Whether we are talking humans, dogs, or tortoises, animal brains develop better when they are challenged, tested, given problems to solve and opportunities to be creative.
“Enrichments” are those things that keepers do to help make their animal’s days more fun, stimulating, and interesting. Enrichments for tortoises can come in many forms, limited only by the creativity of the keeper and the real needs and safety of the tortoise. Here are some examples of enrichments we can carry out.
Note: All enrichment activities must be appropriate to the species and size of the animal. Not all ideas here are appropriate for all tortoises. There is also a lot of individual response: some tortoises will play with a ball, for example, and others will not. Also remember that over-stimulation is stressful. Don’t overdo it!
- Offer whole foods that are a little awkward for the tortoise to eat, like tomatoes, melons, pumpkin, kiwi, corn on the cob, etc.
- Hide foods: tuck mushrooms, strawberries, or cat kibble in unusual places.
- Hang bundles of greens from a clip or hook, as if they were hanging in nature. (This also seems to encourage a lot of interesting, natural behaviors.)
- Let them graze from safe potted plants when indoors.
- Release worms and isopods (aka wood lice, pill bugs, sow bugs…) in the habitat for the tortoises to eat (or that will eat wastes in the habitat.)
- Vary the amounts of the feeding: plan for heavy days, light days, fasting days, and normal days on an irregular schedule.
- Offer unusual but acceptable foods by looking for left-overs, day-old, bruised, and other samples of foods you usually cannot afford or by offering things like organic junior baby foods (the chunky stuff), sardines or other small fish with bones, leftover cooked chicken, brown or whole wheat bread, safe to eat flowers, etc.
- Offer “holiday-themed” meals, such as:
- Thanksgiving: cooked turkey, sweet potatoes, greens, apple (pie), pumpkin (pie)
- Halloween:pumpkin, organic dried fruit snacks, apples
- Birthdays or anniversaries: use slivers of carrots for candles on top of cakes made from things like mushroom caps, or pineapple cores.
- For most species of tortoise, the best enrichments are others of the same species, assuming you have the room and resources.
- Consider a 2-story habitat by combining a hide under a ramp to a second level.
- Replace as much of the habitat as possible with more natural options, such as
- Some tortoises seem to enjoy moving things around their habitat- plastic boxes, balls too big to eat, etc. (I think it would be hilarious to watch a tortoise push around a kid’s toy bulldozer, but I have a weird sense of humor.)
- Give them a challenge: put a visible food treat somewhere they can only get to by doing a simple maze, using a ramp, etc.
- Consider training them. You can use operant conditioning to train them to do a variety of simple tasks. It takes a while and you have to think about what to use for a signal and rewards, but it can be done. After all, they quickly learn to identify when you are going to feed them!
◦ Some sample stimuli would include tapping the wall of the pen, tapping the shell lightly, offering an obvious hand signal (hand out flat, or held in the “stop” pose)
◦ Some sample rewards would include bits of banana or strawberry or Superworms
◦ Some tricks to consider:
◦ Come for food when called
◦ Reach up and “beg” when your hand is held over their head
◦ “Shake” by putting their leg in your outstretched hand
- Give them access to a bigger world if they are usually kept indoors, Create a “daytime pen” or some bigger space they can be in when the weather is nice. “Free-roaming” a house is usually a bad idea, but a room or area that has been carefully checked for hazards and offers the right environment is a possibility.
- Let them out in a warm summer rain, or simulate a warm rain in their habitat if possible.
- Set up a slow drip into the water dish or a small waterfall for motion, noise, and humidity.
- If they seem to enjoy it, stroke their head or chin.
- Offer them a “spa” experience of a soak in a pool of warm water they can easily get into and out of. Ideally, this is set up in their main habitat.
- House them with other animals. This takes some research, but some examples include
◦ Hermit land crabs with Red-foot Tortoises
◦ Geckos or anoles in larger, enclosed habitats to eat flies and other common pests.
De Vosjoli, Phillippe. The Art of Keeping Snakes (Advanced Vivarium Systems). AVS Books 2004. ISBN