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!

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