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Pens on dead flat surfaces are not attractive to tortoises as they much prefer a sloped or undulating topography. If a tortoise falls upon its back on a dead flat and smooth surface, it may have difficulty righting itself, whereas on a sloped, rough surface with vegetation cover they can usually ‘flip’ themselves over rapidly.
Plants also provide hiding places and shade. Pens should be designed to meet both needs. Additional shade is provided by use of half-buried hollowed-out logs, and by plastic pots or buckets cut in half and partially buried. These allow the tortoises to retreat to a stable microclimate in case of very hot or very cold weather, just as they would retreat to their scrapes or burrows in the wild.
Tortoises kept on damp grass can develop severe shell infections and respiratory disease. It is NOT a suitable substrate for Mediterranean or any other semi-arid habitat tortoise. Aim for a mix of loose, sandy-type soils for all Testudo species.
The outdoor requirements for tropical tortoises are quite different, and highly dependent upon your own location. Species from humid environments will require very special housing in cool and dry climates. The larger species such as Redfoot and Yellowfoot tortoises are especially challenging, as not only do they require specialised climates, they also require a lot of space. Many keepers of these species maintain a large tropical house with year-round heating and humidity control. This obviously requires a substantial financial investment initially, and ongoing running costs are also high. This is one reason why we suggest very careful consideration before making a commitment to keep species like this. Of course, if you are in a semi-tropical location yourself, then you may find that you can successfully maintain these species relatively easily.
When constructing a simple outdoor habitat, there are a few givens. Bigger is generally better, and the simpler the setup, the easier it is to maintain. But remember, if you use your imagination, the end result could be something truly unique and spectacular.
The pictures of outdoor enclosures shown on this page have been collected from around the net.
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Turtles and tortoises are generally healthier outside, and the enclosure’s size isn’t as major of a determining factor. Lighting isn’t a concern, and a well-planted, spacious area obviates irritating cleanups. If you have the option, an outdoor enclosed space is not to be missed. That isn’t to say drawbacks to the outdoors don’t exist. They do; they’re just different. If a turtle or tortoise escapes inside, you likely will locate the fugitive. A chelonian that escapes outdoors might not be so easy to find. Dogs, cats and children can be an issue indoors, but they don’t compare to the myriad of predators in the great out-of-doors. A well-thought-out and sturdily constructed outdoor enclosure can foil the hungry (and curious) hordes.
Constructing a Tortoise's Habitat
Indoor enclosures have their strengths, but nothing beats the outdoors. Where possible, outdoor housing will provide the best quality of life to a captive tortoise. Very few tortoises are suitable for keeping as exclusively indoor pets. The closer your own location is to the natural habitat of the species you keep, the easier it is to provide high quality outdoor housing. If you live in a region with high ambient humidity and high temperatures, you may do very well with some of the tropical species. If you live in an area with very low humidity or low temperatures you may find keeping tropical forest species outdoors impossible. In such cases, you will certainly have to rely upon a combination of indoor and outdoor housing for much of the year. If you live in a region with cool, short summers and long, cold winters you are going to find keeping tortoises much more work (and cost) intensive than keepers who live in warmer environments.
Tortoises can make an interesting pet, although they can present a challenge, due to their size and dietary habits. Many species are fairly large and need a decent sized enclosure, preferably outdoors, so are suited to areas with nicer climates.
Depending on the temperatures where the tortoise originates and the area where you live, it may be necessary to bring tortoises indoors overnight or during cooler weather (and with the larger tortoises providing indoor housing can be a big challenge!). Some species need to hibernate, which can be very stressful on the tortoise and requires special conditions.
Tortoises can also live a very long time (anywhere from 50 to over 100 years), which means you must be prepared to provide a lifetime of care and consier that your pet might even outlive you.
Digging a trench a foot below ground to start your wall and burying hardware cloth under the enclosure’s floor are two generally good ideas. Distractions and structures inside the pen, such as edible plants, rocks and hiding places, also help keep idle minds from thoughts of escape — at least a little. Try to landscape durably. Remember, tortoises are bulldozers that love to excavate. Edible landscaping is a big plus. Besides adding structure and beauty to the setup, it cuts down the feed bill and provides diversity in a tortoise’s diet.
Non-tropical tortoises need very well drained substrates and pens should contain a variety of slopes, rocks, open basking areas, shady areas, and good provision of edible vegetation.
All pens need to be secure against two eventualities: the tortoises inside getting out, and potentially lethal predators getting in. The list of predators that can attack and kill tortoises is quite long, and includes rats, dogs, raccoons, badgers, hedgehogs and even large birds. In some localities, even ants can pose a significant threat.
When constructing an outdoor pen, make sure it is strong and bury your fences if you have a burrowing tortoise. Tortoises are quite strong, especially the larger ones, and flimsy enclosures won't hold them long. Some tortoises also climb surprisingly well. Besides subterranean escape attempts, you must also consider escapes over the top. Many enthusiasts use a one-and-a-half- or two-turtles rule in determining wall height, but turtles tend to stack. Smoother solid wood or siding makes climbing much harder than hardware cloth or chain-link fences. An enclosure cover is the best choice, but in
very large pens, an overhang the length of the tortoise seems to work well. Hinged and latched covers serve a dual purpose because overhangs don’t deter most predators and it is also very important to make sure the enclosure keeps predators (including dogs) out. Make sure there are no dangers in the pen - no poisonous plants, shallow water only, and no sharp objects or small inedible objects which may be accidentally ingested. Also for some tortoises, trying to climb steps or other obstacles can result in them tipping onto their backs, which may result in their untimely deaths.