Before 1984, tortoises were very common in pet shops of all types. Mediterranean tortoises of several species found themselves piled in crates in shops, on market stalls, anywhere the public might be enticed to buy them; sadly, the vast majority of them suffered for a few months in our damp, chilly gardens and then succumbed to a combination of disease and poor care within a season or two. There was very little deliberate cruelty; tortoises were much loved pets, but the information around at the time on how to look after them was thin on the ground and usually wildly inaccurate.
After the trade in wild caught Mediterranean tortoises was banned, they effectively vanished from the pet market. A very small number were still traded from those that had studied their care and managed to not only keep them alive but breed them; the price of these few captive bred babies put them out of reach of all but the most determined.
Thanks mostly to those dedicated enough to study tortoises in the wild and in captivity we now know much more about what makes a tortoise tick, and how to keep it healthy and happy long term in our care. The paperwork required to buy and sell these species ensures that the trade is much better regulated than it ever has been, and although not perfect you can now purchase healthy, captive bred baby tortoises almost as freely as you could before.
But should you?
Tortoises are active, intelligent, engaging little characters. They are all individuals; some are shy, some are nosy, some love to hang out with their people and others prefer to potter around on their own. Temperament wise, they sound like the ideal pet! They certainly can be, and there are many people out there who have much loved tortoises that are healthy, happy, and can be expected to live out their full lifespan.
So before you make the decision as to whether a tortoise is right for you, it’s worth considering the following:
Space. Baby tortoises are fine in a commercially available tortoise table, with a small area fenced off in the garden. An adult tortoise, however, requires a much larger space; once your tortoise reaches five to seven years old, it needs a space of 2m x 3m (about 6.5 feet x 10 feet) indoors – complete with lighting and heating – and 4m x 6m (13 feet x 19.5 feet) outdoors. That’s quite a large area! Yes, they will certainly survive in a smaller area, but we’re aiming for rather more than simply survival. If your tortoise is going to fulfil its potential long term, it needs space.
Diet. Mediterranean tortoises are specialists. They evolved to live in a land with a warm, dry climate, and sparse vegetation. Southern enough for very hot summers, and Northern enough to have distinct seasons. Not quite a desert, it is nevertheless really quite arid.
Summers there can be quite extreme, and any animal that survives in an extreme climate can be considered a specialist. Animals that are specialists can have a very particular diet; think of pandas. Now, your tortoise isn’t that much of a dietary specialist, but they do have very particular needs.
They are an animal with a heavy shell, and thick strong bones. To maintain this, they need to extract a lot of calcium from their diet. All the plants they encounter in the wild are high in fibre, high in calcium – and other minerals – low in phosphorus, low in protein, low in fat. They have a digestive system designed to turn all this hard to eat greenery into bone and muscle and shell, which is no mean feat when you think about how tough and indigestible it all is.
We don’t like to eat that sort of vegetation. It doesn’t taste very nice. So the greenery that we grow for our own consumption is a lot less fibrous, and is very low in the components that tortoises have evolved, over millions of years, to rely on. Expecting a tortoise to thrive on the sort of greenery we like to eat is like trying to live on a diet of sweeties for us – it tastes great, but is going to have some pretty serious consequences in the long run.
There is so little to eat in their native lands that they are hard wired to eat as much as possible as quickly as they can; if they don’t nibble on that tempting green shoot today, it may be all dried up and dead by tomorrow. So if we give them a great big bowl of food they will set to with a will, because they have no idea that there will be just as much food tomorrow.
But it is hugely bad for them. We’re generalists; we evolved to eat whatever was about, whether it be meat, vegetation, roots, seafood – anything! So we can get away with a diet that’s less than perfect with very little consequence. (Well. Sort of.)
They are specialists. It’s not a case of forcing them to eat foods they’re not keen on just because it’s more ‘natural’; they need this tough, hard to digest food in order to thrive. It’s not difficult to obtain; many of the plants will already grow in your garden, and others will flourish only a short walk away. Seed mixes are available that will grow in your garden with very little fuss, and there are people who supply things like prickly pear pads and other succulents suitable for tortoises.
All this takes effort, and it takes time.
Lifespan. It should come as no surprise that tortoises are extraordinarily long lived animals! After all, that is one of the main reasons why they are so popular as pets; we all love the idea of a pet that we don’t have to say goodbye to, or something alive we can pass down to our children.
This is no bad thing. But think about how your life has changed in the last ten years, and consider how it might change in the next ten. Your child might be happy to look after their tortoise now, but what about when they go to university, or move out? If you’re happy to look after the animal until they are settled enough to look after it then that’s great – a tortoise is definitely a family endeavour!
Holidays are another thing. While there are kennels and catteries and boarding facilities for smaller pets, there aren’t many that will accept tortoises. It’s likely that your only option for holidays will be to have someone look after your tortoise at home, which means either a family member, friend or pet sitter; cost can become an issue at this point, as well as security. This won’t just be for holidays for the next few years – it’s for the next eighty to one hundred years.
Research is always ongoing, and better methods of caring for your pet are always being updated. You will have to try and stay abreast of best practice to make sure that your pet has the best life possible. This will mean new equipment periodically, learning new methods of feeding and supplementation – again, for a very long time! Think of them as a lifetime project, and you won’t be far wrong.
In conclusion, tortoises can make fabulous pets. They are engaging, intelligent, long lived and charming. They are not, however, an easy option. Before you buy a tortoise, please think about whether you can offer them the space, diet, equipment and attention that they need to thrive. We are always on hand to help, but ultimately the long term responsibility lies with the new owner. Hopefully, if you consider everything carefully and decide that a tortoise is the pet for you then you will have many years of happy, fulfilling companionship from a charming pet tortoise!