It might seem like a ridiculous notion to some; that tortoises can actually climb near vertical surfaces, and potentially even escape from the four walls that form their home, however there is indeed some truth behind this idea.
I know this first hand because I’ve witnessed my tortoise quite literally positioned on the wall of his tortoise table, albeit only just. So there’s no doubt in my mind that tortoises certainly possess the will, and perhaps in some cases even the ability to make an escape ‘up and over’ certain enclosures.
There are of course a whole lot of caveats to this, not least that tortoises certainly can’t climb flat vertical surfaces; they require decent footholds such as provided by wire mesh fencing, and they certainly won’t be capable of climbing out of something much higher than their own height when stood up on their back legs.
So, smooth walls almost certainly not, wire fences quite possibly.
All of which is worth knowing, especially if you’re planning on building your own tortoise enclosure, particularly outside where an escape is potentially more disastrous than an escape from an indoor vivarium/tortoise table.
How to Prevent Your Tortoise Escaping its Enclosure
Whether you’ve built, or are building your own outdoor enclosure, or you’ve bought a kit off the shelf, you should be aware of the implications of certain design features, some of which are more important than others depending on the size, weight, and strength/stamina of your tortoise.
Larger tortoises for example, for anyone who hasn’t encountered anything larger than a juvenile, can be pretty formidable creatures, often bulldozing their way through obstacles with alarming efficiency thanks in particular to their power elephantine rear legs. I can remember a friend regaling me with a story of him struggling to resist his tortoise as it walked into him, effectively pushing him out of the way.
What this means is that a fence that is too flimsy probably won’t even get a chance to be climbed by a larger tortoise, who will likely instead simply ram into it, and over time possibly even flatten and walk right over it.
The moral of the story here is to make sure that if you do choose a fence over brick or cinder block wall, that you can be sure it is going to be strong enough to withstand being repeatedly bombarded by your tortoise. So chicken wire is probably a no go, while a sturdy wooden fence should be ok, so long as it is built on a solid foundation.
A smaller tortoise on the other hand might be perfectly well encapsulated by a wire fence, although you’ll want to make sure the fence is sufficiently high enough that any climbing efforts will be thwarted pretty early on.
Of course the best way to be sure your tortoise won’t escape in this manner is to have a mesh roof covering as well, although this isn’t really necessary unless you’ve got legitimate concerns about predators attacking your tortoise.
Either way the other thing to keep in mind about wire mesh fences is their propensity to cause injury, particularly where their are raw ends of wire present, it can be disastrous when a head or eye makes contact with such a feature. For this reason cheaper fencing such as chicken wire is best avoided, while something like plastic coated wire fencing is likely to be safe.
Size and age aside, you may also find that your tortoise tries their hardest to escape from their enclosure purely because having a wire fence allows them to see what lies beyond, and they cannot help but try to reach it. This is also one of the reasons why transparent sided vivariums are frowned upon by many people, as it is considered cruel for the tortoise to be able to see outside but not be able to get there.
Only by studying the temperament of your tortoise and observing how distracted he is by the ‘world beyond’ the fence will you know whether or not this is going to be an issue.
What About Burrowing Underneath?
Not only are tortoises proficient(ish) climbers, they are even better diggers. So your tortoise trying to escape by burrowing underneath the boundary fence of their enclosure is probably even more likely than them climbing over it.
This can be avoided during construction by digging down a good two or three feet at the perimeter, and starting the boundary fence or wall at this level. It might sound extreme, but left to their own devices tortoises are more than capable of digging formidable cave networks that stretch several feet underground, both in the wild and in captivity.
What to do in Case Your Tortoise Does Escape
No fortress is completely impenetrable, and your tortoise enclosure is no different. No matter how hard you try and keep a wild animal enclosed, sometimes nature finds a way.
It’s important to preempt the nightmare scenario of your tortoise escaping from your yard, by documenting exactly what your tortoise looks like with an up to date set of photographs taken from every angle. It’s also a really good idea to get your tortoise microchipped (if they aren’t already as a legal requirement, depending on the species). This way you stand a better chance of being able to identify your tortoise and prove you are its rightful owner if it is found.
You can check out more information on how to document your tortoise in our article on how to prevent your tortoise from being stolen.
Of course none of this will be particularly useful if your tortoise is killed or stolen once they have escaped, but it’s still worth preparing in this way.
The main takeaway here is to make your tortoise enclosure as indestructible and escape proof as possible. If you don’t you could find your shelled friend will make for the hills before you even have a chance to shout ‘stop, come back!’ – remember they might seem slow, but you’d be surprised how quickly a tortoise can disappear into the undergrowth of a yard never to be seen again!