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