How The Tortoise Garden Grew

I’m an animal lover to the core.  I always have been.  Even as a child I preferred the company of animals rather than that of people.  Growing up I had dogs, cats, turtles, gerbils, and mice. I didn’t have the pleasure of having tortoises in my life until adulthood.  In fact, the first exposure I had to tortoises was at The Baltimore Zoo (now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore) where I volunteered in the education department back in 2001-2003.  To be honest, they weren’t my favorite animals, but at the time I was not into herps in general (stay tuned for more on that in later posts).  Over the years, as a vet tech, I saw them as patients, but very rarely.  I also cared for them while working for a pet store chain (I’ll eventually get into that as well).  I still didn’t see the big deal.  Then in 2011, I came to The Palm Beach Zoo where I had the opportunity to work with three amazing Aldabra tortoises and well, I fell in love.

The gentle giants quickly became a favorite of mine and I spent every spare minute I had in their exhibit with them.  For me, spending time with them allowed me a little bit of peace in an otherwise chaotic and exhausting life.  With my new found love of tortoises, I began reading up on them as much as I could.  I spent hours searching for any information I could find from basic information, to ideal habitat conditions, to enrichment ideas, etc.  I couldn’t get enough of them.

Every August I attend the National Reptile Breeders’ Expo in Daytona Beach, FL. In 2013, I walked through the doors at 10:00 am when the doors opened and by 10:15 am I had two newborn Sulcatas in tow.  I was elated!  They were so ridiculously cute I couldn’t stop looking at them.  I want to be clear – I DO NOT ADVOCATE IMPLUSE BUYS when it comes to animals.  Though I was not planning to buy these little ones, I was very well aware of what I was getting into when I did decide to take them home with me.  That being said, I still had A LOT of research to do when I came home.  I had spent my time at the zoo caring for tortoises that were native to grasslands and swamps.  I now had a desert species with different needs.  So that’s how I got to where I am now.

Obviously, it’s more than a little difficult for most hobbyists to reproduce the exact habitat conditions of wild Sulcata tortoises.  So, with captive bred animals, herpers have to improvise.  I’m very fortunate that I live in sunny South Florida where they can get natural sunlight all year long.  But, when it comes to food, I don’t really have access to many of the native African plants that these little guys would make a meal of.  Sulcatas are herbivores, known for munching on pretty much any plant they can reach.

My babies, Kada and Tambara, were only about two days old when I brought them home (they both still had their egg tooth).  I happily fed them greens and hay like a good tortoise mom should.  But, over the weeks and months I began to wonder about store bought produce and pesticides. So I began buying organic greens for them.  Now, like most animal people, I am not made of money so as the tortoises began growing (rather rapidly) so did my grocery bill.  I started playing with the idea of starting my own garden so that not only could I decrease my weekly grocery bill, but also so I could know exactly what types of chemicals were being used or not used on the food that these tiny little animals were ingesting.

What’s the big deal about starting a garden, right?  Well, for me it was a very big deal.  You see, some people have a green thumb.  Plants flourish under the care of an elite group of people.  I was not one of the elite, not even close.  In fact, I always told people that I didn’t have a green thumb, but instead a black thumb.  Plants generally died if I so much as looked in their general direction.  I could nurse an animal back from the brink of death, yet suck all of the life out of a thriving plant with one touch.  It was quite remarkable, but something I was not proud of.  So for the sake of my tortoises, I decided to sacrifice a few good plants and try my hand at gardening.  It was a pretty rough start, but over the last year and a half I’ve managed to learn a few things and even grow a couple veggies in my tortoise garden.

So I guess you could say my blog is about tortoises, gardening, and the lessons I’ve learned (and am still learning) from both.  Enjoy!