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!