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CONSIDERATIONS FOR OUTDOOR HOUSING OF TORTOISES By Jonathan Rheins
Tortoises are among the most intelligent and responsive reptile pets that one can own. Their personable demeanor and simple dietary requirements further add to their appeal. However, in addition to the aforementioned positive attributes, there are certain aspects of chelonian care that may prove troublesome for all but the most prepared of keepers.
As active and potentially giant creatures, many species require quite sizable enclosures, with some types being completely impossible to feasibly house indoors when mature. For these reasons, many tortoise keepers opt to design and utilize outdoor habitats for their animals. These may be either full time or part time quarters for the animals depending in the tortoise's size, species, and native climate.
In addition to providing adequate space for healthy activity levels, outdoor housing also offers tortoises exposure to natural, unfiltered sunlight, as well as fresh air and the opportunity to graze on organic plants and weeds.
Below are some guidelines for housing tortoises, as well as some time-tested recommendations which will help insure that both the keeper and the kept benefit mutually from this arrangement.
SPECIES OF TORTOISE
The type of tortoise that you have will greatly effect how successful you will be in housing it outdoors. Large species often tolerate temperature fluctuations very well, but are extremely strong and potentially destructive to your property. Smaller species, while easier to physical contain, can chill or overheat much more quickly than bigger animals with more body mass.
In addition to size, there are considerations to be made in regards to the animal's native climate. Tropical species such as red foot tortoises or Burmese mountain tortoises thrive in Florida and other southern states where the summers are hot and humid. These same animals may not fare as well in dryer areas with cooler nights.
Finally, one should consider whether or not the species in question will brumate (hibernate). While brumation is a natural survival tactic used by many types of reptile, it does have it's share of dangers. If you plan on housing a brumating species outdoors be sure to carefully research their special needs and fully understand the risks involved.
Basically, choose wisely when purchasing a tortoise. These animals live a long time, and you should be prepared to house them for their entire lives. Try to pick a species that will not only be size appropriate, but also one that will be able to survive outdoors where you live.
SIZE & AGE
Baby tortoises should never be housed outdoors. Instead, they should be reared indoors under controlled conditions until they are certainly large enough to fend for themselves outside.
When judging if it is time to move an animal outside, consider trying it first on just the nicest of days. If all seems well, then try a few days in a row, then a few more, slowly making the transition. It is imperative that you closely monitor the animals health and behavior during this shift to make absolutely sure that no adverse affects are being had.
In standard, indoor enclosures tortoises rarely make the list as accomplished escape artists. However, in an outdoor setting, escapes not only seem more common, but also of much more consequence.
If your tortoise enclosure is built directly on the ground, you should assume that at some point your animals will try to dig out. This great escape is not always intentional, but results in a missing pet nonetheless. To prevent this from occurring, make sure that all walls or fences are buried into the ground at least a foot, and even deeper for larger animals. Some keepers advocate the use of a mesh or solid floor, but this makes maintenance much more difficult and poses a threat of injury to your tortoise should it attempt to dig through this barrier.
Perimeter walls should also be of adequate height to prevent animals climbing out. While tortoises as a group are not typically considered expert climbers, some species are quite capable of scaling chain-link, and all species are capable of surprising you with a hidden talent.
In addition to the actual height of the enclosure walls, the material used should not provide too many tempting footholds. Rather, use a smooth surface that would seem more difficult to climb.
Keeping your tortoises inside the enclosure is only half of the battle. You also must insure that other animals (dogs, raccoons, birds) don't enter your enclosure. With moderate to large tortoises these animals pose little threat, but a smaller species could be easily abducted overnight by a hungry opossum or curious neighborhood cat.
The use of a top for enclosures housing smaller animals is highly recommended. Chain-link, screen, or hardware cloth can all be used so long as they still allow for sunlight to pass through and are sturdy enough to resist potential predators.
Even in the most temperate areas, a protected and heated shelter should be made available to any tortoise housed outdoors. These can be a modified dog house, or something as simple as an appropriately sized plywood box.
These shelters should be gently heated to maintain a regular temperature of around 80 degrees via ceramic heat emitters or heavy duty pig blankets. Additionally, the shelter can be stuffed with a fluffy layer of hay as insulation, but be certain that no fire hazards are posed by the hay and any exposed heating elements.
Keep in mind that the presence of a heated shelter does not guarantee that your animals will use it. You will have to watch them closely to make sure they make it into the shelter each night. Some keepers manually place their animals into said shelters on a nightly basis. Others actually forgo a shelter altogether and just take their animals into a garage or similarly warmed area each evening.
While the above may seem like a lot of work, in all reality, keeping tortoises outdoors is easier than it seems. However, because there are always unknowns, and because every situation is unique, it is crucial that the keeper understand all of the aspects throughly prior to making a decision about outdoor housing.
Always research the needs of the species you are working with, and make certain that you are doing everything you can to maintain them properly, both indoors and out. Also keep in mind that while the methods outlined above are largely successful in many situations, they will not work for everyone, hence them being guidelines and not instructions.
If you wish to house your animals outdoors you will have to be willing to try a few different things to discover what works best, and be prepared to make compromises. All of the work will be worth it, as the benefits to raising a tortoise outside in the natural sun are far greater than any inconvenience caused to you in the planning stages.
Due to the variable nature of the subject matter covered above, we must recommend that you use your best judgment when deciding when and where your tortoises may be safely kept. If in doubt, consult a veterinarian or local expert who may be able to help you with your specific needs. Ultimately, LLLREPTILE assumes no responsibility for any harm or damage caused as a result of the guidelines provided herein.