It’s more or less the norm to keep a single tortoise as a pet, I don’t tend to think of them as sociable creatures that live alongside others of their own kind, and indeed there are several good reasons why lone tortoises should remain isolated from other tortoises.
However this naturally leads one to ask the obvious question; do tortoises get lonely, and if so what can I do about it?
Well the good news for all you keepers of solitary tortoises is that they almost definitely do not get lonely, and certainly not in the sense that you or I would think of it anyway.
Tortoises in The Wild Are Solitary
Owing to their foraging nature tortoises can be thought of as loners, unconcerned with the interests of others. They tend to hide themselves away in a self constructed burrow much of the time, and it would probably be unwise from a survival perspective for such slow moving and vulnerable creatures to bunk together in groups.
The only purposeful interaction wild tortoises are known to have with one another is to mate.
Even when it comes to parenting tortoises are pretty nonchalant –
Like many animals, tortoises do not nurse their young. A female will prepare her egg laying site, lay her eggs and simply move on. So speaking completely unscientifically but applying common sense, if there is no love lost between a mother and child tortoise, it seems pretty unlikely there will be any love lost in any other form of tortoise relationship!
So How Come my Tortoise Always Seems Pleased to See me?
I hate to burst your bubble but if you believe your tortoise is genuinely pleased to see you when he appears to eagerly approach you, then you are almost certainly mistaken, sadly.
Make no mistake, as their owner you have a pivotal role in your tortoises wellbeing that they are acutely aware of – you’re the one who feeds them, so without you their life will be cut drastically short!
Thus the behaviour you witness is more of a form of begging than it is an expression of genuine affection.
And at the end of the day who knows, maybe that desire to keep being fed does spill over into feelings of genuine affection for the person doing the feeding!
In fact let’s think about that a little more…
Whilst you will find debate stretching to the furthest reaches of the internet regarding the ability for a pet to feel emotion in the same way as a human being, there is no doubt that many animals, including tortoises, certainly appear to appreciate the ‘non life sustaining’ attention of their owners.
Perhaps the clearest example can be seen in videos of zoo keepers interacting with giant tortoises in zoos, in which the keeper can be seen scratching or rubbing the tortoise’s neck in a way that suggests the tortoise is genuinely happy to be in the company of said keeper.
So giving the shell of your own smaller tortoise a gentle rub with the tips of your fingers might well evoke the same feelings of kinship in the tortoise that appears evident in such videos.
But then again of course, we can’t be sure!
What do Tortoises Need to Keep Occupied in Captivity if Not Other Tortoises?
It is important to note that just because tortoises prefer to live a solitary existence doesn’t mean they are:
a) Cold and heartless
b) lacking the intelligence to not suffer in a mental capacity
So it is important to be sympathetic to the needs your tortoise actually has, even if they don’t relate to the company of others.
The most important thing you can do to keep your tortoise happy, besides providing food/water and ensuring they are kept physically healthy with the correct temperature and lighting, is to provide a spacious enclosure that closely replicates the conditions that tortoises live in in the wild.
Specifically your tortoise needs:
- A suitable substrate to burrow into
- Scenery items (such as a rock, pine cone or piece of drift wood). Don’t go overboard with these however, just one or two items is enough to add interest.
- A sheltered area where the tortoise can feel safe from predators
So is Keeping Two or More Tortoises Together Off the Table?
Just because tortoises are quite content to live a solitary existence doesn’t mean they can’t live alongside other tortoises, it’s just that they probably won’t benefit from it explicitly.
It’s not generally considered a good idea for tortoises of vastly different sizes to share an enclosure, for the simple reason that the smaller specimen may be vulnerable to attack by the larger one – we are dealing with wild animals after all.
Likewise, keeping a male alongside a single female isn’t advisable either, as all of his ‘attention’ will be directed towards her, which can again result in injury. Two females can be kept with one male as his attention will be spread between the two, which is more manageable for the females.
Multiple females may be kept together generally without issue.
Finally you should not mix species in a single enclosure both due to the threats associated with different sized tortoises cohabiting, and because of the possibility of cross contamination of disease which may affect one species symptomatically and the other not so.
For further information on keeping more than one tortoise together, see this post.