Introduction: Tortoise Habitat

About: I am passionate about my career as a math teacher, enjoy anything outdoors, love to travel, and enjoy putting a smile on others faces through my creations.

When my African Sulcata tortoise (George!) was first hatched 4 years ago in August of 2007 I was completely overwhelmed with how to properly care for him and house the little guy.  He will eventually get 50-100 pounds and will be gigantic (among the top three largest species of tortoise).  Due to his quick growth and vary large appetite I have gone through many different habitats to properly accommodate him by keeping him comfortable, providing the necessary elements, and keeping him safe.  I am a college student so money is pretty scarce so this is a budget version of a habitat costing me under 20 bucks! This instruct able will teach you and guide you through making your own tortoise habitat at a very low price.

I live in michigan so this habitat was made as a summer habitat, I only keep him in it if the weather stays above 50 degrees Fahrenheit.  

Step 1: Choose a Location and Build the Sides

The base for the habitat is preferably a deck, porch, concrete slab, or any other hard surface.  Soil, sand, grass, hay, etc. can be added to the habitat if needed, however a hard ground is preferred since tortoises like to bury and will dig their way out if given the opportunity.  I have started by selecting an unused area of the deck around my pool.  The deck had a natural corner so I used the existing sizes as two of the walls saving me money on lumber cost.  

After the location is selected measure how large you want the habitat to be and decide how deep of an area you would like (I chose to make it 1 foot high).  The dimensions will be determined by your location and/ or the dimensions of lumber you may be repurposing.  If you can reuse any lumber from around the house this is preferred and great for the environment (and your wallet).

I purchased a 2x12x12 for the sides of the structure and repurposed a few boards for the roof.  The door will be created using 2x1x10 cut to size.

Step 2: Build a Hide Away

The area I chose for the structure provided a natural triangular hide out area for George.  This area is necessary as an escape from the rain and hot summer sun.  I simply ran a beam across the middle of the structure and screwed boards diagonally across following the contours of the existing deck.  No measuring is necessary here, simply place the boards on the spot and use the center beam to trace out where it needs to be cut.  

It is important to make this area accessible cleaning the habitat will be difficult.  To make this accessible simply make an access door by not screwing in a few of the boards.  To make sure the boards don't move fasten them together and place wooden pieces on the bottom that will drop into the area and prevent it from sliding.  This is a bit difficult to explain in words so please view the attached pictures to see how this is done.

Step 3: Build a Hinged Door.

It is essential for your tortoise to get natural sunlight as it is a means for him/her to properly digest food.  I did not want to expose George to other animals or the threat of a looming hawk/ eagle so I chose to make him a chicken wire cage.  

This is a very simple cage.  I simply measured the left over hole (area that needed a roof) and tacked together a square from very inexpensive 1x2.  I then measured out a piece that was placed down the center for support and to have a place to attach the chicken wire.  After constructing I used some repurposed hinges from an old cabinet to attach the door to the structure.  

I chose a fine mesh chicken wire with a geometric design to it.  Anything with a wider pattern will work, however I wanted to make sure to keep birds, chipmunks, and snakes out of the habitat.  Simply staple gun the mesh to the wooden door.  After all is assembled feel free to stain the structure to color of your choice.

Step 4: Flooring

Yes, a tortoise deserves a decent floor too!  We recently replaced the linoleum flooring in our kitchen and had many leftover scraps.  From the scraps I fit two pieces and placed them on the bottom of the habitat.  It is a good idea to have two pieces so that you can easily remove them for the occasional scrub down with a brush and some hose water.  

Step 5: Accessories

I have added a few accessories into Georges cage.  The first is a hide out made from a large plastic bowl found at the dollar store.  I used a rotary tool to cut out a door.  George uses this to escape from the rain, sun, and wind.  Making it out of a lightweight material gives the tortoise the option as to where to put it in the cage and allows them to move it around as they please.  

It is very important to provide your tortoise an area for soaking in water on hot days.  I purchased a shallow dish at the dollar store (4 for a dollar) and fill it daily with a new batch of water.  George loves soaking in this on days that get into the 90's.

It is also very important to give your tortoise a means to burrow during the hot hours of the day or windy and cold nights.  Sulcata tortoises get hot and like to flip soil, water, sand, grass, hay, etc on their backs.  I fill a corner of the habitat with alfalfa hay or bermuda grass (he eats this too!) to give the little guy some insulation and I have some sand (collected from the sand dunes on the west side of michigan) in another side of the habitat for burrowing.  

To keep the cage shut (and make sure no other animals will try to get in) I place a decorative yard rock that I had lying around on top of the door.  Alternatively a latch of some kind may be used.

Step 6: Sit Back and Watch the Little Guy

Now that you have completed the tortoise habitat sit back and enjoy the simpler things in life.  I enjoy hanging out by the pool and watching George in his very curious ways.  Here is a video showing the little guy in action in his new home eating his favorite snack, lettuce!

Keep in mind just like any other animal, tortoises would much rather roam free.  If you are home and can watch your tortoise, let them roam around on the grass, get messy in the mud, or just hang out with you by the pool.  This will make for a happier tortoise and a happier owner :)
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