Many years ago, I attended a local herp society’s monthly meeting at which the guest speaker was talking about chelonians (a fancy word used by folks deep into the hobby that means turtle). Midway through his talk, the gentleman next to me leaned over and whispered, “You know the best thing about tortoises? Their shells make excellent hide spaces for snakes.”
There is, in fact, a schism between general herp fans, whose interest seems to encompass all the reptiles, including the shelled ones—as well as amphibians and even arachnids—and the subset of folks who simply melt for the turtles. That is why, in my shop, the tortoises are the first animals you see. The herp fans will enjoy them and move on, but the turtle fans might never enter the store proper if they had to struggle past snakes, lizards and, heaven forbid, spiders, to see their precious favorites.
When a customer comes in with the general notion that they want a turtle, the first thing on my agenda is to get him or her focused on tortoises. Not that water turtles and box turtles don’t have their fans, but both of these subsets have implicit issues that make them difficult pets. Tortoises, however, are very adaptable to terrarium life, easy to feed and stunningly long-lived. They make superb pets.
The Main Hurdles
There are, however, a few stumbling blocks in the road to selling a tortoise. They are not cheap. While a basic water turtle like a red-eared slider may cost as little as $10, tortoises typically start at around a $100. There are two ways I deal with this problem. First, I like to point out to customers that, whether setting up a land or water turtle, they will make an equally significant investment in caging and supplies, and that once they have invested that much, the price of the actual turtle becomes less of a factor. Secondly, I explain that a tortoise will probably outlive the buyer, the buyer’s child, and maybe even the buyer’s future grandchildren. Once you amortize that cost over the years (in the same range as, say, eight dogs) the price doesn’t seem so bad.
The other problem with selling tortoises is that the primary focus of tortoise sales revolves around captive-produced babies. The infamous “four-inch law” regarding turtles becomes something of an issue here. Remember that this law was set in place many years ago to stifle the sale of baby water turtles and their potential to spread salmonella. Salmonella is a waterborne disease, and so the actual possibility of a problem with infection diminishes greatly with a land-loving tortoise. Legally, you are required to post signage informing the public of this law. There is an exception in the law making it legal to sell baby turtles for educational and scientific purposes. While we almost never sell baby water turtles, we have a tidy business going in baby tortoises, which we sell legally to anyone who informs us that their animal will be used for science or education.
Once you are past the two hurdles of price and legality, tortoise sales can take off. Care is fairly simple and straightforward, with most species requiring similar setups and maintenance. Because they are primarily vegetarian, tortoises will spend their days wandering the cage and grazing, so they need a large enclosure relative to snakes or lizards. However, beware of keeping them in a cage so large that they will be subject to cold spots where the basic temperature is not being met.
Their daily salad needs a good vitamin and calcium supplement, and the babies need a daily bath in shallow lukewarm water, which they will drink in one end while excreting yesterday’s meal out the other. Strong lighting (including a good UV bulb) and heating are also necessities.
Sizing Up the Options
Tortoise species are highly variable in size, and this is an issue that will be the pivotal factor in a client’s choice of which tortoise to buy. Most of the dwarf tortoises, and most of the true giant tortoises, are outside the price range of all but the most committed of hobbyists. Of the popular pet tortoises, the smallest tend to max out in the 10-inch range, and the largest do not exceed three feet.
On the small end of the scale, and certainly the most commonly kept tortoise in the U.S., is the Russian tortoise. While some captive-bred specimens are available in the trade, most are exported, wild-caught animals from Uzbekistan. At this point, they are the only commonly imported tortoise in the trade. Their modest size, sturdy temperament and outgoing disposition make them lovely pets, and at the right time of year, they can be relatively inexpensive.
Russian tortoises also have a fascinating lifestyle in the wild, where they spend their entire winter hibernating. They also spend their entire summer estivating (the hot weather equivalent of hibernation). They come out of their burrows in the spring for about eight weeks to feed and lay eggs, and again in the fall to feed and breed. This behavior is an adaptation to the extreme climate where they live, and it is not necessary to replicate in captivity. In fact, you can set them up to live in a sort of eternal spring, and they seem to thrive in this quite unnatural lifestyle.
At the other end of the size spectrum is the African spurred tortoise, an animal so popular that its scientific specie name has become its other common name: the sulcata. The largest mainland tortoise in the world, sulcata adults approach three feet in length. They grow alarmingly quickly; I have seen documented four year olds almost two feet in length. One of the brightest and most personable of all the tortoises, African spurred tortoises will come to recognize the person responsible for their meals and, if fed on a regular schedule, will come to know when feeding time is approaching. For families with the wherewithal to eventually house these animals in a backyard pen, this is a great choice.
Other tortoises of note in the trade include the various Mediterranean species, including the Greek, Hermann’s and marginated tortoises (this group also includes the previously noted Russian), all of which get in the eight to 10-inch range, and the bigger American tortoises, the red- and yellow-footed tortoises of South America, which can exceed two feet. These are beautiful creatures, with the red foot being especially impressive for not only its size but also its omnivorous behavior and fondness for mud puddles. The sulcata has a somewhat smaller (two feet) cousin called the leopard tortoise, which, as its name implies, has a spectacular shell of mottled black and tan.
Of all the reptiles, perhaps none so easily evoke the feelings of warmth and empathy as the tortoise. From the cuteness of the babies to the wizened old-man personage of the adults, these should be winners even in stores with a limited selection of reptiles.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.