Grieving the Loss of a Loved One

Garden 097Some of you may have noticed that I haven’t posted any new articles for a while. First and foremost, thank you for sticking with me. I haven’t forgotten about you, the readers and followers. The tortoises are fine, great in fact. They are growing right before my eyes. The garden is a little empty at the moment though. One reason for this is because the South Florida heat has returned for the year. I had some gorgeous peas growing for a while and within three days of the scorching heat returning, all of my beautiful green peas turned into sad, brown, crispy leaf litter. The green beans weren’t far behind. Right now the citrus and purple sweet potatoes are really the only plants thriving in this heat and humidity. I do have some strawberries that are struggling too though. We shall see how that goes.

The heat is not my only reason for being MIA though. About two months ago I received a phone call that one of my best friends had died. It was unexpected and tragic and it truly broke me. Then, just when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, exactly five weeks later I received a text informing me that another friend had committed suicide. Between trying to grieve for both friends and help other loved ones deal with both losses I’m sure you can understand why blogging about my garden and the tortoises roaming it became less of a priority.

The details of both of my friends’ deaths are irrelevant, and while it really has nothing to do with tortoises or gardening, I wanted to talk a little about death and grieving. Although at the moment I am grieving the loss of two humans, many of us animal lovers also grieve the loss of pets. For people like us, “animal people”, pets become members of the family. As a vet tech, I saw people who truly felt that their animals were just as much members of the family as any human. There was a couple at the first hospital I worked at who had a cat. They spent a lot of money and a lot of time at our hospital. This cat was a child to them. After getting to know them, I found out that they had tried for many years to have children, even going through fertility treatments several times. Adoption did not work out for them either. So this cat became their child and it was their version of a family. And it was a good, happy family too. Another couple, at a different hospital, had a dog with all sorts of health problems. They were in and out of our hospital almost monthly. This dog was the most important thing in the world to them because this dog had belonged to their recently deceased son, who was also their only child. This dog was the last living reminder of the family they once had.

A while back a good friend of mine had a pet rat that died. When I told “animal people” about the passing of my friend’s rat, you could see the heartbreak and empathy in their eyes. When I told “people people” about my friend losing her pet rat, you could see the confusion and judgement in their eyes. Some even went as far as to say things like “Eewww” or “Why would anyone have a rat for a pet in the first place.” What “people people” don’t realize is how incredibly hurtful comments like this are to an “animal person.” And even though “animal people” care about all animals and are saddened when hearing about the injury, illness, or death of any animal, these comments sting even more when people are referring to someone’s pet, or rather a companion or member of the family.

So what is this “animal people” and “people people” nonsense I’m referring to, you ask? If you’re not familiar with the terms, they’re pretty common among veterinarians, vet techs, zookeepers, exotic pet hobbyists, and most others who are passionate about ALL animals. “Animal people” don’t just love animals. Instead, animals are a way of life. All animals from the tiniest frog or mouse, to the largest bear or elephant and everything in between are often times more important than most human beings to an “animal person”. Caring for these animals, learning about their behaviors, becoming conservation champions for them, and educating the rest of the world about the significance of animals are life goals. And it’s something you know in your heart even as a child. Most “animal people” are not as social with other people, though there are, of course, always some exceptions.

Most “animal people” have a difficult time talking about anything but animals. Even if the conversation starts out having nothing to do with animals, it only takes a short time until the topic comes up. Once we start, we don’t stop. And we have no problem talking about feces, anal glands, abscesses, maggots, or any other gross topic during dinner much to the chagrin of the “people people” at the table.

Last year I lost my bearded dragon, Odin, to cancer. I’ve lost other pets over the years including cats and dogs, but Odin’s death was particularly hard for me. I can’t explain it, but I was very attached to that little lizard. Though it’s been several months now, I still sometimes come home and find my eyes have immediately gone to the direction of where his enclosure used to sit. And I still find myself wanting him to hang out on the couch with me when I’m watching TV. And I still find myself looking behind me to see if he’s following me around the house like he used to do all the time.

Odin was surrendered to a local reptile rescue that a friend works with. She had him for literally about 5 minutes when she brought him to me. I took one look at him and decided he needed to come home with me. The only bits of information we knew about him were that he was nine years old and his name was Odin. I knew he was older, but decided that even if he was nearing the end of his life, he deserved to be loved and cared for as much as possible. The first 10 months were wonderful. He was the sweetest old man in the world.

He went into brumation and everything seemed OK. When he woke up a couple months later, I noticed a lump on his jaw. It was about the size of a pea. I watched it for a couple days, but it was getting larger, so to the vet we went. It appeared to be an average abscess. Odin_2The vet drained it and gave me some antibiotics to administer at home. At first it seemed to help, but then the lump came back. The vet drained it again, but it still came back. The vet recommended doing surgery to remove the abscess pocket to eliminate the problem. I agreed to the surgery and hoped for the best.

However, the news I got was pretty bad. Once the vet had Odin under anesthesia and was able to do a full examination, she found a tumor growing on the inside of his lower jaw and she was not able to remove it. Over the next nine months, I frequently drained the abscess at home and administered antibiotics because the tumor was causing the abscess to recur. Odin was such a trooper through it all. He was always spunky and in good spirits. He never seemed to let all of the poking and prodding bother him. He even liked to go visit my other dragon, Matilda, and do push-ups and show off for her every day.

Finally the day came though. When I got home from work one day, I could tell by the look in his eyes and his body language that it was time. The spunk was gone. We went to the vet hospital and I stayed with him the whole time. Saying goodbye to him was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to do (until recently).

While my lizard and my friend’s rat may seem small and insignificant to many people, what those people tend to forget is that those animals are like family members to us. We spent months and years caring for them while they were healthy and dedicated even more time and love to them in the weeks and months that they were ill.

What I have found both with the passing of animal and human friends is that people are uncomfortable with grief. People who are grieving are afraid to show their feelings for many reasons like embarrassment or fear of showing weakness. Many people are also uneasy around a person who is grieving because they don’t know what to say or do. I am no expert by any means, but I will give the following advice:

For those of you who are grieving the loss of a loved one (human or animal), it is OK to feel whatever feelings you are having. And it is OK to express those feelings. Find someone to talk to and who will not judge you. For those of you in the presence of someone grieving, most importantly, do not judge the person. Everyone grieves differently and for different reasons (even if it’s for an animal). You may not understand the reasons, but you don’t have to. Just be there and listen. Don’t tell someone how he/she should feel or that they need to just move on or get over it (especially if it’s a pet since people tend to be less understanding in those situations). If you feel like you need to say something, just say “I’m sorry” or “I’m thinking of you.” Trust me, those words help more than any advice you could offer.

So if you are currently grieving the loss of a pet (or human) or have in the past, I truly am sorry. And please just always remember to be kind and don’t judge. Even the rat (or lizard) that may totally disgust you, may be the light of someone else’s life that has just gone out. Remember that that person is hurting and you can either be the person who helps or the person who hurts someone even more. It’s up to you how you react and respond.





Responsible Pet Ownership: A Big Job That Everyone Needs to Do

Having a pet can be one of the most rewarding and fulfilling experiences in life. You can form bonds that can literally last a lifetime, especially if you have a tortoise or other long-lived species. Opening your home and your heart to an animal is wonderful. However, it is also an enormous responsibility. Being a responsible pet owner doesn’t just consist of making sure your pet has food and water. In fact, responsible pet ownership should begin before the animal ever comes home with you.  360

The first step to becoming a responsible pet owner is planning. Do you already have a specific type of animal in mind that you would like to have? Or perhaps you are looking for some type of companion animal, but are not really sure what type of animal would best suit your lifestyle? Either way, one of the most important aspects of the planning process is research. Every animal has different care requirements. Even different dog breeds have different needs.

Before you decide to get a pet ask yourself the following questions.

  • Do I have time to care for an animal? For example, if you work or travel a lot, it probably is not a good idea to have a dog or bird or other animal that requires a lot of attention. Some animals need more attention and affection than others. It is not fair to the animal to be deprived of that because you are unable to give the necessary attention it needs. In some cases, lack of attention can even lead to behavioral problems, which let’s be honest, you probably won’t have time to deal with that either.  If you lead a busy lifestyle, there are plenty of lower maintenance pets out there that you can still form a bond with, but are also still happy to have their alone time while you are out and about.
  • Am I financially stable enough to pay for food, veterinary care (both preventative and emergency), toys (or other types of enrichment), and any other regular maintenance items the animal will require? PETS COST MONEY! Period. Food can be expensive. Veterinary care, especially anything unexpected, can be very pricey as well. If you are not independently wealthy and instead live on a budget then you need to decide how you are willing to spend your money. Is the animal’s care more of a priority than going out to dinner or buying a new pair of shoes? Can you afford decent pet food that will provide proper nutrition and still be able to pay your bills?  Do you have and are you willing to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars if your pet requires surgery or sustains a severe injury?  You should be willing and able to provide any reasonable amount of care that your pet may need.
  • Do I have enough space for the animal?

    Hubrecht is slightly larger than my thumbnail.

    A great dane or a full grown sulcata tortoise will obviously need much more space than a bearded dragon or a cat. Make sure everyone can have a comfortable living space.

  • Will the animal grow significantly? This is mostly relevant to reptiles. A newborn sulcata might weigh all of about 15-20 grams. A red tailed boa might be a few inches long as a hatchling. And then they grow up…
  • Are there any specific habitat requirements that the animal will need such as temperature, sunlight or UV exposure, humidity, access to water for soaking or bathing, hiding areas, specific substrates, a water filtration system, etc? Herps are the perfect example for this question. Bearded dragons, crested geckos, and chameleons are all lizards and all have completely different habitat requirements. My electric bill is outrageous. I keep the house cooler for my frogs (especially the tinc), but to compensate for that, I have high wattage heat lamps on the tortoises and bearded dragons so that they are comfortable too. My torts, turtles, and beardies all also require UV light. Since I can’t have them outside all of the time, they also have UV lamps on top of their enclosures. All of these lights are on timers since my work schedule varies. At one point, I had to stop taking rescues because I had no more available electrical outlets in my home and if I had plugged in one more power strip, my circuit breaker probably would have exploded. I even had frogs in my kitchen because space was so tight (BTW, I ate out a lot during that time)
  • What type of energy level does the animal have and will I be able to give the animal enough exercise or room to run/move? A monitor lizard needs to move around much more than a pac man frog. A border collie generally has more energy and needs to run/exercise more than an English bulldog.

    Phoebe lounging on her couch. There are definitely animals out there with lower energy levels.

    A puppy or kitten is more energetic (and mischievous) than its adult counterpart. Also if the animal needs to come out of its enclosure for exercise, do you have time to spare for supervised play time or a space for the animal to exercise unsupervised?

  • Who will be providing the day to day care and maintenance for the animal? When I worked in the pet store, customers would constantly ask questions like “What would be the best type of pet for my five year old?” If you are buying a pet for your child, please do not be one of those idiot parents who think that they will never have to deal with the animal and that it will be a great way to teach your child about responsibility. Your kid is a kid no matter how responsible your little angel is and at some point you will end up having to feed, clean, and exercise the animal. If you are not willing to help your child with animal care and set a good example then don’t get a pet.
  • What is the life expectancy of the animal? A hamster lives about 2 years. A cat lives 15-20 years. A large parrot about 60-80 years. And then there are giant tortoises… If you’re a commitment-phobe, get the hamster.
  • Is anyone in the household allergic to the type of animal you want to get?  I can not even count how many times people have told me that they have to get rid of their pets because they are allergic to them.  Not to be Captain Obvious here, but that’s something you should find out BEFORE bringing an animal into your home. If you’re not sure or have never had exposure to a certain type of animal, go to a shelter, a pet store, or friend’s house and spend more than five minutes around the type of animal you’re thinking of bringing home.  The animal has no control over someone’s allergies and should not have to be bounced from home to home because you did not exercise a little common sense.

All of these questions should be asked and answered before bringing home any type of animal, even a cat or dog. Once you’ve answered these questions and have determined that you can provide proper care, then please obtain your pet responsibly. I am a huge proponent of adopting rescue animals. Most of those animals are in need of homes because their previous humans didn’t do any research or planning and ultimately decided that they couldn’t care for the pet for one reason or another. Other times, animals end up in need of homes because circumstances change (i.e. their humans passing away or becoming too ill to care for them).


I adopted Matilda through a friend from the local herp society

There are plenty of rescues out there. You just need to look for them. And usually you don’t have to look too hard. Almost every major urban area in the U.S. has a local herp society. Even if the herp society doesn’t have any animals for adoption, they can often point you in the direction of someone who does. Some shelters take in exotic animals too. Here in Florida, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission holds exotic pet amnesty day events throughout the state. People who have exotic pets that do not want them anymore can drop their animals off at a specified location with no questions asked. The animals are then examined by veterinarians. Once they are given a clean bill of health, the animals can be adopted. You have to fill out an application and be pre-approved to adopt from these events, but it is a great way to give a forever home to an exotic animal in need. If you are looking to adopt cats and dogs, there are thousands of rescues throughout the country, many even being breed specific.

If you decide to buy from a breeder, buy from a responsible breeder. A responsible breeder should be able to tell you who the animal’s parents are, exactly how old the animal is (birthdate, hatch date), specific care requirements, and any known genetic health issues in the animal’s lineage. Reputation is also very important when choosing a breeder. The herp community is especially good about giving feedback on the reputations of breeders. There are many outlets to find reputable breeders for the type of animal you are looking for. Check out a species specific blog or go to your local reptile show and ask around. Also be sure to buy captive bred animals. There are very rare cases for experienced herpers to have wild caught animals, but for the average hobbyist, you should not be contributing to the depletion of wild population numbers for any reason, especially the pet trade. Again, buy responsibly!

And finally, ‘tis the season for gift giving and pets make popular gifts. Giving a pet as a gift may seem like a grand gesture, and may initially be well-received. However, if all of the above information is not taken into consideration prior to giving a pet to someone, the animal and the new pet owner may end up in a very unhappy situation. Though impulse buying plagues the pet trade throughout the year, it is much more prevalent during the holidays. We want to see someone’s eyes light up at the sight of a new pet, but that initial reaction may not last forever. Reality sets in after a while when there’s poop to clean and maintenance costs begin to add up. Please make sure you buy the right gift for your loved one and make sure that gift will always been seen as a gift and not a burden.

I realize that I am being rather blunt here and perhaps even a bit harsh, but there is a reason why shelters and rescue groups all over the country are at maximum capacity.  We need to understand that these animals are relying on us for survival and that they are not novelties or conversation pieces that we can easily dispose of when we tire of them.  They are living, breathing, emotional creatures who deserve respect and the best care we can possibly give them.  Please remember that before choosing to take on such an important responsibility.


For More Adoption Info:

FWC Amnesty Day Events

South Florida Herpetological Society Adoptions

Reputable Bearded Dragon & Crested Gecko Breeders:

Allgood Dragons

Emily’s Geckos

Cucumbers and the Gardening Nincompoop

My little cucumber!

My little cucumber!

I definitely still consider myself a novice gardener. I would never presume to give any kind of advice on gardening, but I do like to write about my experiences with the hope that other beginners can learn from my mistakes and incredible ignorance (and give experienced gardeners a good laugh at my expense). So with that being said, I’m happy to say I finally have some real bonafide cucumbers growing in my little garden!

I’ve been trying to grow cucumbers for well over a year now and have had one set back after another. The first time around, I was still in my “black thumb” stage where I just killed all plants in my presence with no effort whatsoever. The next plants burned to death in the scorching Florida heat (and I shamefully admit I forgot to water them quite often). Then I decided to try again and at that point I actually got some decent looking plants going. Hooray! And then the aphids came. They ate. And they destroyed.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m fairly persistent, so I planted more cucumber seeds. This time around the plants grew and grew. I did have a small aphid invasion, but I fought back and saved my plants. And then the plants continued to grow and grow. I started to see those gorgeous little yellow flowers bloom. Yet I saw no actual cucumbers. I was perplexed, but in my ignorance I just assumed that someday little cucumbers would just start showing up and then grow into big cucumbers.

My little spikey thing

My little spikey thing

About two weeks ago, I thought that day had finally come. I saw this adorable, spiky looking little green thing with a yellow blossom on the end. Woo hoo! Cucumbers! …NOT! Several days after my little spikey thing appeared, it shriveled up and fell off. I was heartbroken. Why did my cucumber die? A day or two later, I happened upon an article about cucumbers that someone posted on Twitter. I read the article and it was interesting, but when I scrolled to the bottom of the page I saw an advertisement for another article that had to do with the difference between male and female flowers on the cucumber plant. What?!? Male and female flowers? Was this something I needed to know about? Why yes, yes it was.

Female flower - you can see the beginnings of a small cucumber at the base of the flower

Female flower – you can see the beginnings of a small cucumber at the base of the flower

I took biology in high school and college. I learned about pollination. I even planted some flowers in my garden specifically to attract bees, you know, those small, buzzing creatures that pollinate. It just never occurred to me that the plants would have male and female flowers and that pollination would have to occur for cucumbers to grow. Dumb rookie mistake. After a little research, I learned the difference between the two flowers and also researched how to pollinate the flowers myself.

Male flower - just the stem is present at the base (receptacle) of the flower

Male flower – just the stem is present at the base (receptacle) of the flower

Even though I have some lovely zinnias and cosmos growing, I haven’t really seen any bees. So I found that if your garden is lacking in natural pollinators, you may have to do it yourself.

I went to the craft store, spent way too much time examining each and every paint brush, and then bought a small soft bristled paint brush for my pollination. I followed the suggested directions and lightly turned the tip of the paint brush in several male flowers to make sure I got a good amount of pollen on the brush. Then I gently twisted the tip of the brush in the center of the female flower. After that, all I could do was wait. I’ve been checking my spikey baby cucumbers every day and they are still there and still growing!

Retrieving pollen from the male flower

Retrieving pollen from the male flower

The yellowish dust on the tip of the brush is pollen from the male flower

The yellowish dust on the tip of the brush is pollen from the male flower

Some of you are probably wondering why I’ve been trying so hard to grow cucumbers. They’re easy enough to find at any grocery store. One reason is that I love cucumbers. I love the taste. I love the smell. They’re wonderful. I also always have them in the house because I have some very picky birds. Cucumbers are one of the only types of produce I can get all three of them to eat. They are also one of the only types of produce (besides greens) that I can get my lizards to eat. The lizards don’t need them, but I like to throw a treat in their food dishes every now and again. And the tortoises love them. As I’ve said before, I don’t feed the tortoises fruits and veggies too often, but as with the lizards, I like to give them something extra special once in a while. Cucumbers are also not quite as heavy in sugar as some other types of produce. High sugar fruits and veggies are not good for the tortoises (please see my “Happy, Healthy Eating” post for more info). I even give my turtles some cucumbers to snack on once in a while. So basically everyone in my house eats them except the frogs and the tarantula.

Another future cucumber!

Another future cucumber!

The other reason is that it was also a matter of pride I suppose. I’ve always heard that cucumbers are easy to grow and I was unsuccessful so many times. My pride was wounded and I felt like a failure. I needed a win. So I hope this will help some beginners out there. Even if you’re not growing cucumbers specifically, at least understand that you shouldn’t give up. Growing your own garden is so rewarding. Regardless of whether you’re growing flowers, fruits, vegetables, etc., you will eventually get to see the fruits of your labor (sorry about the pun, but it was right there). It will give you a sense of pride to grow something so beautiful, possibly tasty, and good for the environment. As always, good luck with your garden!

Open Letter to Herpers

Open Letter to Herpers

Dear Herp Friends,

I don’t need to tell any of you that the animals that we are so incredibly passionate about are feared and hated by a large majority of the human population. On a daily basis we have to endure hearing ignorant comments like “The only good snake is a dead snake (or lizard or frog, etc.).” We also endure the eye rolls, furrowed brows, grimaced faces, scoffs, and whatever other displays of disgust people want to throw our way on a regular basis. It gets frustrating. In fact, it gets REALLY DAMN INFURIATING! I recently had someone tell me that if she ever saw my tarantula she’d step on it and kill it (I know, I know, it’s not a herp, but still…). It cut me to the core. I, as a grown woman, was so hurt and angry that I actually almost started to cry! At work! Where I’m a manager! People don’t get us. I get that. I really do because I am right there with you.


I’ve recently been very dismayed when scrolling through comments on various blogs and Facebook pages. There are a lot of people out there who are not educated in the ways of herpetology. They make ignorant comments. New hobbyists ask stupid questions. Again, I get it.

The reasons why I’ve been so disgusted with many of my fellow herpers though are the nasty, condescending, and downright rude responses these uneducated folks get from some of you. You need to remember that there was a time when you did not know so much about a particular species. How would you have felt back then, if you had asked a question, seeking help and wanting to learn more, and had been made to feel like a complete idiot? It’s disheartening. And when you respond this way, it may make you feel better to know more than someone else or that you sure showed that dumbass, but what you’re actually doing is not only damaging our reputations as a group, but also making many animals suffer in the long run.

I recently read a blog post from an individual seeking help regarding the condition of a pet tortoise. In reading the description of the tortoise’s care, it was very, very clear that the individual had absolutely no clue how to care for a tortoise properly. However, rather than trying to provide helpful advice, people blasted this individual and pretty much said “congratulations, you’ve killed your tortoise”. I was horrified! Does anyone think that telling the person how stupid he/she is will get the tortoise any help? I’ve got news for you, it doesn’t. It’s also going to discourage others from asking questions because they don’t want a bunch of strangers telling them how dumb they are either. When you make negative comments you are turning people away, allowing their fears and ignorance to continue. You make us all look bad. You are putting an animal’s life at risk because you’ve discouraged someone from asking questions on how to provide or seek proper care for it. The negativity has to stop! We get enough of that from every non-herper in existence. We need to EDUCATE people! Take our passion and make it theirs as well! All I ask of you is this: next time you see or hear a question or comment you don’t like, just stop, take a breath, and then remember how much you love your herps and then make those crazy people love them too (or at the very least not hate them).  And give some helpful care/ husbandry advice.  It may save the life of a herp someday.


Julie from The Tortoise Garden

Aphids: The Bane of My Garden’s Existence

Infested hibiscus blossom

Infested hibiscus blossom

Aphids! BAH!  I’m sure that almost every gardener, no matter the size of the garden or the experience level of the gardener, can feel my pain.  Earlier this spring, I lost nearly all of my plants to these little devils.  I had beautiful straight eight cucumbers blossoming and within days they were completely destroyed.  My green beans suffered the same fate.  My hibiscus was so infested I decided I had no other option but to basically cut the infested branches off and dispose of them far, far away from my dying garden.  Now please remember that I am still a novice gardener, so I didn’t immediately recognize the signs during the first attack.  This is part of the reason why I couldn’t save most of my plants the first time around.

Once I finally did realize what was going on, I decided that because my plants are meant for food consumption, I did not want to use any heavy duty pesticides.  I stay away from everything with pyrethrins, not only because of the tortoises consuming the plants, but also because I have cats.  My days as a vet tech have completely turned me off to all things pyrethrins.  Though pyrethrins are used in many flea and tick preventatives, they can be extremely dangerous, especially to cats, causing tremors, grand mal seizures, and in extreme cases, death.  Having spent most of my vet tech-ing days in emergency animal hospitals, I have unfortunately had to witness cats (and even some dogs) having adverse reactions to this poison and it’s heartbreaking to say the least.  Unknowing pet owners are trying to do right by their pets and end up causing severe harm.  So, I don’t want to even present an opportunity for my cats to be exposed to anything containing pyrethrins. Moreover, pyrethrins are highly toxic to bees.  I specifically planted certain flowers in the garden to attract bees.  I’m certainly not going to spray something that’s going to kill them.

I wanted to keep it natural.  A friend suggested using neem oil.  I gave it a try on the plants that had been completely infested.  I shamefully admit that I did not read all of the directions.  I went about spraying neem oil on everything, including my hibiscus.  The following day, by the time I came home from work, the hibiscus looked like a few sad little sticks.  All of the leaves had shriveled and fallen off.  Had I read all of the directions, I would’ve read the part about not using neem oil on certain plants like hibiscus (way to kill your plant dumbass!).  Additionally, I was apparently a little heavy handed with the neem oil on the rest of the plants too.  So not only did I have a hibiscus that was rather reminiscent of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, I also had a bunch of other half eaten, half burned plants.  In a nutshell, it was an epic gardening fail.

Garden 065

Brown snail making its way toward my greens

I had to dispose of everything except some chicory, which might I say, is one hearty little green.  I also decided to keep the hibiscus and hope for the best.  Believe it or not, the hibiscus actually survived and eventually began providing the tortoises with some pretty tasty snacks.  I also planted lots of new crops which started out with a bang.  And then all of a sudden, those nasty little critters appeared again and this time they brought reinforcements – SNAILS!  UGH!!

What’s an inexperienced gardener to do?!?  Luckily, I caught the attack much earlier this time, but having the two armies unite against me was more than my poor plants could bear.  Armed with my neem oil (with ALL directions read) and a lighter spraying hand, I went on the defensive again.  I caught the infestation much earlier this time around and my counterattack seemed to have some effect on the aphids, but not as much as I would’ve liked.  And I still had those pesky little snails to deal with.  So I took to the internet to do some research.

I found all kinds of information on beneficial insects to address the aphid problem.  I also found some natural remedy suggestions for the snails.  As far as the beneficial insects went, I read that the larvae of lacewings and ladybugs are actually the most voracious.  So I ordered some lacewing larvae online and when I received them, I read the directions (all of them) and placed them in my garden to go to war.  Much to my disappointment the larvae thing didn’t work.  By the next day, I couldn’t spot a single larva on any of the plants.  I did, however, see a bunch of ants.  Now, I’m not really schooled in the way of entomology so I really have no clue if the lacewing larvae disappearance was a coincidence or if the ants were behind the whole thing.  And as for the snails, I opened up a bottle of beer, poured a couple pans full, and strategically placed them in the infested areas as suggested.  Apparently the snails in my garden do not have a taste for brown ales.  So after days of trying unsuccessful remedies, my garden was once again on the brink of extinction.  I reluctantly resorted to an organic snail and slug repellant which worked well.  The aphids eventually left once their meal ticket was gone.  And the battle was lost.

Now, I’m not really sure if I’m optimistically persistent or just insane, but I decided to try my hand at gardening again.  I planted more seeds, cut off more braches, and kept a vigilant watch for the first sign of any unwanted guests.  This brings us to my current situation.  Those scheming little monsters are back again!  This time I spotted them quickly.  As soon as I spotted them, I started spraying neem oil again.  I didn’t spray as heavily, but I made sure to spray each and every leaf of my cucumbers, both top and bottom.  The first round went to me this time!  When I checked my plants the following day, almost all of them were dead!  For those few that survived, I shot some more neem oil on them for good measure.

Some of the dead aphids on a cucumber leaf

Some of the dead aphids on a cucumber leaf

For the most part they seem to be kept at bay right now.  Unfortunately, we are getting the typical daily South Florida summer rain showers, so I’ve been lightly spraying every day or two just to make sure they don’t think I’m slacking off or something.  Additionally, since I built the raised garden bed, I haven’t spotted any snails.  I’m not sure if it’s because they can’t get to the plants or if it has something to do with the linseed oil I treated the wood with or if it’s entirely coincidental.  But whatever the reason, I’m certainly not complaining.  This war is a constant one for which I will have to continue to try different plans of attack.  I’d like to give the beneficial insects a try again.  I’ve planted some flowers with the hope of attracting some to the garden so that I don’t have to buy any more.  I have a bunch of reptiles and amphibians in my house, so I have enough bugs to buy already (for food).  I don’t need to add ladybugs and lacewings to the list too!  At this point, I’ll just have to see how it goes.  For those of you having the same troubles, stay strong and keep gardening!!!

Enrichment: Providing Mental Well-Being for Your Tortoise

What is enrichment?  The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) Behavior Scientific Advisory Group (BAG) defines enrichment as “a dynamic process for enhancing animal environments within the context of the animals’ behavioral biology and natural history.”  But what the heck does that actually mean, right?  Most zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, especially those that are AZA accredited here in the United States, are focusing more and more on enrichment.  Basically they want to be able to stimulate captive animals to exhibit the same behaviors as they would out in the wild.  Stimuli can be anything from types of foods offered, to various scents in the habitats, to noises, to exposure to other species, to puzzles and toys, and so on.

There are an infinite number of ways to provide enrichment for animals.  Those of you who have cats and dogs probably provide enrichment all the time without even realizing it.  Do you ever give your cat a toy mouse to play with?  How about giving your dog a treat or a rope toy?  Toys can hone your pet’s hunting or foraging skills.  The various smells and taste of treats or catnip stimulate your pet’s senses too.

301Exotic animals in captivity require these types of stimuli as well, regardless of whether they reside in a zoo or in your home.  Even if you bought your tortoise or other reptile in a pet store, it is not domesticated and still has wild instincts.  Your exotic pet can develop behavioral problems and possibly even have a shorter life span if not provided with enrichment.

So the really big question here is what kind of enrichment can you provide for a tortoise?  If you walk into a pet store it’s easy to find toys for cats, dogs, birds, and even small animals like hamsters and guinea pigs.  But what about reptiles?  They don’t exactly chase catnip filled toy mice or play fetch.

But there are plenty of ways to enrich reptiles and stimulate natural behaviors.  Whether you have a baby tortoise in a glass aquarium or table top enclosure or you have a larger tortoise in an outdoor enclosure, one of the easiest ways to provide enrichment is to change the habitat intermittently.  If the enclosure has plants or a hide box, occasionally move them to different areas of the enclosure.  It gives the animal an opportunity to explore a changed environment.  I also like to make the substrate different depths or form slight mounds of substrate for them to climb over.  You don’t want to make the mounds too steep or high though.  We don’t want to cause the tortoise to accidentally flip over.  Providing various types of substrates in the enclosure is also great enrichment.  However, do use caution with the types of substrates you provide.  Some substrates can cause impaction or choking hazards.

You can also stimulate your tortoise’s senses by providing a variety of greens, grasses, weeds, and herbs in his or her diet.  I like to add fragrant herbs like cilantro, parsley or dill to the regular diet.  Cilantro is particularly popular in my house, not just with the tortoises, but also with the bearded dragons and birds.  Edible flowers are also a great form of enrichment.

Kada snacking on the first marigold to bloom in the Tortoise Garden

Kada snacking on the first marigold to bloom in the Tortoise Garden

They stimulate senses of taste and smell like the herbs, and are also bright and colorful which are very attractive to tortoises.  I frequently feed hibiscus and marigold.  I also have some nasturtium growing in the raised garden bed that will be ready to feed out in a few weeks.  If you have your tortoise in an outdoor habitat, try planting some greens, grasses, or edible flowers right in the enclosure for your tortoise to graze on leisurely.  Food enrichment can also be provided by changing the size or shape of the pieces of food given to the tortoise.  You can change things up by sometimes breaking or cutting food into smaller pieces and then other times leaving the food in larger pieces or chunks.

Some of the cat toys they enjoy pushing around

Some of the cat toys they enjoy pushing around

While most people wouldn’t blink at the idea of giving a cat or dog a toy to play with, I often get side-ways glances and raised eyebrows when I tell people I buy toys for my tortoises.I make sure to buy sturdy dog and cat toys so that they can’t eat or break them.  KONG dog and cat toys seem to work well for them.  I like to put some small treats like corn kernels in the KONG and let them figure out how to get the treats out.  One of the cat toys has a rattle inside of it that they like to push around and play with too.  I even put the toys in the bath tub with them sometimes so they have something to keep them occupied while soaking (my little ones seem to get bored after about 7-8 minutes of being in the bath).

Bath time with the toys

Bath time with the toys

You should always supervise your pet’s time with toys just in case the toy breaks or your pet is actually able to bite or chew the toy apart.  If you have a larger tortoise like a sulcata or aldabra, you can also try giving them a Boomer Ball.  They are a little pricey, but very sturdy for larger, stronger animals.

Behavioral conditioning helps stimulate cognitive brain function or basically keeps the animal’s brain active.  I have begun target training with my tortoises.  I did this for a couple reasons.  The first is that I know it’s a great form of enrichment for my tortoises.  The second is that, let’s face it, when my tortoises are full grown, I won’t be able to just pick them up and move them if I need to.  I have to have a way to get them from point A to point B that won’t break my back.  Because they’re small right now, I simply use a solid black pen with different colored pencil erasers as my target stick.  I use a pink eraser for Tambara and a yellow eraser for Kada.  I hold the target stick in place and say “(the tortoise’s name), target”.  When the tortoise goes to the target stick and touches her beak to the tip of the target stick she gets a kernel of corn as a reward.  I only use positive reinforcement training with all of my animals.  If she does the wanted behavior, she gets rewarded.  If she doesn’t do the behavior, she doesn’t get a reward, period.  I never shout, make scary noises, or hit my animals.  Negative reactions only cause your animals to be fearful of you and can damage or destroy any type of bond you have or may have in the future.  I will provide more detailed training information in a future post, but know that if you do want to train your tortoise or other reptile, it takes PATIENCE.  Reptile brains don’t work like mammal and bird brains.  They don’t react as quickly and you need to understand that to be successful.

And lastly, if you can socialize your tortoise, that is also a wonderful way to enrich him or her.  Though they are safely separated by a mesh enclosure, my tortoises spend almost all of their outside time with my bearded dragon, Matilda.  It’s great for all three of them to experience being around another species.

Kada and Delia relaxing on the patio

Kada and Delia relaxing on the patio

They also get to encounter a variety of wildlife when they hang out on the patio.  I have a squirrel, three cardinals, two doves, and what seems like hundreds of anoles that come to visit daily.  I also get the occasional snake or frog that stops by to get a drink after I water the garden.  The sights, sounds, and smells of other animals stimulates their senses and their minds in ways that no toy or food ever could.

Most zoos construct enrichment plans that detail what the goal of providing the enrichment is.  It’s not necessary to be that detail-oriented with your tortoise at home, but it’s still a good idea to make sure you provide a variety of stimuli.  It’s very easy to get into a habit of just giving different types of food and thinking that’s enough enrichment, but it’s not.  You want to stimulate the whole mind and body so that your tortoise stays happy and healthy.  If you have other enrichment ideas, please share with us.  I always like to hear about tortoises having fun.


Kada visiting her neighbor, Odin, the bearded dragon

For more information on enrichment and enrichment items please visit:

AZA Enrichment Page

Boomer Balls

KONG Animal Toys

Garden Expansion: Part 2

Completed Garden Bed

Materials Used:

6 ea – 1″ x 6″ x 8′ common boards (long sides)

6 ea – 1″ x 6″ x 25 ¼” common boards (short sides)

4 ea – 4″ x 4″ x 2′ posts (legs)

2 ea – 4″ x 4″ x 15 ¾” posts (inner support posts)

4 ea – 3″ heavy duty wheels

100 ea – #8 x 2″ wood screws

16 ea – #12 x 2″ wood screws (for wheels)

1 can of boiled linseed oil

1 old sock (any cotton rag can be used to apply oil)


electric drill

Phillips head screwdriver

tape measure

When I purchased the lumber, I had the stores cut some of the wood for me.  Usually they will do this for free.  I had them cut the plywood in half lengthwise giving me two 2’ x 8’ pieces.  I had them cut the 4” x 4” posts into the two different sizes needed.  And I had the common board cut in half from 16’ to 8’ in length.  To make the smaller pieces of common board, I used my jigsaw at home and cut some of the 8’ boards into the size needed for the short sides.  Garden Box 005I also used the jigsaw to cut the corners of the plywood.  The corners need to be cut out so that the 4” x 4” legs can come through the bottom.

Putting the garden bed together only took me a few hours in total, but I had to build it over the course of three days.  The South Florida heat was a bit much and I had to wait until about 6:30 pm and work until dark so that I wouldn’t suffer heat exhaustion or heat stroke. I plan on expanding even more, however, it will have to wait until the temperature is a little cooler.

Once all of the wood was cut into the appropriate sizes, I started by treating all of the lumber with a coat of boiled linseed oil.  I used an old sock (cut in half) to rub the oil onto the wood.  You should apply the linseed oil going with the grain of the wood, just as you would if you were applying a stain or polyurethane.  Again, please follow all directions on the can of linseed oil for proper handling and disposal.  It is highly combustible and we want to avoid any serious injuries from occurring.  I allowed the wood to dry for about an hour.

Garden Box 006For the construction, I started by nailing the long common boards to the 2’ post pieces (legs) to construct the long sides of the bed.  Next, I attached the bottom of the bed to the long sides.  Then I attached the short sides of the bed.  Before turning the bed right side up, I attached the wheels to the legs of the bed.  Lastly, once the bed was turned over, I attached the 15 ¾” pieces of the 4” x 4” post on the long sides of the bed on the inside to give some extra support.  Garden Box 002If you are making a smaller bed, the extra support probably isn’t necessary, but I would recommend adding support for any size bed 8’ or longer in length.

Once the garden bed was constructed, I filled it with a mixture of organic raised garden bed soil and organic potting soil.  I chose to do a mixture because I’ve had really good luck with the potting soil in the past, but never used the raised garden bed mixture.  It was a bit of an experiment, but I wanted to see how the mix would work.  Garden Box 004Finally, I transplanted some mesclun mix greens, cucumbers, and green beans that I had growing already and also planted some new seeds.  I hope these instructions and tips help you either get a new garden started or expand the garden you already have.  Good luck!

Garden Expansion: Part 1

I’m not a carpenter by any means.  In truth, unless it comes in a box from IKEA, the odds of something being constructed correctly by me are pretty slim.  But, the tortoises are growing and so are their appetites.  My little red pots simply aren’t enough anymore.  So living the apartment life with no yard, I decided to construct some raised garden beds for my patio.  I am very fortunate to have a large patio, so I have space to make bigger beds.  To prepare for my project, I did a little online research to see how other folks built their raised garden beds.  There were so many great garden beds out there so I borrowed ideas from a few different sources (see below for links) and drew up a diagram of my own basic design.

Choosing the type of wood to use was probably the biggest decision I had to make with this project.  Cedar would have been my first choice.  It is strong, looks beautiful, and is least likely to succumb to mold, rotting, and pests.  However, I’m on a budget and cedar is at least 2 – 3 times more expensive than my other options.  I looked into other woods such as pine, oak, and poplar as well.  In the end though, I decided to go cheap since this was my first DIY garden bed.  I didn’t want to spend a lot of money and then find I didn’t like the design or make a mistake during construction (odds were high for the latter scenario).  So for the sides, I purchased common boards made of spruce.  To be perfectly honest, I have absolutely no idea what type of wood the post & plywood are made of, but they were fairly cheap too.

I also did some price comparisons.  Be sure to shop around for the best prices.  Because I spent a little extra time doing this, I ended up saving a significant amount of money.  For example, at Store A I was given a quote of $43.92 for the 4”x4”x8’ post I used to make the legs of the bed.  I was told that 4”x4”x8’ posts that are untreated are uncommon and that it would have to be special ordered.  However, when I went to Store B, I found an untreated 4”x4”x8’ post for $8.77.  Yes, it was that big of a price difference and apparently they’re not as uncommon as I was told.  There was a big price difference in the common board also.  At Store B (where the post was cheaper), common boards measuring 1” x 6” x 8’ were $15.12 each.  At Store A common boards measuring 1” x 6” x 16’ were only $10.99, giving me twice as much wood for about $4.00 less per board.  There was even a $10.00 price difference in the plywood from the two stores.  It’s definitely worth your time to do some price checking.

As I’ve said in previous posts, one of my main reasons for starting this garden was to eliminate, or at least drastically decrease, the possibility of chemicals in my food.  For this reason, I chose to use untreated wood for the garden box.  After a little research, I found that treating the wood with boiled linseed oil is suggested as a natural alternative to using treated wood or stains as a protective coating.  Linseed oil won’t protect the wood as well, but it will help and it does bring out some of the natural color of the wood.  If you do use boiled linseed oil, please follow all directions carefully.  Linseed oil is HIGHLY FLAMMABLE and can cause combustion if not handled and stored properly.  So while I have the advantage of having a natural protective coating on the wood, I have the disadvantage of higher risk of rotting wood.  This was another reason why I didn’t want to spend too much on the materials.  It’s likely that in a few years, I will have to replace the rotted wood.

In addition to the wood, I also purchased 100 wood screws (#8 x 2”), 1 can of boiled linseed oil, 4 heavy duty 3” wheels, and a new jigsaw (my new toy!).  I also had a couple items that I used from home.  I used an old sock (cut in half) to apply the linseed oil, 16 #12 x 2” woods screws for the wheels, an electric drill, and my trusty Phillips head screwdriver that my dad passed down to me.  Once I had all of my materials I was ready to build!  Check out how I constructed the garden box and see pictures in part 2!

Thank you to these folks for giving me some ideas and tips for my garden beds:

Garden Plans Free

Happy, Healthy Eating

Kada really digs in to her pellets

Kada really digs in to her pellets

There are many different options for feeding your tortoise.  There are commercial pelleted diets and there are more natural diets.  I’m not completely against feeding the pelleted food.  There are a lot of vitamins and minerals packed into those pellets.  Many animals, even cats and dogs, do not receive proper nutrition.  So, if pellets help you provide a balanced diet for your tortoise then go for it.  However, along with the vitamins and minerals, there is a lot of other unnecessary stuff packed into those pellets as well.  Some of them are too high in fat and protein to be fed regularly.  Because of this, I do not recommend that commercial foods be a main staple of your tortoise’s diet.  I feed my tortoises Mazuri tortoise diet about 2-3 times per month.  I feed it for two reasons.  First, simply because they love it.  My tortoises like to eat (even things that aren’t food!), but they inhale the pellets. It’s like watching a kid enjoy a giant ice cream cone.  And second, it provides an additional type of food enrichment for them.  Commercial diets should not be the only source of food for your tortoise.  Again, mine only get some a couple times a month even though I feed them 3-4 times per week.

The more natural approach (and more healthy approach in my opinion) is to feed a natural diet.  Greens, grasses, hays, weeds, flowers, and herbs are types of foods that a tortoise would eat in the wild.  Currently I am growing a variety of greens in my garden.  I have a mesclun mix, arugula, red winter kale, endive, and romaine lettuce growing.  Dark, leafy greens are more nutritious.  However, greens such as spinach are high in iron and should be fed sparingly to avoid causing any health problems.  Dandelion greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and Swiss chard are all good options that are relatively easy to find in a grocery store.  I also have hibiscus, marigolds, cilantro, dill, and parsley growing to add to the greens for enrichment.  There are several edible flowers that are relatively easy to grow at home, even on a patio or in a window box.  See my “Links” page for a list of safe plants and another list of toxic plants to stay away from.

Tambara digging into a fresh hibiscus flower

Tambara munching on a hibiscus flower

The tortoises also have access to hay every day, but I rarely observe them eating it.  I do still have to buy hay.  I definitely don’t have the means to grow any such crop on my patio, though I wish I did.  I most often feed them orchard hay, but will occasionally change it up with timothy, Bermuda, or brome hay.  You can buy bags of mixed hay at your local pet store.   If you happen to live near a feed store (supplies for larger animals like horses), check them out as you may be able to find more varieties of hay.

My little ones also get the occasional bits of vegetables as treats.  I have green beans currently sprouting.  Sulcatas and most other tortoises should not get treats like that too often though, especially anything too high in sugar.  These sweeter treats can actually damage or destroy the good gut flora in their digestive tracts.  Without this gut flora they will not be able to properly digest food which can lead to severe health problems.  The diet should be high in fiber and low in sugar.  So it’s best to avoid fruits and choose veggies carefully if you do want to give a special treat.

As far as supplements, this is a rather debatable topic among tortoise enthusiasts.  Some feel that if the tortoise is fed a proper diet, supplements are completely unnecessary.  Others believe that supplements should be added to food regularly.  I, personally, am in the middle.  The amount of supplements you add to your tortoise’s food will depend on the rest of the diet being fed.  Juveniles and females carrying eggs will need a little more calcium than adult males or females not carrying eggs.  How they get the vitamins is up to you.  I add a light dusting of Superveggie supplement powder by Repashy to their greens about 2-3 times per month.  Though I still give a supplement, it’s not too often.  Mine don’t seem to mind the powder on their food either.  I have heard from other tortoise keepers that their torts won’t eat if there is a powdered supplement on the food.  You might have to experiment a bit if you find you have a picky eater.

Garden 026

No need for a big yard…just soil, water, sunshine, seeds, and love

The main reason why I started my garden was so that I can know exactly what is going on the food while it’s growing.  One suggestion to keep in mind if you do buy greens from the grocery store is to try to buy organic.  I know it may be a bit more expensive, but it will also be much better for your tortoises’ overall health.  While the amount of pesticides and fertilizers in produce may not be toxic to a 150 lb human, the amount of those pesticides and fertilizers could be toxic to a 150 gram baby tortoise, especially if that produce is 50%-90% of its diet.  And yes, I do realize that there are organic pesticides that can be used on organic crops.  However, many of them are still safer than pesticides that are not organic.  If you have the space to start your own garden, I strongly urge you to.  You don’t even need a big yard.  You can grow lettuce in pots on your patio or even grow some microgreens in small pots inside your house or apartment.  It will be so much healthier for your tortoise and it’s fun!

Some of the most important things to remember when it comes to nutrition for your tortoise are to provide variety, focus on the healthy stuff, stay away from sweets like fruit, try to buy organic, and make sure you are providing a good balance of vitamins and minerals in their diets.  Of course, if you have any questions or concerns, you should always contact a veterinarian, preferably one that specializes in exotic pets.  Happy, healthy eating to you and your tortoise!