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 dogma and misinformation lingering from a bygone era of keeping these wonderful beasts in much the same way you'd keep a jade plant, you'll find you have greater success living with these fascinating creatures.

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. Different breeds have different needs, but if you can hit the 80/80 mark, the tortoise will be fine until you can find out their more specific care needs.

My Redfoot seems to do best with a range from 78-86°F, humidity in the 90% range and 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 Russians can handle anything from 60-100°F and do fine with lower humidity (largely because they're older than the others, but also because they're a type of tortoise that just needs less humidity) and a spot to bask.

In addition, a weekly (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 a severely dehydrated tortoise, I soaked it 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. I use UV-emitting bulbs to light their enclosures, basically on a 12-hour day schedule year-round.

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; I start off every day throwing a handful of greens about the size of their shells into their enclosures to get them started. 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 tortoises 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). I pick out the leftovers the next morning before dropping in fresh greens.

My Russians are no-kidding-around grassland tortoises, so they get almost entirely greens, no fruit, no animal protein, and only occasional veggies (I give them pumpkin or butternut or spaghetti squash from time to time); their favorite food on earth is hibiscus flowers. The other tortoises in my creep are forest tortoises, who enjoy a bit of everything, with variety and balance being the focus across a 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. I have no plans to microchip the tortoises in my creep, but understand the impulse.

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 due to upset at the move and changes in their surroundings and schedules and environment (they're not crazy about change).

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

The Russians basks first thing, as soon as the lights come on, then watch me for signs of a food delivery. Unlike the others, the male 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 often cut a flap of sod and scoot under it to finish the day hiding. The females are less keyed into me, equally watchful of food-deliveries, and prefer exploring to escape attempts, in my experience.

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 to date).

How big will they get? 

The male Russian is full-sized at 6 inches across. The female Russians max are also full-grown at about 8 inches long. The Redfoot could grow to 18-20 inches, and since she's always been a big eater and a fast-grower, I bet she'll top out quite large. 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); deciding to live with one or more tortoises is not a casual, or short-term, commitment... you should know what you're getting into, and have plans beyond your lifetime for them.

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 Russians and the Black Mountain Tortoise love digging, the former for escape and exploration, the latter for hiding. The Redfoot will, and has, dug, but she mostly seems to prefer 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 too closely because it might activate some latent prey-drive, and I don't want anyone injured. People often post pictures of dogs and tortoises hanging out together, and all I can say is that it goes fine until it doesn't, so why take the chance.

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 to me and each other, and from different parts of the world (with presumably differing gut-biota and resident parasites), I don't let them play together, soak together, eat together, or live together (except for the female Russians. Besides the specter of cross-infection, there could also be aggression issues... tortoises are predominantly solitary creatures and don't look forward to hanging out with friends like humans and dogs do..

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 can't manage a large tortoise. Is there a tortoise that could be happy in a 3'x 4' 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 male 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 can also 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, is the size of a quarter pounder, 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 almost 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 enjoy, and frequent, for exactly those purposes... that being said, there is a lot of faulty, old, misleading, and just odd information about tortoise husbandry online, along with some very dogmatic (and occasionally aggressive) people in those FB groups.

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.

Thanks for the questions, and for reading.
           - Jamie, Darwin, Aretha, Chili, Persephone, Wilhelmina, and Bertha