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!