(Geochelone sulcata) The third largest tortoise in the
Is It the Right Pet for You?
Take a look here and see if youíre up for the
challenge of owning a tortoise that can grow to be upwards of 150 pounds
Sulcata tortoises start out like all other tortoises, tiny and
adorable. Probably weighing about 30 grams. Thatís less than the
weight of a small cell phone. In the first year that tortoise will most
likely triple in size if given proper care. If overfed or given a poor
diet like so many are, it will most likely grow to ten times its
hatchling size. Sadly it may also by this time have Metabolic Bone
Disease (MBD) if a proper diet was not followed.
When the Sulcata is young many think they can keep this tortoise in
an aquarium. Aquariums are for fish. Aqua means water. Tortoises live on
land, not in water. They need good air flow and lots of space for
exercise. They need what is called a tortoise table to start out. Are
you able to provide enough space to give a Sulcata the space it needs?
A hatchling would probably be okay in a 2íx4í area for the first year,
but after that will need much more space. Do you have a room large
enough to dedicate that space to a tortoise? When it reaches twenty
pounds in a couple of years and is over a foot long will you have the
Now for their diet. You canít just open a jar of food for these
tortoises. They have special needs. They are grazing tortoises so need
grazing foods like grasses and weeds. These grasses and weeds need to be
fertilizer and pesticide free. They can have a certain amount of high
fiber greens like turnip greens, kale, escarole, etc., but the majority
(70%) of their diet should be grasses/weeds. Hay is a good way to
supplement when grass and weeds are not available. There are online
www.carolinapetsupply.com that sell a hay salad that the Sulcata
will readily eat when raised on a proper diet. Sulcata should not be fed
fruit. Fruit has the potential to cause a parasite bloom in Sulcata so
should be avoided. The only fruit that seems to be okay for them is
Opuntia cactus pear. The cactus pads themselves are also a great food
for them and can be fed about once weekly. There are lots of prepackaged
tortoise foods being sold on the market. Read the ingredients. If they
are not made with grass/hay/weeds they are not good for your tortoise.
Soybean hulls and wheat midlings are fillers, not good nutrition, avoid
them. Pretty colors of pellets donít make them a good food. Donít waste
Now for the clean up! Have you ever cleaned up after a horse? Well
you may want to visit a stable for a few days before deciding on owning
a Sulcata. They eat like a horse and they poop and urinate like one
too. Most Sulcata will poop every day. This is not so much of a problem
when you can keep them outside, but when you have to clean up after them
on a daily basis in your home itís not so easy. Itís quite messy. They
donít care that you have to clean it up and they donít usually leave it
in a neat pile for you. They like to drag it around and smear it all
over, and are especially fond of getting it into every nook and cranny
of their shells, so you need to be prepared to give a good soak and
cleaning to keep your tort clean. When they urinate, itís like a small
river. Scooping up a good part of the substrate is a good way to clean
up, but be prepared to keep replacing that substrate.
That brings us to soaking. Many tortoises do not like to be soaked.
They donít like the water very much, but to keep them hydrated itís
important to give them a soak at least once a week in warm tepid water
(baby bath warm). Do you have a bathtub you donít mind soaking your
tortoise in? If not you will need a large plastic tub that you can haul
water in to soak the tortoise in and find a place that you donít mind
dumping the poopy water. Oh, did I mention that most tortoises like to
poop in their soak? Not something you want to dump in the kitchen sink,
or the bathtub for that matter.
Okay, letís cover the backyard habitat. If youíre going to have a
Sulcata you will have to make a secure outdoor habitat. When the
tortoise is under twenty pounds a stockade fence will most likely hold
this tortoise in, but beyond that size you will need reinforced fencing
as well as a barrier dug a foot or so into the ground. These are
burrowing tortoises and can dig, so the entire enclose will need a
barrier to prevent the tortoise from escaping. Chain link fencing has
been taken down by these tortoises, and they have been known to push
their way under them, so not good for enclosures. Itís best to have a
solid construction fence that they cannot see through. If they can see
the other side, they want to get to the other side. Grass is always
greener and all that. Either a cement poured base under the fencing
along the perimeter or solid landscape timbers buried under the
perimeter of the fencing will be needed. Itís also a good idea to have a
12-18Ē board run across the gate opening of your yard. Many tortoises
have escaped yards through gates that have either been left open or the
tortoises have rammed them hard enough to force them open and escaped. I
cannot tell you how many times I have been contacted by frantic keepers
whose tortoises were missing from their yards.
The yard will also need a good shelter for the tortoise to get out of
the elements. A large dog igloo works well, but if you plan on leaving
your tortoise outside at night youíll want something you can close your
tortoise into and lock it up so itís safe from any predators. Youíll
also want something you can hang a heater like a ceramic heat emitter
in. If you have a larger shed or garage you can provide a heat mat or
wall heater for cooler nights. An outside water source is also
necessary. Something large enough for the tortoise to soak in, but not
too deep that he can drown in. This water needs to be changed out daily
to avoid any mosquito larvae and to make sure thereís no poop left in
the water after they soak. Small kiddy pools with one side cut out can
work well for larger tortoises, or childrenís round snow saucers can
work well also. For really small torts a Frisbee flipped upside down
also works well. Whatever you use you have to be prepared to clean that
water daily. The habitat will need to be planted heavily with weed seeds
as well as grass seed and will not be able to fertilized or treated with
pesticides. You have to be willing to let any area of your lawn that
your tortoise will roam on go organic. If you have any prized plants or
shrubs you cannot have them in the Sulcata enclosure, they will be
destroyed. Any plants that are not safe, not toxic or edible will have
to be removed. There is an extensive Edible Landscaping list on the
African Tortoise website
www.africantortoise.com which is advisable to visit so you know what
plants can stay in the enclosure and which have to go.
The next thing to consider is if you have a dog or a cat. Tortoises
do not mix well with dogs or cats. Most people think of dogs and cats
with tortoises and the damage done to the tortoises. This is very true.
There have been countless cases of tortoises mauled by the family pet
that had lived harmoniously with that very tortoise for years until one
day when it decided it looked like a great chew toy. However a Sulcata
tortoise is a strong tortoise and they have the ability to ram, and ram
fast. There have been quite a few cases of broken legs on dogs that were
rammed into a wall or cats broken beyond repair from being rammed by a
large Sulcata. Care must be taken to keep them away.
Vet bills have to be considered and as the Sulcata grows you will
have to consider finding a vet that makes house calls unless you are
very strong and have the ability to lift that nearly 200 pound tortoise
into the back of your truck, you do have a truck right?
The most important thing to remember is this is a pet that is for a
lifetime. A lifetime commitment. They live for over a hundred years with
proper care. You will need to leave a Sulcata in your will to another
responsible keeper. Are you up to the task? Be honest with yourself.
Itís not a responsibility to be taken lightly. Do not fool yourself into
thinking you can keep it for a few years and then donate it to a zoo or
nature center. They are filled with them. They donít want any more, and
donít have room for more. Do not consider a Sulcata because you think
you Ďmightí move in a year or so to a warmer climate. Wait until you
make that move and then get that tortoise. So many get the tortoise and
never make that move.
If after reading this you still feel a Sulcata is the right tortoise
for you, and you are prepared to make all the necessary changes to your
home necessary to keep a Sulcata, then please do your research and be
sure you provide that Sulcata with the best care possible. Do not let it
end up like so many with that come into rescues like ours with Metabolic
Bone Disease and those awful pyramids, some barely able to carry their
own weight. If you get a Sulcata be sure to provide it with a good diet,
good UV lighting, some humidity, and lots and lots of space.
Take a look at some of the photos on the following pages and
see if they donít change your mind as well.
These are a few photos of a progression of a three year span of the
digging of a burrow by a few Sulcata. Rough guess is the burrow is
approximately 5x5 feet with a four foot tunnel down to a main hole, then
a tunnel that goes about twenty feet. Thatís how far the tortoise owner
went with probing with a piece of rebar before he lost track. The
Sulcata in this burrow have raised the floor level of the shed by over
two feet in the shed they have dug in and over three feet in the whole
area of the pen they dug in. Is your yard equipped to handle that kind
of digging? Are you?
|Above are two more burrows
created by a couple of Sulcata that are over fifty pounds.
Imagine how much larger those burrows will be when they reach
|This tortoise was burned when his heat lamp clamp
malfunctioned and fell on his shell burning his carapace. An
unfortunate accident which incurred an unexpected vet bill. Are you
prepared for those accidents?
|Hereís what a shed looks like after a Sulcata has pooped
and dragged it around. Can you picture yourself cleaning this up on
a daily basis if you have to keep a tortoise in your home or a shed?
|This is just some minor damage to sheetrock walls by a
Sulcata trying to get comfy in a corner. They have been known to go
right through a sheetrock wall.
|Thatís a baby Sulcata next to a 150 pound adult Sulcata.
See why you cannot keep one in your home?
|This would not be complete without showing a comparison
of what happens to a tortoise with poor care verses a tortoise with
proper care. I hope itís obvious that this tortoise with Metabolic
Bone Disease received the worst care.
|This Sulcata, as you can see, has grown into a nice
smooth tortoise as he should be. At about sixty pounds he has a lot
of growing to do, but heís off to a great start.
Now that youíve seen those photos letís review and be honest with
- Do you have adequate space to provide for a Sulcata?
- Are you willing to build a young Sulcata a tortoise table?
- Are you willing to give up space in your home, shed or garage for a
- Are you willing/able to afford the heating costs to heat said shed
- Are you willing/able to pay the costs of vet bills for a Sulcata?
- Are you willing to clean up that messy poop on a daily basis?
- Are you willing to spend the money for nutritious greens/hay during
winter when the tortoise cannot graze outside?
- Are you willing to share your bathtub with a Sulcata for its soaks?
- Are you willing to sacrifice your beautiful landscaping for a
- Are you willing to make a lifelong commitment to owning
- Do you own your own home?
If you answered no to any of these questions a Sulcata is not the
pet for you!
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