Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Zanesville, Ohio incident

It's been a week now since the owner of fifty or so exotic pets opened their cages, turning wild, scared and previously improperly cared for animals loose on his property before taking his own life.  While I've been outspoken in my personal life about the events, it's not something I'll go into here.  Quite frankly, since I'm not the sheriff and I didn't have to answer to the people that decide if I have a job next election, I figured it's not really fair for me to Monday morning quarterback any calls that were made that day.  I have personal feelings on the issue, yes, but as far as what should have been done, I just don't think anyone has the right to call that other than the one person who would take the heat for it.

Instead, my issue is with the owner.  Apparently Ohio has some of the weakest laws in the country when it comes to exotic pets.  Complains have come up that there were something like thirty or more complaints over the last few years.  Animals kept in confinement too small, too filthy, and not fed properly.  For a wild animal this must have been torture.  But because laws are so weak, they legally couldn't do a thing as far as seizure.  A very sad thing for the animals left to languish at the hands of a horrible keeper. 

Now that this is in the open everyone is calling for stricter laws for exotics.  And while I definitely think there needs to be laws in place to ensure that exotic pets are in the hands of the people with the knowledge and ability to provide that level of care, I worry that the emotional knee jerk reaction will be laws passed that are overly strict.  Now don't get me wrong.  I do not like the thought of taking animals from the wild and caging them in any situation.  Just keep in mind how many captive born and bred exotics there are in this country.  If we start passing laws so strict that even experienced keepers aren't able to follow the law.............what happens to those animals?  In the vast majority of cases, zoos are full.  They can't take in the hundreds of thousands - possibly millions - of exotics pets that are kept in this country.  So do we start killing off these exotics?  Once captive born and bred they can't be released back into the wild. 

And what about domestic animals?  We kill upwards of four million a year in shelters.  That doesn't include the ones hit by cars, dying of disease, euthanized in vet's offices, killed by other animals, and those that die doing jobs like hunting.  And this doesn't even touch the tip of the ways animals can die.  So if we're going to push for laws for strict exotic pet keeping, why not also push for laws to protect the domestics?  If exotics can't survive when released back into the wild, there's no way domestics can.  And yet we see daily stories of animals abused and neglected (think Patrick the pitbull nearly starved to death), as well as dogs that never see a vet in their life, usually dying of easily treated illnesses after producing a hundred off spring or more, which simply starts the cycle all over again. 

The big fight for exotic pet laws has always been that they're a 'danger to society'.  What about dog and cat attacks?  People die every year from being attacked by dogs and cats.  How many are bitten by a cat and contract a fatal illness?  Latest estimates are that roughly 10,000 people per year are hospitalized for cat and dog bites.  While dog bites are more likely to cause immediate death than a cat bite, cat bites result in 80% of victims developing serious infections and sepsis.  Up to 30% of those that do contract sepsis from the bite die from it.  Given the few number of exotic pets that get loose and attack compared to the huge over population problem we have in this country from dogs and cats, doesn't it make sense that in fact the dogs and cats are the true danger?  So where is the 'protection for the public' from these evil kitties and puppies??

Don't misunderstand me.  I don't see domestics as a threat any more than I see exotics a threat.  The true threat that I see are the inexperienced, uneducated, lazy and irresponsible human owners that allow these situations to take place.  The problem we have in this country is a lack of responsibility.  We've become a country that makes it too easy to blame someone or something else instead of stepping up to the plate ourselves.  That's where the true danger lies.  In every single state in this country you have to take a written and driving test to be license to operate a motor vehicle.  Why?  Because a human behind the wheel that doesn't know how to drive and follow highway safety laws is a danger to society.  Are you seeing the similarity here?  The motor vehicle if left alone will not hurt anyone.  Removed from it's garage and placed in the hands of an irresponsible and uneducated driver however, it's a couple thousand pounds of fast moving danger that could easily result in the death of an innocent person.

This same analogy can be used to debunk the popular breed specific laws that are so popular these days.  In dog psychology, what a canine is starts with 'dog', not breed.  All dogs have the same psychology.  There's not such thing as any breed of dog that was ever bred to be human aggressive.  None.  Some have been bred to be protective of their humans, but not specifically toward other humans.  In other words as long as you are posing no threat to the human, the dog will pose no threat to you.  If however you choose to assault, rob or otherwise endanger the human, the dog is trained to end that threat by attacking you.  So is the dog aggressive?  Not at all; it's simply doing what it was trained to do.  You caused the attack on yourself. 

The common belief that a 'pitbull' is a man eater is just as silly as the years before when people thought the German Shepherd, Rottweiler, Chow Chow, Doberman Pinscher and so many other breeds were aggressive.  These breeds all reached levels of wide spread popularity and were chosen due to their ease of training, intelligence and loyalty to an owner.  Sadly, this makes them ideal candidates for the criminal element as well.  And let's face it, few criminals believe in treating their beloved pitbull properly with training, socialization, vet care and spay / neuter procedures.  The statistics show that in dogs that have bitten there are actually very common threads; dogs left outdoors to either roam freely or be chained their whole lives, most commonly they are male dogs that have not been neutered, and the dogs were never socialized or trained properly.  The common thread, again, is man.  It just happens that the pitbull (which isn't even a true breed but a catch all phrase used to lump dozens of other breeds into a single category) is very popular right now.  So if you assume there are 100 pitbulls in a neighborhood and 12 labs and there are only 2 lab bites and there are 3 pitbull bites, you'd think the pits are more aggressive, right?  But that's not true.  That simply means that a pitbull has a 3% likelihood to bite whereas a lab has a roughly 17% chance of biting.  Now factor in the very high frequency of people saying they were bit by a stray pitbull when in fact it turns out to be another breed.  And when they're labeled pitbulls but that consists of dozens of breeds, you're getting exaggerated bite stats for a single breed.  That would be like saying from now on we'll be including all dogs that are yellow, black or brown and over 45 pounds into the category as lab.  Would that be fair?  But that's what's going on with pitbulls.

The whole point to this, is humans are the common link when it comes to dangers to humans.  We do this to ourselves with our lack of responsibility, whether that be with exotics, domestics or one another.  And now because an irresponsible pet owner (who was also a convicted criminal) has made national news with his behavior, all other exotic pet owners now must sit on the edge of their seat, wondering if laws will be placed making it impossible to keep their well cared for pets, or, even worse, if they'll be outlawed and they'll have someone on their doorstep to seize and kill the pets.  Personally, I'd love to see domestic laws passed as well so that all people that want to have a pet must prove their educated and responsible.  But I guess that violates our personal freedom.  So the animals will continue to suffer.  So sad.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Dulera tortoise, horribly cared for!

I was watching TV late last night and a commercial came on for Dulera, a new asthma medication by Merck.  Usually I don't pay much attention to commercials, but I happened to glance up just in time to see a lady kneeling down by a tortoise.  I immediately thought sulcata, but noticed the shell was very pyramided.  I rewinded it so I could pause the shot and get a good look.  The footage isn't real close up - obviously the eye is supposed to be on the female in the commercial - but even so I'm still convinced this is a sulcata that's in horrific condition.  I've attached the photo yourself so you can decide.

After a couple other sully owners saw the photo and agreed that it appears to be a sulcata that's been terribly cared for, I've decided to write Merck.  I'm sickened that they've paid someone money to use an animal that's being slowly killed in one of the most horrible ways to kill such an amazing species. 

If anyone else is interested in contacting them, here is the information I found to contact their Corporate Responsibility office:

Or by snail mail:

Merck & Co., Inc.
The Office of Corporate Responsibility
WS2A-55 Merck & Co., Inc.
1 Merck Drive P.O. Box 100
Whitehouse Station, NJ 08889 USA

A copy of the letter I'll be sending is below:

Recently while watching television I saw a commercial for a new medication you've released called Dulera.  During the commercial there is a shot of a lady kneeling by a tortoise.  I'd be interested in where you found this tortoise for the commercial and what went into hiring the owner / handler of this tortoise for your commercial.  If I'm correct, that is an African Spur-Thigh Sulcata.  If I'm correct, that tortoise has not been cared for well at all, and is on it's way to an excruciating and long drawn out death.  

A sulcata should have a very smooth shell.  At their largest they get to be over 200 pounds, and any over 100 pounds is extremely common.  They measure on average a couple feet across when full grown.  They are the third largest species of land tortoise on the planet, surpassed only by the Galapagos and the Aldabra tortoises.  Sadly, because this is an 'exotic pet' that's sold at pet stores and reptile shows across this country with no information given to the owners, they are seldom properly cared for.  This results in pyramiding, which this tortoise in your commercial exhibits strongly. 

Pyramiding is a form of metabolic bone disease.  It is not a disease that happens over night.  It's a direct result of years of neglect, improper diet, inadequate sunlight and humidity.  Tortoises that do not survive pyramiding commonly die from renal failure, systemic infection and / or cardiac and / or respiratory problems. 

This species of tortoise is actually very hardy, easy and inexpensive to care for.  Allowing one to get to this condition is a direct result of an owner that didn't bother to do their homework about the species and has been completely neglectful.  The thought that your company paid someone who allowed an animal to suffer this way is appalling.  I implore you to please pull that commercial - or edit out that portion - and look into the people who care for animals you may use in your advertising in the future.  


Veronica Connelly
Proud 'parent' to three adopted, formerly neglected Sulcatas

Saturday, October 1, 2011

The big pen is finally done!

We've wanted to get this area fenced off for so long, but something has always come up and kept us from it.  A few weeks ago I decided to go get all the lumber and boards we'd need and then we'd at least have them waiting when we could find the time.  Last week we put in a small pen between the barn and fenced yard for the dogs.  We figured it would give Bradley a safe place without Panzer around to harass him all day.  It's an area that's too small for him to be in all the time, but at least it gets him some peace and quiet until the two big pens are done.

After the small pen was in John started working on the larger pen for Sherman and Panzer.  In the meantime we were switching them and Bradley back and forth in the smaller pen since it had more grass than the dog's yard does.  Well, it took a few days, but finally the big pen is done.  About 8PM last night we finished the rough building for them sleep in at night.  I'll add a layer of hay bales and a tarp on top of it this weekend to finish it.  It's full of hay inside as well and will keep them warm enough for the next month or so until the temps start to really drop and they have to come into the shop at night.

We went out first thing this morning to find all three of them chomping away.  We've got Bradley in there too since the three of them ate nearly all the grass in the smaller pen for Bradley.  With so much room and grass they don't even notice each other.  Figured if we can keep them together for a week it'll give the other grass in his pen time to grow back so he can go there until the second large pen is put in. 

In all we dug just shy of 100 feet of 2 foot deep trenches and I think it was 20-some post holes, 3 feet deep.  Each was filled with gravel and dirt, as well as the posts and boards.  Thankfully we had an existing concrete block wall that took up another 40 feet or so.  The next large pen will go to the right of this one.  We're hoping that some day we can move Bradley and a friend to the large pen next to Sherm and Panz, and perhaps get a couple smaller species of tortoise - maybe a couple Redfoot or Russians. 

Realized as we were watching them all cruise around the pen, we really should have named Panzer 'Hummer'.  He's forever looking for rocks and things he can crawl over and when he does he reminds me of the Hummer commercials where they show them climbing the rocks in the desert. 

And last, the food they have.  I've noticed in there we have the standard blade grass.  But there's also a grass that's got a single stalk with the blades of grass coming off that.  Bradley prefers that to the other kinds of grasses.  There is also a good bit of wild onion growing in there.  Sherm seems to be the only one that likes it.  The boys pretty much eat around it.  We've got a couple kinds of weeks in there too.  The other weeds they like were eaten before I could even get the camera, but these other two survived.  One kind has a stalk that almost looks like it's got a purple-ish tint above the green leaves.  None of them like this weed.  I noticed a lot of these growing around our potato plants this year.  Think I'm just going to pull them since they don't like them.  The others Sherm likes.  They look almost like little blue-purple flowers.  And something that looks like mini wild roses.  They don't like those at all either, so I'll yank them out!  

 The weird grass - does anyone know what kind that (-v-) is?
 Wild onions.  They are all over in this part of the yard.  Sherm loves them!
 The wild rose looking stuff.  They don't like it, so it's being dug up.
 The weird purple flowering weeds.  They covered the garden around the potato plants this year too.
 The pretty weeds.  Sherm likes them and I think they're pretty, so they'll stay.  There isn't much of it anyway.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The ups and downs of the weather

This time of year is probably my favorite.  The changing colors in the trees.  The leaves falling, leaving me plenty material for bonfires on the nights when the temps are cooler.  The grass starts growing back in the back yard, after dying off during the hottest of the summer.  It's just a great time of year.

Of course when you share your life with sulcatas nothing will be purely simple.  The temperatures aren't too bad yet.  Our shell babies tend to come out of their winter room during the day with 30 degree temps, full sun and no breeze.  So with night temps in the 50s we're still plenty safe with them.  But at the same time of course it means it's time to start getting things cleaned out and fixed up for those winter months.

In the past we've allowed them to spend the coldest part of the winter inside with us.  Sherm doesn't mind too much.  She seems to thrill in moving furniture and terrifying the dogs.  Bradley goes into almost a depression.  He stays in the same place, same position until you make him move.  His appetite drops off significantly.

But Panz, oh dear Panz!  That boy makes life TOUGH!  He absolutely HATES being in the house.  He doesn't care if it's below zero and there's a foot of snow on the ground.  He wants out that door and any human that refuses to allow it is subject to his attempts at ramming your ankles.

Now I know every study you read tells you that animals aren't capable of complex emotions like humans.  They don't experience jealousy, sorrow or anger.  Hogwash!  Panzer gets mad, and he knows exactly who in the house brought him in and is keeping him in and he will physically track us down in his attempts to ram us.  Luckily, all ankles are still intact.  I was fortunate enough to read a lot about this species before bringing one home, and that included a blog by a lady that had one kind of dumped on her.  While hanging clothes on the line in her yard one day, hers rammed hers as well and she thought she broke her ankle and wound up in an emergency room trying to explain to the doctor that her injuries were sustained as a tortoise attack.  So I was always very aware of where ours were at, and thanks to Panzer, I'm even more aware now!

The difference in these torts reminds me so much of the difference in children raised in a home.  They've experienced the same things and yet, somehow, they each have their very own personality and sometimes those are polar opposite personalities.  You may have the 'perfect child' so easy to raise, great in school, and kind hearted to a fault.  Then you can have your challenging child, always in trouble for something, not happy unless they're giving you heart attacks by jumping off the roof and the school quickly learns you and your spouses first names and can recall your cell phone numbers by heart.  Then there's the withdrawn quiet child, you never hear from them, seldom see them.  They do things at their own pace, their own way and spend time in their own place.  They're often over looked because you never really worry about what they're doing or where they are; you just know.

Sherman is our 'perfect child'.  She follows us around the yard and always wants affection.  Every other sulcata she's met she's been perfectly fine with.  Not at all the species aggressive tort that sulcatas usually are said to be.  Bradley is our quiet withdrawn boy.  The only one of our shell kids that's a digger.  He has dug his own very impressive 'man cave' and he spends every night in there and naps there when it gets too hot or too cold for him.  Then there's Panzer!  Yeh, if he were human he'd be the reason the Principal could recite our phone numbers from memory.  Always in trouble, trying to go through walls and fencing to escape, chasing off poor Bradley (thus the new pens to keep them apart), and as a typical young man, the only thing on his mind is sex.  I can't even count how many times we've gone out and had to pick him up and move him and just stand there shaking our heads.

All this to say, this year the shell kids are spending the winter outside, barring any freakishly cold weather.  We have a large shop attached to the back of the house that's never been used for more than collecting clutter.  The first couple winters we were here we put them out there.  The winters were pretty mild.  Got into the teens at the worse.  A couple dustings of snow.  With the 'tent' we set up for them with heaters and lights, they did just fine.  They could come and go as they pleased when it was warm enough.  But the third and fourth winters were just too cold.  We decided to bring them in and it was just chaos.  Cleaning up after 250 pounds of angry tort isn't really my idea of fun!

So this week we're working on emptying that shop.  There are some old benches and tables that have been built into different parts of the room that we'll be taking out, save one table for their hay and straw bedding and Mazuri, extra UVA/UVB light storage, extra heat lamps and surge protectors.  The rest of the room will be emptied and swept out and we'll start building two separate 'rooms' to house them this winter.  I think we'll have an electrician come in to drop extra lines in there to handle more heat.  I always worry their heaters or lamps will blow the circuit in the middle of the night.

After we finish that little project this week, the weekend of October 8th will be the big weekend.  We've got an area that's probably half an acre in size and the entire thing is being sectioned off for Sherm and Panz.  Just looking at it I can tell it's going to be much too big and will wind up causing us to have to go cut grass during the growing season here.  At some point we'll probably cut off a quarter of it for Bradley and move his pen over there.  Of course that will leave that small pen behind the barn.  I've already started wondering what species of smaller tort I can bring home to put in that pen............ 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

It's been HOT!!!

I had to run out to do errands yesterday.  I flipped on the news to catch up on what's going on in the world while I got ready and the weather came on.  Temperatures over 100 degrees with heat indexes in the teens!  Seriously??  Needless to say I was not happy.  I don't like summer to begin with.  Don't really like temps above the 70s.  I'm the exact opposite of the shell kids.   I'd be quite happy living in Maine.  The torts?  Not so much, so we've stayed south and are actually looking to go even further south. 

Finally got up the nerve to open the door and walk out and it literally took my breath away!  It was so hot and humid that it honestly was hard to breathe in that!  I did get my errands done and got back home, made dinner and got the house cleaned up.  Then I started wondering what the normal temps are in Africa where the shell kids are from. 

I've always known the basics of sulcatas I guess.  Every responsible sully owner learns where they're from, the average temperatures they are happy in, their diet and sunlight needs, etc.  But I'd never actually sat down and looked at a map of Africa to see their normal habitat and the temperatures in the area.  So I did some research last night.

I found a great map on  Going by the map, I chose the central area of their range, Chad, and started looking at the average annual temperatures and rainfall in the area.  I found their temperature range during the year is a low in the mid to upper 80s and highs in the 105 area.  So as I sat here feeling bad for them being outside, they actually probably didn't think much of it.  Then I looked into the average rainfall and found that they have a 'rainy season' where they may get a few inches of rainfall.  There is so little rain there that they measure it in millimeters!  We've been watering the yard here two or three times a week so they don't have to deal with the dust.  I guess the dust is something they're used to as well though!

It seems that the temperatures here this past week have been intolerable for humans.  Eight calls in the city for heat related problems in one afternoon alone.  But the temperatures have made the shell kids feel right at home!  I've walked away with a great deal of respect for them.  The heat may drop us, but they go about their day like nothing is unusual.  During the heat of the day they find shelter in their 'winter room' or in Bradley's case he just goes into his 'man cave' he dug out.  While we try to not offer veggies too often, I've felt bad and have been giving them some straight from the fridge.  I found that if we offer them both cold and room temp veggies, they choose the ones that are cold.  They are brilliant about finding ways to cool off. 

While the sprinklers run we find them often walking through the water.  We've upped their soaks to a few times a week.  Even though it helps cool them and hydrate them, the boys are not fans.  Sherm is happy in her pool though.  She does her best to 'throw' the water over her back like she would dirt and mud. 

Summer is almost over.  I'm thrilled.  I'll be happy to see those 70 degree temps come back.  But I guess the shell kids....................... not so much!  Map attached below from

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The new enclosure adventure

The weather was nice enough a couple weeks ago, so we moved all three shell kids out to the area where their new enclosure will be.  Because it's such a large area it will take us a while to get the entire thing enclosed.  In the meantime we take them over there as often as we can so they can munch on all the grass and weeds they can eat.  Their current enclosure has been eaten to the ground with a few new shoots coming up, but certainly not enough to keep them fed.  When they're not in the new area we have to cut grass and weeds for them from other areas of the land, usually from the pasture.

When we took them out this time I brought the camera along and got some good shots of each of them.  I also got a picture of John carrying Bradley and Panzer and you can see how big they've gotten.  Panz has exceeded 100 pounds, so he's 'moveable' but not really carryable anymore.  We're going to have to get a cart for him and Sherm very soon.  Bradley is much more manageable at around 40 pounds.  Sherm is probably right at or close to 100.  She'd been nearly Panzer's weight but has dropped a slight bit.  Perhaps because she's laid her eggs?

Panzer's photos.  Keep in mind John is 6'3" and well over 200 pounds himself.  Just for perspective on how big Panz is!

And of course, Momma AKA Sherman!

And the baby, Bradley!

Monday, June 13, 2011

Playing in the nest again

Went out to walk dogs today and found Sherman has been in the nest again, digging and filling.  I have no clue what she's doing but it was neat to watch her for a while.

She's started filling in most of the original nest but has left a spot at the top of it that's hollow.  Maybe so as hatchlings get out of the shell they can get out of the nest easier?  Then she's started to dig another hole to the back of the nest.  I'm dying to see if this is another nest or if she's digging herself a cave or..........who knows? 

Will keep an eye on her today and see what she's up to, but wanted to get the photos of her newest 'project' up while I have time.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

It's man cave time!

John took the dogs out this morning and came in to report that Bradley has taken back up the building of his cave out back.  Last year he had dug the cave a good 15 feet deep.  When fall rolled around and temperatures started to dip, we were having to cover it up on nights that would be too cool for him to stay out over night.  The last night he beat us to it and we had to rip up a large part of his cave to get him out and bring him in to safety.

So now that it's getting warmer, Bradley has decided it's time to get his man cave back in order.  I walked out to see dirt flying from his hole in the ground.  I ran back in to get the camera and ran to his entry and he stopped moving.  I stood there a while and he finally started digging again.  I turned the camera on, aimed, and he stopped!  Gah!!!

I got four photos before I gave up.  I tried the video too, waiting patiently and quietly hoping he'd start to dig but all I got was video of a stubborn little man, refusing to dig or do much more than barely move.  What a brat!

When I was out at nine this morning I noticed Sherm and Panz together.  He had positioned his head against her side, a position that usually means he's about to start ramming her until she consents to mating.  With temps nearly 90 degrees and humidity much to high for a human already, I didn't wait around to confirm anything.  Based on their past behavior I'm sure it means they've started again, but I can't confirm.

Found last night the house we wanted in Georgia had sold.  We've started looking in the Birmingham area.  I have a feeling it'll be a year or so before this house sells and we can move, but I did find some promising places there.  Maybe we'll find something and Bradley and Frankie can walk in a parade together some day!

Sunday, May 29, 2011

It's been quiet in the playground

Sherman has finally moved to another sleeping spot, away from the nest.  Normal for them.  She and Panz mated one time after the completion of the nest but we haven't seen them since.  Phew!  She's back to her normal self, following us all around the yard when we are out there. 

Panzer is in an eating frenzy.  We went from the grass being so high that we had to trim it a month ago to now it being all cropped down.  Makes it easier for us since we don't have to take shears out there and cut it by hand!

Bradley is in speed racer mode.  He's always been the most active of the three, doing laps all around the yard as fast as he can.  Once we get moved I'll start taking him on walks.  I'm hoping that eventually he will be so good at walking with me instead of me chasing after him that he can walk in some marathons to benefit some of our favorite charities.  Another sulcata, Frankie, has walked in the Do Dah Day parade in Birmingham.  The photos look like he's just loving life and I'd love to be able to enjoy that with at least one of the shell kids!  He trains daily though, so I guess it's time for me to get off my butt and start walking too, huh?  It would be pretty embarassing if I got left behind by a tortoise!

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Sitting and Digging.........

John noticed yesterday that Sherman and Panzer have again begun breeding.  Not uncommon; they usually do start again pretty quick.  Guess they plan on keeping me on my toes for any nest building.

I went to take the dogs out this morning and found her still on her nest.  She will leave it to play in the water and get a drink or to walk around and graze, but she always goes back.  This morning I found her starting to dig around next to the nest on top of the pile of dirt she'd pulled out when she'd first dug it.  I'm not sure if she's planning on digging another nest next to it, a cave for her to sit in and watch, or what.  She's definitely a very interesting girl. 

Took another picture of her nest sitting.  Not sure if you can see the marks where she was digging or not, but she was moving the dirt around while I took the photo. 

For anyone wanting to add a sulcata to their family, please keep in mind what this means.  An average sulcata can live 50 years.  If you bring home a hatchling when you are 30 years old, you can plan on having it until you're about 80 years old.  These tortoises usually reach 100 to 150 pounds but have been known to exceed 200 pounds without it being anything unusual.  The largest known sulcata weighed almost 250 pounds!  It's shell was two and a half feet long.  Keep in mind these tortoises are very stubborn.  When they decide to do something or go somewhere, you're NOT going to change their mind.  At 75 years old how will you pick up and move a kicking tortoise (yes, they use their feet to try to kick you and get you to let them go) that's not happy you're interfering in his or her plans?

Sulcata do not hibernate.  Even in south Florida, accommodations must be made for them in the winter.  While it's easier if you get your tortoise while it's quite young and have the ability to put up a weather resistant building they can come and go in on their own, you still have to hope they play along and humor you.  Otherwise, again, how do you pick up and move a 200 pound tortoise when you're 75 years old?  The good news is if you're able to build that outdoor building and do it while they're young, you can move them to the building at night and open the door in the day and they'll head out on their own.  They seem to learn very quickly where the warmth is at night when the temperatures drop.  All three of ours have their own schedules, when they wake up, nap and go to bed, and they're wonderful about going to their room on their own now.  It's something we started years ago with them when they were all under 40 pounds.  It was much easier to carry them then.

The good news is their diet; weeds and grass.  They don't need fruits, vegetables, special kibble type food, supplements, etc.  They're a very hardy species and as long as they get the needed sunlight daily, their grasses and weeds and are kept warm when temperatures drop below 50 degrees, they're quite easy to keep.  That doesn't mean you can't ever give them a treat.  During the winter month when the grass and weeds here die we switch them to hay.  Luckily we're in a very rural area, surrounded by farmers.  Hay is in abundance.  We use it as bedding in their room, baled as 'walls' in their tent during the coldest part of the winter they're outdoors, as well as for food.  The down side is they hate it!  I've found if I soak it in warm water for a few minutes first they're a bit more accepting.  During this time we supplement with Mazuri Tortoise Diet.  We buy the 40 or 50 pound bags and go through it in the winter.  It's the only food I've found that's been praised by most people that have been involved with this species for decades.  Of course, their natural food is always best, but if you're in a colder climate where it's not possible for them to graze year round, Mazuri is a great option for you.

Also remember, during those months you'll need to have a UVA / UVB light in their room.  The lighting is just as essential for proper shell growth as their food is.  While the bulbs are expensive (they start around $10 but can go to over $80) they do tend to last a good long time.  We buy one per year. 

Likewise, if you have a young hatchling, humidity is vital.  I've seen some elaborate set ups almost like sprinklers but with mister tips.  I've also seen basic set ups with a space heater outside the enclosure and bowls of water inside.  I also highly recommend a good soak for them about 15 to 20 minutes a day, especially as hatchlings.  Even as adults ours still love to soak.  We bought a kiddie pool for that purpose and they'll still soak as often as we will let them.  They've got a 'pond' or 'swamp' under the water faucet that they sit in most of the time, but given the opportunity, still love their pool.  Sherman seems to like it the most and it's her special time with her daddy, as she soaks, drinks and gets head rubs.

The last consideration is where they spend their day outside.  It's not advisable to allow a hatchling or even a yearling sulcata outdoors unsupervised or unprotected.  They are carried away by raccoons and birds of prey when they are young.  Until a sulcata is big enough that it can't be picked up and carried off, it's best to either build an outdoor pen with a wood and heavy wire top to keep it safe.  I've also see people use the wire dog crates without the bottom pan to keep them safe. 

Once they're a few years old they're usually big enough to be outdoors alone as long as your enclosure is secure.  When they're that young, it's not too tough.  Just keep in mind to fence an area large enough for them as an adult, as you won't want to do it again.  A sleeping area alone for an adult needs to be around four feet by eight feet.  For our three we had an eight foot by eight foot for Sherm and Panz to share and a four foot by eight foot for Bradley.  You can look at anywhere from a quarter to a half an acre for each adult tortoise for room to roam and graze.  And keep in mind you'll have to be cleaning up that land every day.  Have you ever seen tortoise poop?  As an adult, it's kind of like cleaning up after a horse!  Well, perhaps not quite that big but it's much larger than you'd think.  And ours are dropping them a couple times a day. 

The other thing to remember with them and their yard is they must have a solid fence that's as tall as they are.  To make things easier, we put up a wood and wire fence around the perimeter and then added 10 inch high boards along the bottom.  If a sulcata can see on the other side of the fence, they'll decide the grass is greener and will make it their life mission to get over there.  These tortoises are so strong they can take down a four foot by eight foot privacy panel in minutes by themselves.  So don't think your fence building skills will keep them in if they want to get out.  The only way to keep them safely inside is to make sure they can't see on the other side.  Ours have gotten large enough now that we have to put up another row of 10 inch board.  Sherm and Panz both have noticed they can see the other side and we've found them with their legs caught in the wire fencing.  We're vigilant about perimeter checks to make sure they're not trying to dig out and to make sure they're not caught on something.  We are out there several times a day. 

The last consideration is their burrows or dens or caves or whatever you'd prefer to call them.  It's very common for them to run 15 feet deep and 35 feet long with several turns throughout.  During this time they can dig under fences, destroy the foundation of homes, and quite easily escape.  You can't stop a tortoise from digging.  You really can't stop them from doing anything they want to do.  It's one of the parts of tortoise ownership that make it impossible for some people to have them.  This isn't a dog that you can teach to not dig.  Some dig very little.  Others will make your yard look like the military is using it as a bomb drop site.  The easiest way to try to get them to dig in a certain area is to remove a large area of dirt where you want them to dig, drop in a mix of sand and soil that's easy for them to dig in and hope they hit that area.  Luckily they are lazy in that they do like to dig in areas that are easy to turn the dirt.  So if you make a few areas that are easy to dig in, chances are they'll dig there.  Of course, like everything else with a sulcata though, it's not a guarantee!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

The nest

I started this blog because after owning sulcatas for the last twelve years, I've found that while there's good basic information out there, I seem to have tortoises that don't like to conform to their species known behaviors.  Leave it to me to have the weirdos.

For starters, we have three sulcatas.  The baby is Bradley, he's about four or five years old now.  Sherman is the female and she's around eleven or twelve.  Panzer is the elder of the group, about a year older than Shermie.  Sulcatas are known to be pretty solitary animals and can be very aggressive to other tortoises of their own as well as other species.  Our three however are definitely a bonded group.  The only time we've ever seen any aggression is when Sherman and Panzer were mating, Panz didn't want Bradley anywhere near them.  So Bradley hung out on his side of the yard all alone. 

It's also been widely recorded that sulcatas don't tolerate temperatures below 50 degrees.  While we would never leave ours out all winter - our temps can drop to zero and a bit below - we've found that ours will come out of their 'room' when temps are in the 30s if the sun is out.  Don't get me wrong, they're not happy about the cold weather, but they do come out and graze during the warmest part of the day and then back to their area. 

And of course there's the dead of winter.  Most 'normal' humans have a building specifically for their sulcatas during this time.  They've got the UVA/UVB lights set up, heaters, etc.  Well, we're not normal here so they live in the house with us.  Yep, just move them right in. 

Initially we'd set up the den - a very large room in our house - for them.  We built a large eight foot by eight foot with four foot by four foot side section for them to live in.  Panzer made it clear very quickly that he did not approve and spent his days ramming the side of the pens.  After listening to the incessant ramming, we caved and just let them have the entire room to themselves.  We built a 'bedroom' for them in a corner, complete with a thick layer of hay and covered with a tarp and heater kept blowing into it.  The room is surrounded with floor to ceiling windows that they would lay in front of during the day. 

The following year our pet rescue (mostly dogs, some cats) had expanded drastically and the den was used as a quarantine room for dogs coming from shelters.  This meant the shell kids moved into the main part of the house with us. 

Now let me say this; I love those shell kids very much.  But when you live with them, it's not easy.  The first morning I awoke to screaming birds.  I looked in the living room to see one of the cages moving across the room.  Panz had started his day early, cruising around the perimeter and ran right into the lower bar of the bird cage.  In typical sulcata fashion, he decided to continue his walk, dragging whatever was in his way with him, much like a military tank, hence their names.  Thank God the bird cages were on wheels!  As the winter wore on, this became a regular scene, either Sherm or Panz dragging something around the room.  Every day I had to re-arrange furniture numerous times. 

This past winter we thought we'd be smart.  Sulcatas can't climb steps so we put them in the laundry / mud rooms.  That lasted all of three days before - of course - they taught themselves how to climb stairs.  Now, in all fairness, it's not like it's an entire floor.  It's a single step.  But even so, it's not something they're supposed to be able to do.  Climbing over stuff in the yard yes, but up a step??  Really??  So last year we had the same problem as years before, with furniture forever being moved. 

Our hope is that by this winter we will be moved.  We've been looking at a house further south that has an unfinished basement with access to the backyard.  Ideally we can sell the house we are in now and buy that one and turn that basement into their winter room.  I'd love to put down heated tile floors for easy of cleaning.  They're good about going in and out when you open the doors for them so it would be an ideal set up.  We will see how that pans out!

Anyway, the most recent non-sulcata behavior comes compliments of Sherman.  She and Panz have been mating for nearly a year now.  Because all three of ours came from a rescue the last thing we wanted was for them to be producing more sulcatas.  Sadly, they're over bred as it is and sold by irresponsible breeders looking to make a buck to people that don't bother to do their homework.  And of course the breeders aren't about to be honest about how difficult this species can be, how destructive they are or how large they get because who would want one when they know the truth!  Very few people for sure.  Zoos are full and not taking more in, so those that buy them not bothering to look into them first usually dump them when they're a couple years old.  Because they've not done that vital research first, they usually die the first winter they're no longer in captivity. 

When they began mating we contacted the rescue and consulted a forum we belong to, as well as talked to the veterinarian we use for their care.  All agreed that while it is possible to spay and neuter tortoises, it's very difficult as you have to cut through the shell and that makes for a long recovery process.  Because it's done so seldom we'd have had to take them to the state university's veterinary department for the surgery.  It just wasn't anything we were willing to do.  So the easiest way to deal with the mating was to just destroy the eggs as soon as they were laid.  At that point it's just an egg, with a barely detectable micro tiny spot where a hatching may develop.  I was quite hesitant at first, but after the first few it didn't really phase me anymore.  I cracked them and tossed them into the back pasture where the wildlife back there would eat them.  At least they can benefit!

Last year while still inside during the end of winter Sherm laid a few eggs.  And that was it.  Odd.  They usually lay quite a few.  I figured since it was her first clutch that's all she was going to lay.  And that was fine.  Never read it on line, but she was healthy so it wasn't an issue.  About two months ago I noticed that she was getting lazy and eating little.  Classic signs of a gravid female so I knew there were eggs on the way.  Sure enough, within a week or two she started laying.  Under normal circumstances, a sulcata will dig a couple 'test' nests and then dig the one she's going to use.  No one knows if the test nests are actually her testing to find the right place or if they're to throw off any predators.  But when she picks the right spot, she'll dig a hole big enough for her entire body a foot or more deep and then in the back she digs another smaller nest that she lays the eggs in.  Once laid, she begins covering the entire nest with sand.  During this time she's in a total trance and notices nothing going on around her. 

Well, leave it to Sherm to be different.  She spent a week and a half laying eggs all over the yard, not covered at all in any way.  Some she cracked when she laid them, others were fine.  Those that were fine I cracked myself and into the pasture they went.  She started with just an egg a day and went up to four a day then back down then nothing.  I assumed she was just a lousy mom and didn't think more of it.  Until.............

Earlier this week I noticed she was digging up areas of the ground. I know they live in crazy massive cave systems in the wild so I didn't think much of it. Bradley dug one last year that was easily 15 feet deep so I figured she was doing the same thing. We found five spots she'd started digging and then moved away from.

That should have sent up a flag but I didn't give it much thought. Yesterday I walked out to find her in a big hole. The others she'd gotten maybe six to eight inches deep before abandoning them. This one was a couple feet deep. Again, I should have paid more attention because when I went to pet her she didn't stick her head out any further or push her head against my hand like she always does, just kept digging like she didn't notice me. Duh!

I went back to what I was doing and didn't think more of it. I came out several hours later to find she'd covered up the cave she'd dug and wanted food and water. That's when it finally sunk in - she'd laid more eggs in a nest - classic example of what they normally do!  Now she decides to be a normal sulcata?  Really?

Well, of course the normal couldn't stick.  This morning I found her sitting on the nest.  Last night, she was sitting on the nest.  From everything I've read, she should have buried them and went on her merry way.  Instead, she's acting more like a gator, guarding her nest, chasing off the dogs when they come sniffing around.  She's just one confused little girl!  And John said this morning she and Panz were mating again.  *sigh*

According to the internet once they've started to cover the nest it's nearly impossible to find the eggs in there if you try to dig it up. So at this point we're just hoping none are fertile or the ground is too cold for them to incubate if they are. I guess in 88 days or so we will see.

Above is the picture of her in her 'cave' which turned out to be her nest.  Oh, and for more interesting activity, the cave that Bradley dug last year?  He won't go near it now!  And Sherm and Panz have never dug a single cave.  All very unusual!