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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Interior Design

As mama and official “enrichment coordinator” to two small shells, I take habitat decor quite seriously indeed.

This past winter, both Malti’s and Bruce’s habitats were completely wiped out. Between the rain and the snow (sleet really, but still) and the freezes, each habitat was a total mud ball by the time some warmer days started to occur.

Warmer days means outside days, at least if you are Malti (Bruce hasn’t come out of hibernation as of yet).

And outside days means your mama needs to get with the program and spruce up your outdoor enclosure already.

So I went down to the garden store and spent my usual hours browsing the plant aisles, googling “is such-and-so fern safe for redfoot tortoises” and then loading the approved greenery into my cart.

I then proceeded to plant it all just so….aiming for a nice, even blend of height and width, shade and sun, flowers and green leaves….

Then I introduced Malti to her new and improved lush, green habitat. I waited a few hours, then went out to check on her.

Malti is turning 4 this year, and this is the second year she has had a full-time outdoor enclosure. So this is the second year I have had a chance to study her talent for interior design up close and personal.

Suffice it to say, it only took her a few hours to make her signature mark on several of the green things, which already looked less lush and full (she often likes to sit on a new plant to introduce herself).

Malti demonstrating her talent for “interior design”….or interior re-design, more accurately. Here, she is standing next to her hide, which is supposed to be positioned horizontally over her body for extra shade.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Going IN

I’ve shared in previous posts here how Malti has a thing for fences. If she sees a fence, she wants to go OUT.

From the time she was a tiny tort (something she definitely isn’t anymore!), she has had a “zero tolerance” policy for confinement. Even if the fence is totally open-ended – like more of a divider that separates equal portions of wide open roaming space – she will spend all of her time butting the offending bars with her nose.

Because of this, it took me some time to realize she has an equal and opposite affinity for going IN.

Her working hypothesis seems to be, if her head can fit IN, all of her should be able to fit IN.

Obviously, this is a hypothesis that could stand some adjustment. But since she can’t turn her head to see the full width and height of the rest of her, the hypothesis stands as-is.

When she is able to fit all the way inside, it can be very hard to get her back out again!

Malti all the way IN her perfect tort-sized cubby out in our backyard.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Treats

It took me awhile to figure out that Malti didn’t find everything equally tasty. Pretty much from day one she was what tortoise breeders like to call an “enthusiastic eater.”

Tortoises in the wild are opportunistic feeders, which means they will eat – overeat even – when they find something really good. This is because they don’t know when they will next discover food.

But Malti doesn’t have to worry about missing any meals.

I still remember the first time we had a session with an animal communicator. I asked the communicator to ask Malti if she was happy with her meals. The communicator paused for a moment, then asked me, “Do you serve some type of crunchy dried protein?”

She was referring to crunchy freeze-dried mealworms. Since then, I have reserved dried mealworms for treats, because I now know Malti would eat the entire container in one sitting if I let her.

What is so interesting about this is that, like dogs and many humans, tortoises can be trained to learn tasks using treats for motivation. In fact, researchers trained redfoot tortoises just like Malti to press buttons on a touchscreen in exchange for treats!

I have no doubt that if Malti had been in that study, and if crunchy freeze-dried mealworms were the treat reward, she would have been their star pupil.

Malti doing what she always does when I put her down on the lawn….foraging for treats.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Adventure

I’ve always been worried about tortoise enrichment. Before I became Malti’s mommy, my only other experience caring for reptiles was from when I had five water turtles as a girl.

Those active little shells swam and congregated, basked and splashed, staying active for most of the day, every day.

Malti was quite different. Her favorite activities, right from the start, appeared to be resting, sitting, napping and eating. I worried all the time that she was bored.

As it turns out, both she and Bruce, her box turtle brother, do a lot of sitting in an average day. They both need to bask to help regulate their body temperature (turtles and tortoises are cold blooded like other reptiles, which means they rely on the heat from the sun to stay warm).

But they are both very smart and curious too. If I change anything in her habitat, Malti immediately wants to go check it out. If she sees me doing something in the casa, she comes over to investigate.

Most of the time, we stay in the back yard for her lawn time. But recently I decided to take her to the front yard because it was sunnier there. She immediately headed for the garden beds, with their interesting ferns and brown mulch and palm fronds.

She had never seen anything like this greenery before and had a fabulous time exploring and playing and taste-testing everything. Her eyes were bright and glowing from all the new and intriguing things she was finding, and she was as active as one of my girlhood water turtles running around and playing!

Malti eagerly checking out the intriguing new greenery in the front lawn flowerbed.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Tortoise and Hare

Some shelled beings are very fast and energetic. Take Malti’s box turtle brother, Bruce, for example. Blink and you’ll miss him. He is light and agile and flexible – practically anything I’ve ever tried to put him into, he climbs right out of.

If Bruce and Malti had a “tortoise and hare” race, Bruce would play the hare.

Malti, on the other hand, literally creaks when she walks. Her shell – both upper and under – is heavy and ponderous. Her back legs look like tiny elephant legs and her front legs are massive slabs.

I can literally hear her as she squeaks her way around our casa, head butting obstacles out of the way rather than mustering the energy to walk around them.

But this doesn’t mean she can’t be speedy when she wants to be. To that end (and after she escaped for six endless days when she was two), a dear friend created a glow-in-the-dark Stegosaurus coat for her to wear outdoors, complete with a long lead I could hold while she went exploring.

There is just one teensy issue. She is so plump it won’t stay on her!

Malti wearing her glow-in-the-dark Stegosaurus coat that is supposed to help her mommy keep track of her. It works perfectly, so long as she doesn’t move. And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Salmon

When I first brought Malti home, I really had no idea what tortoises ate. Some tortoises actually have very specialized diets on account of where they live or how their bodies work.

And then there is Malti.

To date, I have seen her attempt to eat everything from my keys to the plastic habitat she hides in. I’ve had tug-of-wars to remove dead dried frogs, twigs, rocks, plastic bags and, well, (yuck!) dog and cat poop.

If it looks edible, she will try to eat it. Even if it doesn’t look edible, that doesn’t automatically mean it is off limits.

After our early struggles with her health, she became somewhat of a picky eater. In particular, while she would wolf down the fresh salmon (her absolute favorite food) her Grandma made her, I had trouble getting her to eat boring healthy items like greens.

One day I had the bright idea to pour some of the leftover salmon juice onto her greens. Suddenly she became a greens-eating machine.

Malti enjoys a morsel of fresh handfed salmon served over a bed of fresh greens with salmon-juice dressing.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Soaking

Malti enjoying a warm water soak in her indoor bath basin…as you can see, she has brought snacks.

From day one of Malti’s and my life together, I knew she needed frequent soaks.

Her breeder told me this by writing it down on the care sheet he handed to me on the day she came home with me.

I also read about it on the internet, along with related topics like tortoise humidity and tortoise hydration.

To this end, I’m not sure now why I got so confused when our first (horrid) vet kept telling me to make her enclosure more arid, since I knew she was a tropical tortoise and I even told the vet she was a tropical tortoise.

But still, she was the vet and I was the novice tortoise keeper, and so likely it was my early rigorous schedule of soaks that kept Malti from experiencing even more serious early life health issues than she already had (you can learn more about this awful experience in this post).

Interestingly, many species of tortoises do practically everything important in the water, although they spend most of their time on the land.

For example, tortoises seek out water to do their bathrooming. They also need to drink regularly…which is why, when you have a captive pet tortoise, you need to make sure you change their water source frequently!

Tortoises also enjoy soaking in the water, or at least they do once they are old enough to come out into the open without attracting a long line of drooling potential predators.

This baby vulnerability is why pet hatchling tortoises in particular often need to be manually (forcibly) soaked on a schedule, just to make sure they stay hydrated enough in their captive situation. In the wild, in their native humid tropical South American forests and grasslands, this likely isn’t an issue.

On a related note, and speaking of bathrooming, tortoises can also sometimes become, well, constipated. When Malti would eat and then eat again and then eat again and still wouldn’t poop, our now-vet would tell me to soak her in warm water.

(This is also why you shouldn’t soak a tortoise right before you will be out of the house for several hours or you are about to take a long trip together.)

Even though Malti is now three and a half years old, I still soak her at least twice or three times per week. I also mist her quite frequently when we are outdoors and it is warm to hot outside to make sure she doesn’t dry out while she is playing and exploring.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Fences

A baby Malti head-butts the hated fence straight-on.

There is no easy way to say this. Tortoises hate fences.

They hate them so much that even if there is a football field’s worth of open roaming space on “their” side of the fence, if they see a fence, they will spend every ounce of energy they have trying to break through it.

If Malti is any kind of representative example, no effort is too great to escape to the other side of a fence.

Climbing the fence can work, if the fence has foot-holds.

If not, head-butting it is a solid and respectable choice.

Temporary fences can often be knocked over or simply lifted up, making passage underneath fast and easy.

If the temporary fence is only so long, finding the edges can mean a quick getaway to the other side just by walking around it.

Malti, triumphant, discovers the edge of the temporary fence and strolls around it to the other side (which, for the record, was exactly the same as the side she was on!).

P.S. Malti is now more than three years old, and to date I haven’t noticed her dislike of fences abating even a tiny bit…..

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Curiosity

Malti, very curious as usual, gives a visiting wheelbarrow in our backyard a close visual inspection.

When I first brought Malti home, I had no idea what to expect.

All I had to go on was an adorable photo of a baby redfoot tortoise her breeder had posted on Craig’s List and a few descriptive adjectives, such as “great personality,” “eating well,” et al.

Also, I had seen a number of social media videos of very energetic tortoises chasing lawnmowers, pushing balls on the floor, giving parrots rides on their back…that sort of thing.

At around 5 weeks old, Malti in person was nothing like anything I had read or seen – except for the “eating well” part. She has always been an enthusiastic diner.

But the rest – my mom described the look in her baby eyes as “feral” and I couldn’t disagree. She was wild – there was no “pet” anywhere in her infant self.

As she grew up and got used to me and my kind, that shifted. Plus, her size increased (greatly¬†increased) which moved her out of the “appetizer” category and into the “main course” arena, making her less afraid of everyone and everything.

At that point, which was also after her early dangerous health issues were beginning to be resolved with the help of our new vet (for more on that you can read this post), she started to get curious.

VERY curious. Suddenly, everything was interesting. And, like pretty much every baby of any species I’ve ever encountered, Malti liked to explore new finds with her mouth. She would bite my shoes (and my bare toes) and my keys and my laptop and power cords and the rug and the sprinkler hose nozzle and anything else she could get her teensy but powerful jaws around.

Thankfully, I already knew something about pet-proofing one’s casa, thanks to the ongoing insatiable curiosity of my parrot, Pearl.

But Malti, with her blocky, heavy body, short, powerful legs and battering ram head needed a different kind of proofing strategy than I had used for Pearl. Basically, instead of evaluating threats based on how they might be accessed from the air, I now had to look at every threat from a ground-level perspective….literally.

Here, a set of colorful metal gates was one of the best purchases I have ever made, but it is still no substitute for keeping a close eye on her at all times.

To this day, and likely for the remainder of our days together, I know I cannot leave Malti alone in any space for long without supervision. I just can’t. As a conscientious tortoise mama, I just accept that.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Squirming

Malti, snoozing away under her heat lamp “post fall.”

I don’t really like to tell this story, on account of how I think the moment I do, the turtle police will show up and cart me off to wherever they incarcerate delinquent tortoise parents.


But it needs to be told, on the off chance somebody who has a turtle or tortoise and doesn’t know that shelled beings squirm might stumble upon this blog, read this particular post and learn from my mistakes.

This particular mistake involved bathrooming (for more on that topic, you can read this post instead).

Malti had just “turtled” (what her mama calls going #2) quite a lot in her indoor habitat, where she was living until outside temperatures warmed up again.

(I had just put her in there, too….I think she’s figured out that when I put her in her habitat and she doesn’t want to be in there, she can just turtle and I’ll take her right out again. It totally works, too.)

So I looked into her habitat, saw she had turtled, and immediately lifted her out, holding her with one hand while I located her bathing bin, got the water warm and waited for it to fill up with the other hand.

Here, it is important to mention that in general, tortoises and turtles don’t much like to be held, and they definitely don’t like to be held up in the air.

So there I am. I’m standing at the sink and holding her, getting the water temp just right, and in the interim, she gets squirmy. And she was more slippery than usual (see “turtling”).

Suddenly, she had squirmed her way out of my left hand and hurtled down towards the floor….which she landed on with her NOSE.

Yup. My juvenile tortoise, all one-pound-something of her, landed on the tile right on her teensy tiny tort nose.

Which then proceeded to turn red. And swell up. And send me right to the internet to google “I dropped my baby tortoise from a height…”….

The internet taught me that I could expect one of four outcomes, generally speaking: a) she could be fine; b) she could have a concussion; c) she could have internal bleeding; d) she could have both b and c.

I proceeded to come down with four days’ worth of migraines while I vigilantly watched her eat and walk and sleep under the heat lamp, with intermittent breaks to dab lidocaine onto the tip of her nose with a Q-tip (not vet sanctioned, but it was all I had for the pain I assumed she must be feeling).

After four days, her nose was normal-colored and normal-sized again and my migraines eased up.

I have also begun to notice for the first time how often I need to lift her up for some reason. So now I try to use both hands and not do anything else while I’m lifting her in or out of somewhere, and I have found a little basket with a handle I can use to carry her longer distances, such as into and out of our casa.

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Farting

My little girl in her tiny tort bath – she was just about to turn 6 months old when I heard “the sound.”

I will never ever forget the first time it happened.

I was sitting beside Malti while she took a bath in her itty bitty tortoise tub.

Then all of a sudden I heard it….the tiniest of oh-so-delicate Tinkerbell farts.

At first, thinking I must be hearing things, I looked all around me. There was no one else in sight.

I knew I didn’t do it. So that only left….I looked down at her, soaking there in her bowl, and she didn’t bat an eye. She was as calm and self-contained as, well, a tiny tort who just farted and didn’t think anything of it.

By the way, it has happened many, many times since then. I no longer look around me, either, because I know exactly who did it.

(For the record, I have never heard her box turtle brother, Bruce, fart. And I’ve never heard any other shelled being fart either. And this was definitely the first time I ever heard a fart and thought dotingly, “Awww – how CUTE!”)

And remember…..

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Malti Explains Redfoot Tortoises: Calcium

Malti poised to crunch down on a much-decimated cuttlebone, which is a mere shadow of its former disc-shaped self.

Malti is a South American redfoot tortoise.

She is also a reptile, and like all reptiles, she needs a little help to get sufficient calcium and then to absorb and use it to grow strong healthy bones and shell.

I’ve been keeping parrots since I was eight, so I’m no stranger to the odd white disc-shaped calcium supplement called the “cuttlebone.”

I just never knew it wasn’t just for parrots. As it turns out, Malti loves her cuttlebone just as much as my parrot, Pearl, loves his cuttlebone.

Since the cuttlebone is packed chock-full of calcium (courtesy of its donor, the squid-like cuttlefish), all I have to do is plop a fresh disc down into Malti’s habitat every so often and my work is done.

She will seek it out on her own when she needs calcium, and as she crunches and chews and scrapes off the white powdery supplement, she also gets a natural beak manicure at the same time.

And remember…..