Since the ban on the Mediterranean species of tortoises, other even more unsuitable types have, over the last few years, appeared in the shop windows of Reptile Emporiums. The recent banning of the remaining African species from sale in this country has left very few wild caught terrestrial chelonia available to the pet trade.
One type of tortoise still on sale in this country is the South American Redfoot (Geochelone carbonaria) and because of its tropical origins, it is particularly vulnerable to the "leave in the back garden" technique of chelonia husbandry. This medium to large tortoise requires a high temperature (with 70% plus humidity), an all year round environment, and a good reptile vet within easy reach. The charms of the Redfoot are very evident and tempting however, and having fallen for them myself, I feel that an account of my early experiences with the breed would be of interest.
In the summer of 1991 I found myself on the trail of some captive bred Leopard tortoise hatchlings. Arriving in a hopeful frame of mind at a Reptile retailer, I was captivated by the pair of Redfooted tortoises in the window. They were young adults, some 30 cm long, and about 3kg in weight. Recently imported, their shells were unblemished, their skin colourful with reds, oranges and yellows, and their eyes clear, black and full of curiosity. Only having seen rather drab, older specimens in zoos, these were clearly in excellent condition. Half an hour later, the money saved for a new video recorder had been spent on a rustling, jiggling, cardboard box. Initially having the run of a sunny bedroom, "Red" and "Ginger", settled in without any trouble. We made the mistake of initially feeding them the food reputed to be taken by the breed in the wild- plums, and consider ourselves very lucky that they did not succumb to a common problem, found in newly captive tropical tortoises given a sweet diet- a potentially fatal attack of flagellates. We did however, have to replace the carpet!
We soon discovered the quite nature of these gentle tortoises. Given a warm box to spend the night in, they soon spent all day, every day in it, only emerging precisely on feeding time. Even then, the male "Red" preferred to be placed in front of the food (he seemed to enjoy the personal touch!). Kept in a variety of rooms and situations over the next few months, as we moved house, a 4' by 2' run linked to their "night box" seemed sufficient for their winter time needs. The following spring however, still in their temporary quarters, but now amid packing cases in the dining room of our new house, a change in behaviour became apparent. "Ginger" would still march out for her food on time, but now "Red" would be close on her heels. Instead of eating however, he would simply sit and watch her. When she had eaten her fill, he would meekly follow her back into their 'shed'. If, at any time, they ended up facing each other, "Red" would twitch his head from front to side, all the while staring intently at his intended love. He would only eat if Ginger was not in sight. A few weeks later, in late April, it came as no surprise to me to hear unearthly clucking and chuckling coming from within their shed. The volume was considerable, the ardour relentless! Mating was clearly occurring. Now their behaviour patterns changed again. Ginger began an eight week relentless food binge, eating anything and everything in sight. Red began eating again, seemingly indifferent to his female, but he still had to be fed separately, as he was always too late to find any food available!
At the end of the eight weeks, Ginger suddenly went off her food, only drinking, and taking a little green cabbage. At the same time, she became restless, walking more and more each day. Even a transfer to her new tropical house quarters failed to ease the wander lust. Having entered June weighing in at 3.8kg, she was down to 3.2kg by September. She had not eaten well for two months, and we were very worried. A trip to the vets revealed three large eggs, and so the decision was made to induce, using Oxytocin. Three hours later, floating in a bath of warm water, she laid them. Three weeks later, still not eating, she finally approached the warm earth bed provided, dug a hole, sat about for a while, carefully filled it in, and then began eating her head off. A lesson to all tortoise breeders- patience is a virtue!
We made the best of the incubator available, which was full of Red Ear eggs, and consisted of a small aquarium, half filled with water, with a wire mesh shelf above water level. The eggs were buried in a plastic container full of dry Perlite, covered with a loose lid, and placed on the mesh. The water temperature was 90 degrees F., the air temperature over the eggs 87 degrees F. Humidity was around 100%. Two of the three eggs proved fertile, and after 138 days, the first hatched, complete with a large yolk sac. Two days later the second ruptured its yolk sac in attempting to hatch, and died. Both of these could have been triggered into hatching a little early owing to a power cut on the 137th day, which dropped the temperature drastically, and caused precipitation onto the eggs. Nevertheless, the firstborn survived and thrived.
Little "Root" at three months shows all the colours of the adult Redfoot, and her gait, very upright and tippy-toe, is quite different from the average Mediterranean tortoise. She prefers damp corners and regular baths, and, surprise surprise, only comes out of them at feeding time! I write this article in May. Ginger is having her food binge once again, along with Red's new girlfriend "Esther". Two younger Redfoots are recovering from a year long battle against flagellates and worms.(They are still 'quarantined'). Keeping Redfooted tortoises is certainly rewarding in many ways, but they are more frail than the Mediterranean species, and do require more in the form of year round life support systems. By all means, give one a home, but watch out- don't be caught red-footed!