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.
Exotic 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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