“Free-roaming” Tortoises in the Home

Many tortoise and box turtle keepers either do or want to let their tortoises wander freely in their home or in some rooms. It is easy to see the appeal, but the idea is often shot down by other keepers. Let’s look at the controversy and try to sort things out.

 
The benefits of free-roaming include:
  • Lots of space to move in, which allows the tortoise to find good hides and a variety of micro-climates.
  • Lots of opportunity for enrichment and things to do.
  • Heightened socialization. This is obviously a matter of opinion and very subjective, but many people who practice this strongly feel it creates more of a bond between the tortoise and the family. 
  • Reduced housing costs and simplified management.
The challenges of free-roaming, however, are significant:
  • Ensuring proper climate- temps, lighting, and humidity as well as relatively draft-free areas.
  • Providing proper, snug hides.
  • Managing feces, urine, and Salmonella risk.
  • Eating non-food items.
  • Managing the urge to dig, nest, or otherwise interact with natural elements. This is especially true when laying eggs.
  • Overcoming the tendency of many floors to be cold or slick, or for carpeting to tangle in their claws.
Free-roaming works when the keeper takes the challenges into account. Even though it has many detractors, there are lots of experienced, knowledgeable people who free-roam their tortoises and the animals show all signs of being happy and healthy – eating, mating, laying eggs, etc.– and they show no more signs of shell problems than any other captive tortoises. “The Turtle Wife” by Anita Salzberg contains a great account of a free-roaming box turtle.
 
There are some tricks people use to help meet the challenges:
  • Daily soaks, both to help with hydration and to encourage defecation in the bath. Some would argue that daily soaks mean you do not need a water dish, but a good accessible water dish is still a good idea.
  • Humid areas and hiding places, such as one created by clustering plants in a warm room.
  • Accessible pans of soil for digging or growing greens.
  • Limit the tortoise’s access to rooms that meet the tortoise’s needs the best, such as a spare bedroom.
  • Make a basking area with heat and UVB in an accessible but out of the way location.
  • Perhaps most importantly, a good match of the tortoise species and size to the situation. High humidity or very large species are not the best option in most homes, and younger tortoises need more care.
The point of this article is not to say yes or no to free-roaming a tortoise. The point here is to encourage keepers to think it through.