Captive Desert Tortoise Enclosure/ Shelter
Desert tortoises require a safe enclosure, designed to prevent the tortoise from escaping and also protect it from any harm. They also require a shelter which will protect it from extreme summer heat and dryness, and provide it a place to hibernate in the winter.
Proper Enclosure Parameters
Enclosures must meet the following minimum size requirements for the size of the tortoise:
Adult tortoise – 18′ x 18′ or 324 square feet
Juvenile tortoise – 8′ x 8′ or 64 square feet
Hatchling tortoise – 4′ x 4′ or 16 square feet; must include a predator proof top
Your adopted tortoise will require a safe and secure enclosure or yard specifically to ensure it doesn’t escape. Pools, ponds and other bodies of water must be gated to prevent the tortoise from entering, as they cannot swim.
The enclosure’s primary barrier should have a portion buried at least 6-8 inches to help discourage digging. To keep the tortoise from escaping it’s primary enclosure, the above ground portion of the enclosure’s wall should be at least 24” high for an adult tortoise and should include a solid visual section for the first 10″ from the ground up. This will help prevent the tortoise from rubbing its face and discourage escape. Similar adjustments should be made for a juvenile or hatchling enclosure. Additionally, enclosures must be built to keep dogs and other potential predators from getting to the tortoise.
Proper Shelter Guidelines
Shelters should be well insulated by adding soil to the top, sides and bottom of the structure. In the wild, desert tortoises prefer snug shelter to wedge themselves into a corner near the back so don’t make the shelter too roomy.
When building the shelter, keep in mind that its orientation to direct sunlight has a direct impact on internal burrow temperature. North and northeast facing shelters tend to be cooler and provide a good refuge from summer heat. South facing shelters warm up quicker than north facing shelters and are generally better suited for hibernation in winter.
Optimal temperature range for the shelter is 68-85 degrees during the summer and between 50-68 degrees in the winter. Shelter temperatures should always be kept below 90 degrees, this will keep the tortoise from overheating and suffering brain damage.
During mild weather, a tortoise may dig a shallow depression (pallet) in the soil, usually beneath a shrub or other low-growing vegetation. Providing more than one shelter for the tortoise will give it the option of either a warmer or cooler environment at different times of the year. Shelters with different orientations and for seasons are helpful, but a single shelter will suffice if strategically placed.
Types of shelter
Stationary shelters can be constructed out of a large heavy duty plastic trash can, large PVC pipe, or cinder blocks covered with a ceramic tile backer board. A bucket or trash can needs to be cut in half and placed lengthwise so that it sits level on the ground. If opting for cinder blocks, arrange six blocks into a “U” shape, and cover with three pieces of ceramic tile backer board (e.g., wonderboard or Hardieboard™) or a piece of flat rock such as flagstone. For either stationary shelter, rocks can be placed around the sides and back to prevent erosion. Add at least an 8-inch layer of soil on the top, sides and back for stabilization and insulation.
- Shelters can be incorporated into existing landscaping and can be the focal point of the backyard or they can be inconspicuous.
- The shelter should be in a high and dry spot, above the flood line or away from areas where rain water collects. You can construct a flattened mound of dirt 8 inches high to build or set the shelter, which will protect the shelter from runoff. Be sure to include a small berm at the opening to the shelter which will help keep water from the shelter.
- The tortoise shelter MUST stay completely dry during rains. A damp shelter will cause your tortoise to become susceptible to various respiratory ailments that require costly veterinarian treatment. These ailments, if left untreated, will most likely result in the death of your tortoise.