diet I can offer my tortoises year-round, so I need to supplement their calcium intake, especially with the females who may be laying eggs.

I offer my tortoises eggshells from local and organic eggs in two formats: whole and powdered. The whole eggshells are often as much a behavioral enrichment as a nutritional one, although I do see them disappear over time. The powdered eggshell is easier for them to metabolize and easy for me to insure that all of my torts get some by sprinkling a bit over their food 1-2 times a week.

Challenge: micronutrients, like iodine
There are some nutrients which are just tough to find outside of the animals natural habitat... iodine can be one of those. to deal with the lack of it in their diet I've actually heard of tortoise-keepers feeding their charges enriched bread or iodized salt.

I already had wakame, a dried seaweed, in my kitchen, for use in soups that I make from time to time. It's easy to rehydrate and serve mixed in with the greens that the torts get.

Challenge: neglect of rescue tortoises
I live with four tortoises that are rescues, and one of them in particular came from a living situation that involved poor feeding, low heat, and poor lighting, for years.

I made a "booster" that I added to their food a few times a week for the first year that they lived with me; it's comprised of a powder made from hibiscus (healthy and bright red), wakame (a seaweed), moringa (a superfood), and eggshells (for extra calcium). 

Challenge: successful model syndrome (dehydration from living under lights)
Living in small enclosures, subjected to intense heat and light, and generally living in lower humidity conditions than would be found in their hides in the wild all combine to potentially dry out a tortoise in captivity. I have two solutions that I make use of from time to time.

I try to soak my sub-adult and adult tortoises in a warm (not hot) bath once a week (I feel that hatchlings benefit from a daily soaking for their whole first year); with healthy tortoises, I mostly just do warm water soaks, but if they've lost weight or if I have reason to think they're dehydrated or ill, in which case I sometimes soak them for a couple of hours (up to just above the line separating their plastron and carapace) in a rehydration bath made from powdered hibiscus flowers and a bit of cane sugar and sea salt.

When I soak and weigh and inspect my tortoises for their monthly health-check, I end the process with a rub-down of their shell with a shell conditioner that I made from coconut, olive, and almond oils. I don't know that they need it, but I think it makes their shells healthier in the artificial conditions under which they're living and despite what some old-timey keepers still profess, tortoises don't breathe or process UV radiation through their shells, so the treatment cannot possibly do them any harm.

The fine print
I should say at this point that I think it's entirely possible to keep tortoises for 50 years (or more) without using any supplements at all... a varied diet of appropriate and nutritious foods along with an environment that provides the proper amounts of heat and humidity and light are probably enough as tortoises are tough as nails.

That being said, I believe that the judicious, and sparing, use of the supplements I mentioned above, for the reasons I outlined above, can only help your tortoise live a happier and healthier life.

Misfits Market

A quick post to share about a great source of food helping to get my tortoises through the New Hampshire winter... Misfits Market.

They ship me a box of organic and non-GMO produce each week, with lots of stuff (especially greens) for my tortoises... you get some degree of choice in what they send, but I've also had surprises in each box; every box saves me money over what I'd have paid for the produce at my local supermarket.

In the last few weeks I've been able to feed my torts: many types of kale, mangoes, beet greens, raddichio, a variety of squash, arugula, radish greens, kiwi, and rainbow chard... that's not even counting all of the great produce that I get for me and my family to eat.

The link above gets you a 25% discount on your first box (I recommend going with the large box, as it doesn't cost much more and you get a significant amount of produce).

Beyond feeding my torts well, I have enjoyed folding the lovely variety of produce into the meals that I cook for my wife and son, and even made an infused liquer, thanks to an abundance of fantastic ginger that they sent in my last few boxes.

Good luck, and I hope you enjoy Misfits Market as much as I (and my tortoises) do!

Some changes to how I feed my creep

Recent Alterations to the Creep's Feeding Schedule

Keeping tortoises in New Hampshire that couldn't possibly live through New Hampshire winters can be challenging. Food is one of the areas of challenge, but recently I found a couple of ways to make my life easier, and their diets better.

Variety, quality, and appropriateness of foods are directly linked to the growth, health, and long-term outcomes of your tortoises. Grassland tortoises, like my Russians, eat a significantly different diet than do Forest tortoises, like the Redfoot Tortoise and Black Mountain Tortoise.

Although the graphic above is generally in line with my thinking, I disagree with some of the suggested proportions/percentages. The three common elements in the diets are greens, gourds, and kibble; I go with about 60:20:20 for the grassland torts, and 40:20:10 for the forest tortoises, with the remaining 30% split between fruit (20%) and animal protein (10%).

Since I'm feeding six tortoises of various sizes while living a life, I don't stick to those numbers exactly by weight or volume, I approximate: 

  • every tortoise gets a handful of greens about the size of their shell first thing every morning
  • every tortoise gets a bit of soaked kibble and pumpkin/squash as a second breakfast a couple of times (2-3) each week
  • the forest tortoises get a bit of soaked kibble and fruit as a second breakfast a couple of times (2-3) each week
  • the forest tortoises get animal protein once a week
  • I supplement these feedings with the addition of dried flowers, weeds, seaweed, and herbs over the greens and other food a few times a week

I recently started a subscription to Misfits Market, a company that rescues organic produce that's in danger of going bad on the shelf or at the farm and ships it directly to you. I get a big box of fantastic produce every week for $35, including lots of great greens and gourds and fruits and mushrooms for the torts.

The link above will take you to their website and gives you a 25% discount on your first box, it's definitely worth a try.

When my box comes every week, I start by rough chopping the greens (including beet and turnip and radish tops) and keeping those in a huge plastic bag to feed the torts every morning. Next, I separate any of the produce I may share with the torts from the produce that is strictly for me and my family, and do some menu planning for the rest of the week for both my family and my creep.

The other change I made was in terms of the animal protein I'm offering the forest tortoises. I had been offering "Reptilinks" a raw meat sausage product made from a mix of meats and fruits and veggies. It was, and is, a great product, and my torts loved it, but when I went to re-order it, I noticed that it worked out to $22 per pound, which is more than I was interested in spending on tort food if I can help it (and as I found out, I can).

I did some research and found that raw foods designed for dogs are pretty much perfect as an animal protein option for my tortoises. The "Instinct: Signature Raw" nuggets are 95% meat, organs, and bone, with the remaining 5% is made up of some fruit and veggies and fish-oils and seaweed. The four-pound bag of the beef formulation was available at a local pet store for $27.99, which works out to a hair below $7 a pound, which is much more in line with what I want to spend on feeding my torts. 

The forest tortoises love their new source of animal protein... both were members of the clean-plate club on the two days that I've served it so far. I think the addition of organ meat and bone in their animal protein offering will enhance their diet and health in the longterm.

I am absolutely certain that both of these changes in how I feed my tortoises will have a positive effect on the wellbeing as we get through the dark and cold part of the winter.

Friendship, Interest, or Tolerance?

 All of my tortoises behave differently, on their own, around each other, and in response to my presence. It only makes sense, they're not machines, they're bound to each have at least slightly different reactions to stimuli. I work hard not to anthropomorphize their behaviors, or to force my interpretations onto the things they do.

I don't cuddle with my tortoises, I mostly feed and soak and inspect and care for them, and we leave each other mostly alone... I've assumed that that's how we all wanted it. I play the role of food god, or delivery boy, and they mostly ignore me, except Darwin, who's always spent a lot of her days watching me write.

That's why it was such a surprise yesterday and again today when Persephone, a Russian rescue from Virginia, kept making and maintaining eye-contact and coming over to initiate and seemingly enjoy physical contact. I first noticed her looking at me whenever I peeked over the rim of the stock tank that she and her roommate Wilhelmina live in; after the first few times, I stayed around and even lowered my hand into the tank.

She came over and I anticipated a nip, which I've gotten from Chili a number of times before due (I think) to his territorial nature and perception of me as being interested in taking his mates from him; she didn't nip, only sniffed. After sniffing me for a bit, she turned a quarter of the way around and lifted her shell up to where my fingers were, and bonked her shell against them.

I took some initiative and gave her shell a rub, at which she scuttled away a few inches before turning around and coming back over to check me out again. I gave her more scritches on her shell and this time she seemed more comfortable with the contact and allowed it to continue for about ten seconds before leaving.

Since then, I've checked back in a couple of times and each time she's looking for/at me as soon as my head clears the edge of her stock tank, and she comes over for scratches. It's not a food or a warmth thing, as there's plenty of food and warmth in the tank for her; her roommate Wilhelmina has shown no interest in being scratched (so I don't).

As I'm writing this, I can hear her nails on the wall of the stock tank at the edge closest to me and my desk, where I last scratched her, scrabbling gently every few minutes as if to remind me that she's there, waiting... again, I'm trying not to ascribe human emotions to her behaviors, but she's coming off as a bit needy now that she's learned I'm willing to give her some physical attention.

I may try to devise a brush mounting for the side of her tank so that she can scratch her own shell whenever she wants, but a part of me wonders if that's avoiding the larger issue... if now that I've opened up a line of communication along these lines with Persephone, altered our relationship, taken it to the next level, if I have a responsibility to maintain the status quo or find a way to "break up" with her (imagining an "it's not you, it's me" conversation with my rescue tortoise, and how the humans in my life would describe my behaviors to the residential facility they packed me off to).

At any rate, I find the evolution of my relationship with my creep fascinating....

Contrasting Worlds


It's 15°F outside and we've gotten more than a foot of new snow in the last twelve hours.

I always enjoy spending time with my tortoises, always enjoy caring for them, always enjoy watching them explore their enclosures, always enjoy listening to them crunching their way through a meal, always enjoy watching them bask for UV and/or heat... but never more than when the difference between the world outside and the worlds I've created for them inside are vastly different.

Their enclosures have different temperatures, but the coolest part of the least heated enclosure (Chili's, one of my Russians) is around 65°F; the warmest baseline temperature is in my Redfoot Darwin's enclosure, which is around 90°F at it's coolest this week because she sounded as though she had a bit of a respiratory infection, so I raised the temps 5°F over normal to hopefully support her recovery. 

All of the tortoises enjoy eating dandelions and plantago and other weeds from the lawn during the warm months, but all of that is buried and frozen under a blanket of snow now, so they're enjoying "Spring Mix" from Hannafords, along with some other treats to celebrate the snow (butternut squash for the Russians, animal protein in the form of Reptilinks for the forest tortoises). 

I know people who have giant tortoises that get out in the snow from time to time to explore the winter wonderland and forage for fresh greenery under the white stuff, but my torts couldn't manage it without running the risk of illness, so they'll never see snow, much less plow through it with their shells.

Keeping temperate and tropical tortoises is hubris, and magnificent, and cool. The feeling of pushing back against nature and making a small pocket of the climate that they need to thrive and survive is wonderful. I feel it most on the days when snow is falling and temperatures are well below freezing outside.

They're unaware of the steps I've taken, modifying their environments to allow them to live with us here in New Hampshire; that means it's working.

This is a picture of Chili basking under his UV lamp and heater, taken today, while the snow still falls outside.

Turtles all the way down!

I first came across the idea of the world existing on the back of a turtle when I was in the middle of a semester abroad in Ecuador a million years ago, living with the Cofan people in the rainforest for a month.

I was spending my days following members of the tribe around, getting a feel for how they lived in the jungle, what they thought about their world as opposed to mine, and to get stories about their customs and beliefs.

One of the stories that I got from a little old lady was the origin of the world:

A great turtle was swimming through the sky a long time ago and bits of things began to grow on her back, over time it formed the world we live on today.

When I asked her what was underneath the turtle, she said another turtle, then another, and so on....

The amazing thing is that this isn't a unique cosmology story in the world, not even an uncommon one; it occurs throughout history and around the world.

The following anecdote is told of William James. After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, James was accosted by a little old lady.

"Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it's wrong. I've got a better theory," said the little old lady.

"And what is that, madam?" inquired James politely.

"That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle."

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

"If your theory is correct, madam," he asked, "what does this turtle stand on?"

"You're a very clever man, Mr. James, and that's a very good question," replied the little old lady, "but I have an answer to it. And it's this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him."

"But what does this second turtle stand on?" persisted James patiently.

To this, the little old lady crowed triumphantly,

"It's no use, Mr. James—it's turtles all the way down."

  — J. R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax, 1967

I like to think that the reason for the shared beliefs, or thoughts, about turtles as the underpinning of the world, along with the prevalence of tesselation patterns with turtles has something to do with their degree of permanence in the world's animal kingdom, their implacable nature, and the feeling of time's passage associated with turtles.

They seem to me to be a class of creature outside of time, as though it moves around them... certainly, many of my creep will outlive me, and possibly my son. When I was in the Galapagos, I met a tortoise upon whose shell a sailor had scratched name and date more than 100 years earlier; that sailor and everyone who ever knew him had long gone to dust, but the tortoise kept marching onwards.

I think humanity recognizes in turtles travelers upon the earth who were here long before us and will be here long after we've gone the way of the dodo bird; that our inclusion of them in so many of our cosmologies and iconographies is a nod to their slow success through time.

Soak the Creep

When people think about tortoises, they often picture a desert creature living in an arid landscape... a thing of sand and sun and scrub.

a desert tortoise strutting his stuff in the sun and sand and scrub

They're not really wrong, but they're also not strictly right. Tortoise hatchlings live in quite humid conditions for the first year or more of their lives, and often longer thanks to the tunnels and burrows they inhabit. 

When captive tortoises grow wrong, it all too often has to do with them not having enough water in their environment, their diet, and their routine.
  • a closed enclosure for hatchlings can make it easy to keep them at an acceptable level of humidity in their early year (aim for 80%), by soaking the substrate and/or misting the tortoise a few times daily
  • spraying the greens they eat, hydrating any kibble they get, and in hot/dry weather giving them water-heavy foods like cucumber or aloe or cactus pads
  • making regular soaking a part of their care
four of my torts enjoying their waterbowls as a pool

I start off hatchlings that I live with daily soaks in Tupperware containers, then gradually move towards three times, then two times, then eventually one time a week. I soak them in warm water and although some of them aren't crazy about it at first, eventually they grow to like it... even seeking out the water bowls I leave in the indoor and outside enclosures between my planned soaks.

Chili getting a babyfood-soak spa treatment

A few of the rescue tortoises that have come to live with me have come in sad shape, as the result of parasitic infections or poor diet or neglect or too much heat in their enclosure... the most common issue all of these poor beasts share is dehydration.

The best way to deal with severe dehydration in a tortoise is a series of long soaks in a warm mixture of water and baby food. I prefer organic babyfoods with one or more of the following ingredients as a principle ingredient: carrot, sweet potato, mango, and banana. Those tend to have a nice balance of vitamins and minerals for the tort to soak in; the hope is that they will drink some and maybe absorb some through their skin (or even their cloaca).

The soaking bath should be warm and just above the join between their plastron and carapace (lower and upper shells). Instead of worrying about how to keep the bath warm enough for them, I just put the whole container in the tortoise's enclosure, near the warm end.

With most tortoises, 30-60 minutes of this type of daily soaking should make a difference in a week. I had one very sick tortoise who just didn't seem to improve... until I increased the length of the soaks to between six and eight hours a day. A few weeks of that and he began eating like a horse and trotting around his enclosure.

Once you're done soaking your tortoise in the water:babyfood mixture, remember to rinse all of the soaking solution off before returning the tortoise to its enclosure to avoid stickiness, mold, or infections.

Feed the Creep

 Food gives tortoises the energy they need to get around and do tortoise-y stuff, and also the nutritional building blocks they need to grow bigger and stay healthy... it's important to give them what they need.

The care guides provided elsewhere on this site give you the general outline of what the different types of tortoises need in terms of food, but there are a few things worth breaking out a bit more when discussing tortoise diets

Omnivores versus Herbivores

Basically, some tortoises, generally the forest species, are omnivorous, meaning they can eat some of lots of different foods, including animal protein (meat) and some fruits; other tortoises, generally the grassland or desert species, are herbivorous, restricted to eating plant matter, and beyond that, restricted to mostly grasses and greens and the occasional low-starch veggies.

The common element in all of their diets is greens... all of my tortoises start off every day with a handful of greens about the size of their shell. In the winter months (which is most of them, living in New Hampshire) that means mixed greens from the supermarket. I look for an organic mix with lots of variety.

In the warm months I'm able to feed my torts from my lawn and deck much more often. I feed lots of dandelion flowers and greens (on the left, above) and plantago (on the right, above), supplementing with hibiscus (and Rose of Sharon) flowers as my plants produce them.

Mazuri and Gourds
Once or twice a week, I feed all of my tortoises some Mazuri (a tortoise kibble, shown in the middle), the original tortoise formulation, 5m21, which I think of as a supplement to add elements that may be missing from their diet. Similarly, I also feed them all some roughly chopped spaghetti squash (left) or pumpkin (right), including seeds and rind; pumpkin seeds have been shown to help control parasites.

That pretty much does it for the Russians, the grassland tortoises in my creep.

Forest Tortoises: Fruit and Animal Protein
Staples of the forest tortoises' diet that I keep on hand to supplement their diet, beyond what the Russians get are readily available and kept in the freezer to control expenses: a frozen fruit blend with papaya, kiwi, strawberries, mango, and pineapple (left, above), and a product called "Reptilinks" which are like little sausages with Guinea fowl, Chicken, Quail (includes whole bird and some feathers), Ohio raised New Zealand white or California white breed rabbit, and bullfrog inside.

I give the fruit mix a few times a week, and the animal protein once a week. 

I'm not wedded to the above routine, but like to keep all of those things on hand... when the opportunity arises, I'll often grab fresh produce or meat for the forest tortoises (fresh papaya or beet greens or whole shrimp or skin-on salmon are all treats that they love).

Vitamin & Mineral Supplements
When I first started keeping tortoises, I purchased a number of vitamin and mineral supplement powders, but the ingredients lists were offputting, and the powders were expensive.

By talking with other, more knowledgable tortoise keepers, and doing some research online and in my growing tortoise library I was able to find four ingredients that complement each other very nicely, and also fill in the most common gaps in any tortoise's nutritional needs:
  • hibiscus flowers
  • moringa
  • wakame
  • eggshells
You can get these four things in dried form from a health food store (or Amazon), and I use them in one of two ways: rehydrated and tossed with the greens like a dressing, powdered all together (I use a regular blender), and sprinkled over their food a couple of times a week.

Heat the Creep

 There are lots of considerations to keep in mind in caring for your tortoise, or creep, perhaps none more important (or at least pressing) than providing the right amount of warmth for your cold-blooded friend.

If too cold, tortoises tend to become torpid and inactive, which is okay if they're one of the kinds that brumates (a reptile equivalent of hibernation) and that's what you're doing with them. If the cold temperatures are not by design, the inactivity can result in poor digestion, as their guts work best at processing food at 80°F (about 27°C) and above.

If too hot, tortoises can dehydrate and even get burned and damaged shells from over-warm heat sources. 

Obviously, providing heat in the proper range for your tortoise is important... luckily, it's pretty easy too.

For baseline heating, to get it to the bottom of the range I want for my tortoise, I use seedling mats and ceramic heat elements (CHEs). The seedling mats raised the ambient temp by a 20-30°F, are waterproof and tough, and are relatively cheap (so I have an extra or two laying around, just in case). The CHEs produce a focused area of more intense warmth under them, but with a properly sealed enclosure (which especially with young tortoises is key for holding in heat and humidity) it will warm the entire enclosure, not just a basking area.

I run every heat source I use for my tortoises through a thermostat like the one above. It works by allowing you to set the desired heat range and placing a sensor in the area you're heating; if the sensor indicates it's too cold, the heat element comes on, when the desired heat is reached, the current turns off.

For fine-tuning, or daily checks of how the system is working, I use a laser thermometer gun to spot-check different corners of the enclosure to see how the heating is working... adjust the sensor and thermostat as needed to get the right temperatures for your tortoise.

Once the baseline heating is taken care of, I like to provide an upswing in temperatures during the day, as well as a basking spot for those tortoises that like it; I do this with a mercury vapor bulb, which also provides some needed UV radiation. 

I run the light through a timer, starting with a 12:12 light schedule and adjusting from there... I often put in dark spells during the day to allow for cloudy periods or what have you (and also to prevent the temps from rising too much.

I vary the intensity of the bulb I use based on the tortoise I'm planning for: forest tortoises need less intense light and more "shade" time (I use 25 or 50 watt bulbs for my first tortoises), while grassland and desert tortoises (like my Russians) benefit from more intense light/heat as is provided by 75 or 100 watt bulbs.

Getting a good light fixture is important (and not much more money). A bulb with a ceramic fixture that you screw the bulb or CHE into will last longer. The clamps on many of these light fixtures are suspect, weak, or crap-out over time... you can prepare for this by fixing them in place with some form of backup in case the clamp fails (I use a carabiner of zip-tie).

All of this may sound extensive and expensive, but you can get everything I've discussed above for a tortoise enclosure for around $100 dollars, and KNOW that your tortoise is getting the appropriate heat (and light) it needs, even when you're away.

Greetings from the Creep Next Door!


Aretha, Chili, Bertha, Wilhelmina, Persephone, & Darwin


A creep is a name for a group of tortoises; my creep lives in New Hampshire, and I'm watching the first serious snow of the year fly this afternoon while I sit at my desk, in my office, surrounded by tortoises.

Darwin, minutes after his arrival

The first tortoise that came to live with me was Darwin, a Redfoot Tortoise. He was delivered to my door by the FedEx guy, and in the picture above was about a minute out of the box. In the 2.5 years since them, he's gone from around the size of a squash ball (about 50g) to about the size of a loaf of bread (at nearly 1700g)... a 34-fold increase in weight.

Chili enjoying a Rose of Sharon

Next came Chili, an adult (elderly?) Russian Tortoise, a rescue, who'd spent the previous 20 years in significantly sub-optimal conditions. I loved getting him outside that first summer and seeing him enjoying himself, exploring and snacking his way through a whole new world.

Aretha enjoying a Hibiscus flower

Aretha, a Burmese Black Mountain Tortoise, was the third tortoise to join our creep. She could someday grow to be 100 pounds, but arrived, like Darwin, tiny, and via FedEx, from Florida. It's been a marvel to watch her grow and change over time.

Persephone, Wilhelmina, & Bertha enjoying various foods

The final additions to our creep has been the addition of three female Russian Tortoises, all rescues (from the left, Persephone, Wilhelmina, and Bertha). My hope is that they, together with Chili will form a breeding group and produce some viable eggs and offspring in the years to come.

Rescuing or rehoming a Tortoise gives them a new lease on life 

I love all of the tortoises that I live with, enjoy getting to know their individual peculiarities and tweaking their environments to maximize their well-being, but I find a special joy in knowing that the Russian Tortoises, forming their own creep within a creep, are living better lives today because we were able to find each other.

My plan with "The Creep Next Door" is to share what I learn in living with these amazing creatures, both from our successes and failures; to hopefully expand the knowledge-base of the general public, thereby improving things for tortoises, and other creeps, everywhere.

Jamie, Westmoreland, NH, 12/02/2020