Redfoot Tortoise Q&A with Exotic Animal Specialist Danielle Inman

TEXT VERSION: Redfoot Tortoise Q&A 

….with exotic animal specialist (herpetologist) Danielle Inman & redfoot tortoise keeper Shannon Cutts

SHANNON: Welcome to our introduction to the Redfoot Tortoise, a wonderful species. I’m lucky enough to be a redfoot tortoise mama and keeper myself – my name is Shannon Cutts and my little girl’s name is Malti.

I’m here today with Danielle Inman who is a wonderful friend and a redfoot tortoise expert, a herpetologist and the woman who saved my redfoot tortoise Malti’s life when we ran into a health crisis.

And over the years we’ve received a number of question – just casual, interesting questions and also more specific questions related to the redfoot tortoise species and their care and their size and their habits and their needs. And so we’re going to kind of give you a lightning round of Q&A in this video and just share some answers to some commonly asked questions.

And first up on the list is:

What type of species is the redfoot tortoise?

DANIELLE: The redfoot tortoise is a tropical species of tortoise from northern South America. These guys are a mid-sized tortoise. They’re not one of the giants. And they have a special elongated body shape that makes them stand out when you look at them. And they are a fairly commonly represented species in the pet trade.

SHANNON: And that is a nice segue into our second question which is:

Are redfoot tortoises a good species choice for first-time tortoise keepers – beginning keepers?

DANIELLE: So I think that the best way to look at that is to determine if you are the right person to care for a redfoot tortoise. If you are prepared, if you’ve done your research, if you have the appropriate space and can create the habitat that they need, then absolutely. Redfoots can be a really endearing species of tortoise; they have a huge personality; they are really lovely animals. So if you can put in the legwork to keep them happy and healthy and make sure that you are prepared for the long-term commitment of a redfoot, then yes, absolutely, they can be a very rewarding member of the household.

SHANNON: Ah, wonderful. One question that comes up a lot, that definitely new keepers can get kind of stressed out about is hibernation or brumation.

Are redfoot tortoises a hibernating species?

DANIELLE: They are not. These guys, again, because of the region that they come from, they are very close to the equator. And the closer you get to the equator, the more static the climate tends to be. So they have a pretty even year-round temperature. Obviously there are some variables but they don’t have a winter and a summer necessarily. And so there’s no environmental factors that would induce that hibernation naturally for this species. Now, that being said, they can have an artificially induced stupor similar to brumation if conditions aren’t quite ideal and they are a little cooler than they should be then they can have an induced slowdown.

SHANNON: Got it. So it’s very important to pay attention to that temperature range and the husbandry.

Another common question that many people have about redfoots, of course, we’ve all seen these enormous tortoises on YouTube and they seem like the size of a small Volkswagon and so people wonder:

How big and how long and also how heavy do redfoot tortoises get?

DANIELLE: Redfoot tortoises, thankfully, and I think one of the reasons that you do see them so often as pets in captivity is because they are not one of the giant tortoises species. These guys are about the size of a large prize-winning watermelon and they do have that sort of elongated shape that we mentioned earlier. I will say that what they lack in size they make up for in movement and tenacity. These guys are movers. They wander, they run around, they like a large habitat. So you don’t have the same obvious hurdles that you do with a giant species like a Sulcata or one of the really large species like Aldabra tortoises or Galapagos tortoises, certainly. However, you do have to consider the fact that while they are on the small side they do want a lot of room.

SHANNON: Hmmm. That’s a great point and I can attest to that – my Malti is an inveterate explorer.

Another common question that many of the tortoise-curious, if you will, often have is the life expectancy or the lifespan.

About how long do these tortoises tend to live in captivity?

DANIELLE: That’s a question that is a bit difficult to answer because those statistics are skewed by a lifespan shortened by inappropriate husbandry. So while they are – like all turtles and tortoises – a long-lived animal; redfoots can certainly make it into those three-digit numbers; they could in theory live to be 100 years old, most of them don’t come anywhere near that. So I think if you Googled that you may get a very different answer as to the average lifespan because you have to take into account what the lifespan could be were situations ideal and especially in a captive environment where they can avoid predation and things like that that they may encounter in the wild. But then the other side of that is if their captive environment is less than ideal; if they are not provided with the lighting and heating and diet and things that they need to maintain health then their lifespan is dramatically shortened. And so if you are looking into making a redfoot tortoise a member of your household – which if you are watching this you probably are – then you need to be prepared for a very, very long commitment, because hopefully you won’t make any of those mistakes that may shorten your redfoot’s lifespan.

SHANNON: Hopefully, hopefully, and if you get excellent veterinary care like Malti and I have with you, Danielle, then we can look forward to at least into the 50’s we hope. And speaking of numbers, another question that a lot of newbies have is the cost. And that’s kind of two-phase question:

Are redfoots expensive to buy, to purchase, as pets and are they expensive to keep and to care for?

DANIELLE: So that’s a tough one and it’s always hard for me to reconcile the idea of animals as a commodity, that they cost money, but certainly that’s the reality. And so redfoot tortoises are not one of the very high-dollar rare species as they are bred quite readily in captivity and they do have large clutches. So redfoot breeders may pump out a few hundred babies a year. And so that said, the biggest cost – and this really can go for any pet, any animal that you may keep in your household – is the maintenance of these guys. So when you factor in feeding them a fresh and varied diet, building or buying them an appropriate enclosure that sort of step up as they age and get larger, veterinary care, the lighting especially if you have to invest in synthetic lighting indoors – all of those things tend to be a much more costly investment than the animal itself. And you know, I think that one thing that really plays into – you know, we talked about how the lifespan of a lot of these guys are shortened by the improper care that they receive in captivity. And I think that is a sad reality for a lot of reptiles. Because these guys are not an expensive purchase. It tends to be more cost-effective for people to replace the animal than to just take care of it from the beginning. And so I think that’s a mentality that we really need to get out of and realize that their care is an investment.

SHANNON: Absolutely. Incredibly good point. And, you know, just to give a sense of – I always, of course, try on our social media and different ways and our YouTube videos to really give a sense of:

What are these tortoises like to care for? What are their personalities like? Are they friendly? Are they smart? A question I get a lot is do they bite? You know? Do they make any noises? What are they like to have around, you know? 

DANIELLE: That also, I think, is a very individualized question. Because if you enrich your tortoise and really give it the lifestyle that it deserves, it can equally enrich you. That’s a reciprocal sort of relationship. Do they bite? They have a mouth, so it’s possible – I could bite – but they are not notorious biters. But certainly – I think usually a redfoot tortoise bite is when there is a mistake made about whether that’s a juicy sausage or your toe. Something like that. So I think as long as you are aware of where your redfoot is and what it’s doing and what you are doing you’re probably not going to be bitten. In fact, when we try to do physical exams on these guys and examine the oral cavity it can be very, very difficult to get them to even open their mouths. And so generally they are not biters. As far as noises go, and vocalizations, that’s not – most people don’t associate any noises with tortoises. However, male tortoises especially, when they are feeling amorous, when they have mounted, whether it be another tortoise or a rock or a particularly attractive football or boot out in the yard, they will sometimes vocalize. And so you may hear something like that with a sexually mature redfoot tortoise. The caveat to that is if you hear squeaks or vocalizations or what sounds like vocalizations, rather, coming from your redfoot is that it may actually be a health issue. Sometimes we identify respiratory disease by a wheeze or a squeak coming from your redfoot that is mis-identified as a vocalization. So that is something to be aware of. And these guys do have big personalities. You know, I think a lot of people would argue that we shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but I think the more time you spend around these things with any of these species the more you realize that they do certainly have their individual preferences and personalities and they can absolutely – they are very trainable and they can learn routines. My tortoises bang and knock at the back door for treats – that’s my fault. But they are a very enriching animal to have around.

SHANNON: I can attest to that as well. You did briefly mention health issues and yet another question that comes up with surprising frequency is, of course, you know:

Do redfoot tortoises get along well with dogs, cats, other pets, and kids, and then always there’s that present question or worry or concern about the salmonella. 

If you could just address that question from a couple different perspectives.

DANIELLE: Yeah. So, you know, something to be mindful of always is the evolutionary niches that these animals normally fill. Your dog or your cat – normally they are predators. Your redfoot tortoise – not so much. That’s laughable. But, you know, there are situations, certainly, that people have harmonious households with the Noah’s Ark effect and everybody’s happy and cuddling. But the flip side of that is that it is opening your animals up to potential harm. So it’s twofold, that risk. We do, I think, aside from husbandry-born issues, probably the second biggest reason that we see especially turtles and tortoises in clinical practice is trauma from other animals. A tortoise is like a big walking rawhide that is just not going to get away very quickly. And while some species are very armored and are made to avoid predation from lions and things, redfoots just are not that. They in the wild are commonly preyed upon by jaguars and things like that so they are open to predation from a pet. And even though you don’t like to think of your dog or cat as a predator there is some hardwiring there that may make them go into that mode. So if it’s something that – you know, obviously we can’t stop you from introducing the animals – but it’s something that should be done very, very carefully and with the knowledge that it could go wrong. And then the other side of that is infectious diseases. Redfoot tortoises like to eat poop. Dogs also like to eat poop. And so there is some risk of parasite transmission and things like that. However, if both animals are healthy that’s a pretty low risk. And then as far as zoonosis or diseases that your tortoise can carry and can transmit to you or to other humans in the household, statistically you are far more likely to get salmonella from chicken at your grocery store than you are from your tortoise. So as long as you follow some good, standard hygiene protocols – decent biosecurity – wash your hands before and after, don’t lick your tortoise, things like that – you’re usually going to be okay.

SHANNON: Speaking of licking pet animals, a lot of parents consider whether or not a turtle or a tortoise might be a good “starter pet” for their kids to maybe teach responsibility or appreciation for the wild world.

Would you say that redfoot tortoises are a good pet for a kiddo?

DANIELLE: I think that if the caretaker to that kiddo is going to be responsible for the redfoot, then I think it’s doable. I think the big thing is – we see a lot of very sad and entirely avoidable situations when children are left to care for pets. You wouldn’t turn your child out to care for itself so expecting them to care for something else is a bit unfair, I think. And some very hard and sad lessons can be learned from that. But, you know, redfoots are – because they are pretty slow-moving and they are certainly not aggressive, not even defensive, I think it’s a good introduction to our shelled friends. But I think that the burden of care needs to fall upon the adults of the household who have the money, the time and the know-how to be able to ensure that the animal is cared for.

SHANNON: Excellent, excellent point. You know, one question that a lot of new keepers tend to have when they are first picking out – let’s say you do decide to get a redfoot tortoise and add a tortoise to your family – I certainly remember this when I was picking out Malti, asking the breeder, you know, “Which one’s a boy? Which one’s a girl?” And kind of wanting to know. Because we are used to that, with dogs and cats, you know, and other pets.

So how can you tell if your redfoot tortoise is a boy tortoise or a girl tortoise?

DANIELLE: So really the only way to ensure that is you have to wait until they are closer to a sexually mature age. And then there are some of what we call dimorphisms or external indicators of sex. And otherwise, they look very much the same. There is some temperature-based sex development in some of these turtle and tortoise species. But really, the behavior is going to be pretty similar for both of them. Obviously, there are going to be differences once they hit sexual maturity. But there is not a specific pro or con to having a male or female. So I think the stress should be on getting a healthy animal and not necessarily a specific sex. Because you really, until they get bigger you just can’t tell. And where some species we have the benefit of being able to do DNA sexing, because of their odd chromosomal development, we can’t do that with turtles and tortoises necessarily. So we have to just wait until they hit an age where their anal scutes widen, their tails become longer, their plastrons become concave – so those indications don’t appear until a bit later in life.

SHANNON: Got it. And we’re so accustomed, we’re so conditioned, I guess, even our own species of wanting to be with others, and so another common question that comes up is:

Does your redfoot tortoise need a friend? Do they need to be kept in pairs?

DANIELLE: Yeah. So there’s some research done in redfoots specifically that would indicate that they are more social than some other species. These guys leave pheromone trails in the wild so that the opposite sex can follow and be attracted. They are known to feed in large groups which is sort of odd for a tortoise. There’s been accounts of coming across large groups feeding on carrion in the wild. They may find the remains of a peccary or something and you may find 15 redfoot tortoises in the area feeding in that area in peace. And so they are not a particularly territorial species and there are some indications that they may have some social fabric. Which again, is sort of odd when you think about reptiles, which we tend to think of them as solitary animals. That said, I don’t think that they need a partner or a friend. And just like every other relationship, that’s something that can – if you decide that you want another animal, you have to be careful about making sure that the sizes are compatible because you don’t want a sexually mature male trying to climb over a little bitty male or female and crushing them or flipping them – anything like that. So compatibility is going to be case by case. You may also put two tortoises together that just don’t like each other. That’s certainly a possibility. So I think that it is not a necessity to have a psychologically and emotionally happy and healthy animal. But case by case, it may be something that they may benefit from. And certainly if you are hoping to breed your tortoises someday, which many people get turtles and tortoises with that eventuality in their plans, that is going to take more than one animal in most cases. And so that is something to consider as well.

SHANNON: Definitely. And speaking of more than one animal. You mentioned they are not particularly territorial. Would it be okay – let’s just say you do bring home another animal. Maybe you think you’ve got a female but maybe you find out you’ve got two males.

Is that okay to keep two males together in one enclosure?

DANIELLE: It’s going to be case by case. Even in wild redfoot tortoises, there have been accounts of males co-existing harmoniously. They’ll just sort of work around each other and they don’t really seem to be bothered by each other’s presence. But then you will have males who spar and fight. And so there’s no way of knowing before, prior to introduction, if you are going to have the former or the latter. And so any tortoise introduction – same species, other species – should always be done with heavy monitoring. You need to make sure that, whatever the case, there are a lot of visual barriers. So that the tortoises can feel like they have their privacy. They can get away from each other if they want to. You want to make sure that there are multiple – that shared resources are limited so that there are multiple feeding spots, multiple wallowing spots – so that there’s not fights over what are observed as scarce resources. So there are a lot of things you can do to make introduction and transition as safe and healthy as possible, but there are never any guarantees when you are introducing two animals, especially two males.

SHANNON: That’s a great point. And you did briefly mention same or different species. Like, for instance, I have a redfoot tortoise and a box turtle who came into our family somewhat unexpectedly.

And so would you say that it would be safe or maybe advisable to keep a redfoot tortoise with a different species of turtle or tortoise in the same kind of enclosure or habitat? 

DANIELLE: So I think that that’s something that, you know, you will often if you hear me talk on these subjects at all hear me harken back to the natural history of these species. And so you have to think that – you know, in the instance of a 3-toed box turtle like Bruce and a tropical South American species of tortoise like Malti – they come from very different parts of the world. And so their needs are quite different. And so meeting those needs and keeping each individual healthy within a shared enclosure is going to be very difficult. So, generally speaking, I would not recommend it. However, if you have a redfoot tortoise and a yellowfoot tortoise, for instance, that do naturally have some overlap, something like that may be a bit safer and more doable from the perspective of being able to meet the needs for both animals in one enclosure with them cohabitating. But again, sex and size are two big factors there. So you want to make sure that you don’t have mis-matched sizes that could accidentally harm one another.

SHANNON: That’s a great, great, great, great point. Another common question especially for people who really – they are very intrigued by redfoot tortoises, maybe they might want to try their hand at keeping a tortoise, but maybe they are not comfortable feeding live prey or meat, so a common question that comes up is:

Do redfoot tortoises – you mentioned carrion – do they eat meat? Do they need to eat live prey? How would you handle that?

DANIELLE: I think that if you are particularly sensitive to observing predation, you’re safe. You don’t have to have live prey as an option for your redfoot. Something that’s important in redfoot diet is not only the nutritional aspect of things but also the natural behavior of foraging. But that can be accomplished quite easily with pre-killed, frozen, thawed food items like maybe frozen, thawed quails or mice or rat pups – things like that on occasion. Even things like organ meat. Generally, with most of these species we don’t recommend just throwing a chicken breast in there because that’s not where most of the nutrition is. Organ meats are important. Bone is important for calcium. So if you have to pick and choose, something like chicken hearts or chicken livers, those are good options. Obviously that’s not going to be live because it is outside of the animal. Even hydrated cat food or dog food, things like that, will still meet the nutritional needs of your tortoise but won’t offend your sensibilities if you have an aversion to seeing live prey eaten. And in reality, redfoot tortoises are not hunters. That would be a very, very long Discovery Channel special to watch a redfoot tortoise hunt. These guys – if they do eat live prey it’s going to be slow-moving prey like snails, slugs, isopods. More likely they’re going to eat a dead fish that they find on the river bank or some fox poop that they find in the forest. Things like that.

SHANNON: Excellent, excellent. We try to keep fox poop out of the diet but maybe there’s something to it – of course, another common question that so many new turtle and tortoise keepers have and definitely the redfoot tortoise is no exception is about bathrooming and potty.

Can they be potty-trained? Do they pee? Do they poop? Does it stink? How often? Everybody’s curious about these things. 

DANIELLE: Poop and pee are a big part of my life, in a clinical setting. Certainly it happens a lot when animals are in our care. But yes, they poop and they pee and they do a lot of it. Because these guys are generalists, they have some pretty smelly poop considering what they eat, what they take in. They may – a diet of dog food, dead quail, an egg, mulberry eggs, some papaya, all of these things moving through a G.I. tract and coming out the other end are not going to be pleasant, but certainly if you have a bioactive terrarium, especially something outdoors, that’s a great fertilizer for the plants that you’ve planted for your redfoot. These guys, the saving grace is that they don’t defecate often by mammal standards or bird standards. And so you may have a spot to clean up a day, in most cases. Certainly there are extenuating circumstances that could change that. And as far as urine goes. They have a two-part urine component. There is the liquid urine and the solid urate, which is a crystal that comes out sort of chalky looking which is a urinary by-product that they pass. So usually in a healthy dropping you will see a combination of two or three of those things.

SHANNON: And so, of course, birds, of course, go to the bathroom out of one spot. Dogs, cats, other mammals, tend to go out of two different spots.

How does that work [bathrooming] with a redfoot tortoise?

DANIELLE: The uro-genital area [of a tortoise] is very similar to a bird. So they have a cloaca, which is Latin for “the great drain.” Sort of everything feeds into one opening. So internally what you can’t see are all of the terminus of their G.I. tract, their urethra, their reproductive tract, and then all of that sort of goes into one space into the cloaca and then out. So from what you can see it’s all one opening. So everything’s going to come out of one opening. And I did forget to answer the question about potty-training. It is a possibility. These guys are more trainable than we often give them credit for. A lot of zoological institutions have positive reinforcement-based training protocols for these guys and they can learn, man. Tortoises, we are finding, have extraordinary memories, and with the proper motivation they can learn. I haven’t personally potty-trained any of my tortoises. However I think if you are willing to put in the time and effort, it is not outside the realm of possibility.

SHANNON: Very, very intriguing. Very intriguing. And if anyone is watching this and has potty-trained their tortoise, please hit us up, message us and share your story.

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