Outdoor Pens & Runs for Tortoises
- stars & other small, dryish area species -
I am fortunate to live in a warm climate, so my tortoises get to spend a lot of time outside. :O) These are captive bred Mesopotamian Greek tortoises.
Tortoises love being outside! Outdoors, they can "live a tortoise life" exploring, grazing, and basking. If you have any outdoor space, please do provide an outside pen for your tortoises. Nothing beats real sunshine!
I keep my Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoises outdoors when the temperature is around 70 °F (21 °C) and above. Also, when it's warm and it's not very windy, a temperature of 65 °F (18 °C) and above is often sufficient as long as the enclosure is in the sun.
Ideally, never keep Star tortoises outside overnight if the temperature falls below 60-65 °F (15-18 °C), unless they have a warm house they can retreat to. They may tolerate lower temperatures, but why take the risk? Be especially cautious in wet and cold conditions.
I do not leave my Star tortoises outside overnight for temperature and security reasons. Evenings, when they come back in, they often get a quick bath for wash-up and rehydration.
Careful! Use caution if your tortoise's outdoor enclosure is placed on a terrace or a balcony. Pens on terraces can overheat quickly, and enclosures on high level balconies can be exposed to strong winds. Do provide windbreaks and shady hiding areas as needed. Keep eye on the temperature gradient inside the pen.
It's a good idea to supply the tortoises with plenty of plants to eat and hide under, variations in the ground level, several shady hiding places, and a choice of substrates (e.g. soil, rocky area, damp, dry). Obstacles, like rocks or logs, and small mounds of dirt create many different paths for the tortoises to follow.
Typically, Indian / Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoises like to hide under bushes. Beneath the scrubs, they may scrape the surface of the soil a bit, but that's it. All my Stars love to hide under grassy bushes when outdoors. :O)
GO BIG !!! Give your tortoises the biggest outdoor pen you can. They will appreciate it. The only exception are hatchlings and youngsters who will do fine in a small pen for the first year of life or so. Babies and small juvenile tortoises would get lost (you wouldn't find them) in a big enclosure. For them, the enclosure should have a predator proof cover also.
One of the Star tortoise pens. My Stars love hiding in long grass. You can see one of them under the grass bush.
One of my Greek youngster pens late in the afternoon.
Avoiding cross contamination
I don't keep big tortoises, so I often build my outdoor tortoise runs long and fairly narrow. Especially for babies and youngsters. This way I can reach all parts of the pen without having to step into it. This helps avoid cross contamination between pens of different species.
However, outdoor enclosures that are large, wide, roundish, and have irregularly shaped walls, not straight, will look and feel more natural to tortoises. Installing solid frame lids for these pens is difficult though because the walls are asymmetrical. For supervised daytime use, bird or pond netting can be utilized for light-duty protection if you build a support frame or a center pole to hold it up.
For my larger pens, I have a a designated pair of garden clogs for each enclosure. This helps prevent transferring microorganisms and parasites between pens, for example, in tortoise poop stuck to shoe bottoms. Remember to wash your hands thoroughly in between, too. Also, do not share water and food dishes between different pens and especially not between different species.
When building isolation pens or pens for different species, it's useful to leave several feet of buffer zone (empty area) between the pens to help avoid cross contamination. The wider, the better. For example, if pens share a wall, soiled water can seep from one pen to another, especially if you build your pens with wood. On the other hand, large and heavy concrete blocks can obstruct ground water flow quite well.
I give each tortoise species its own reserved area of the backyard. I do not mix species or overlap their outdoor living quarters.
These pens have buffer zones (extra space) around them. Buffer zones help prevent cross contamination between different species.
Birds and neighborhood cats are the only predators I (may) have to worry about in the daytime, so I often cover my little tortoises' pens with bird netting or deer fence netting. Bird netting is affordable, almost invisible from far away, available in many widths, can be cut with scissors, and it prevents cats from using my tortoise pens as their toilets. Typical grid size is 1/2" x 1/2".
Bird netting works for supervised daytime use, but it is NOT sturdy enough to keep serious predators away, especially if you leave your tortoises outside overnight. I don't. I bring my Star tortoises in at night.
Deer fence netting is made of thicker, stronger plastic than bird netting and has larger mesh openings (1" x 1"). It's stiffer and easier to work with than flimsier bird netting which gets caught on every little snag and spur. Deer netting may be too narrow to cover wide pens, but smaller pieces can be joined together with zipties to cover larger areas.
The enclosure cover netting should be securely attached. Otherwise, dogs and other pets can rip it off or sneak into the pens under the netting. I weigh the netting down by putting several stone blocks around the pen. Garden stakes can also be used to secure the nets.
Bird and deer netting is ok for supervised day time use, but it's NOT strong enough as a permanent predator barrier.
Bird netting and deer netting are NOT strong enough to hold bigger dogs and other predators off tortoises. Be very, very careful if you have dogs, and protect your tortoises at all times. Dogs love to chew tortoises!
A safer outdoor enclosure cover would be tightly woven steel hardware cloth in a strong frame attached securely to the pen. Steel hardware cloth is resistant to gnawing by rodents and other sharp-teethed animals. The openings should be 1/2" or smaller to keep all sizes of rats out and 1/4" to keep small mice out. Hardware cloth with 1/4" openings (pic) is recommended for best security against small rodents, but the small openings also filter out more UV and decrease visibility into the pen.
The 1/4" mesh hardware cloth is typically made of 23 gauge steel. It’s fairly easy to work with and cut to size. The 1/2" mesh hardware cloth is thicker and less flexible being made of 19 gauge steel. It’s stronger, but also much more difficult to cut than the thinner 1/4" hardware cloth. It can be a real pain in the bu** if you have to cut complex shapes out of it.
Caution! Leaving dog, cat, and commercial tortoise food outside overnight attracts rodents and other predators. I empty all food and water dishes every evening and refill them the next morning.
Stone block pens
I have used wooden enclosures, chain link pens, welded wire mesh kennels, dog play pens, and stone block walls as tortoise pens outdoors. Decorative stone blocks are my favorite material to use. They look great but are fairly expensive to buy in large quantities. Plus, they are very heavy to haul home from the store. Auch!
I like enclosures build with natural looking stone blocks better than ones made with plain concrete construction bricks, aka cement or cinder blocks. I just casually place the stones on top of each other. This makes my backyard look like it's full of ancient Greek or Roman ruins. Maybe an archeological dig site. :O)
Stone block pens have many advantages. They can be build in any shape, and later moved or enlarged as needed. Stone blocks are very durable and can't be eaten by insects. They can be painted to match your outdoor decor. Stone blocks also retain heat from the sun for a while and can provide warmer areas during the evening. No special skills or tools are required to build stone pens. Just lift and stack. :O) Smaller tortoises cannot push or move these blocks because they weigh about 20 lb each.
To help prevent escapes by wall climbing, you can build the top layer with larger or flatter stone blocks to create a small overhang. A wooden "lip frame" is another choice. A wooden top frame also allows for easy fastening of wire top lids.
For diggers, you can lay an extra line of big stone blocks on the outside of the walls. This way your tortoise would have to dig through two block widths to get out. With daily inspections, you would probably notice any escape attempts before he got that far. Or, you can place flat concrete pieces dug down into the dirt next to the inner wall edges.
One negative aspect of stone blocks is their hard, rough surface. If your tortoise is a fence walker and likes to patrol the pen perimeter, he may scrape his shell against the surface of the walls. This can cause some scute wear and tear in contact areas, but it's usually only cosmetic. Lining the insides of the pen walls with some smooth material, like thin wood or plastic, will fix it.
Cap those corners. Many escapes happen due to corner climbing. Adult Golden Greeks.
Stone block pen with a closable safe house area for summer nights. For details, see the outdoor houses page.
Wooden outdoor pens are popular because they are easy to construct and can be fairly inexpensive, especially if you happen to have left over scrap wood from other projects. Wood pens can be build in any size and height.
The main problem with wood pens is that they have to be bottom or perimeter proofed for digging tortoises. If the bottoms of the walls are not well secured, strong tortoises can easily push themselves under them and slip away. Or, they can quickly dig under the thin walls and escape.
Covered corners provide shady hiding places and help prevent any climbing attempts. Enclosure corners are favorite climbing spots for tortoises who like to scale walls.
Wooden enclosures work well for adult Star tortoises because they are not big diggers or wall climbers. Babies are more agile and need a pen top for security.
Below is an example of a simple wooden tortoise enclosure. If you use good quality wood to build the pen, it will last many years. This pen lasted for 20 years until the termites ate it.
Wooden pen for tortoises.
Concrete block pens
Large, concrete construction blocks (16" x 8" x 8") with hollow cores are a popular, easy to use building material for outdoor tortoise pens. They are also called concrete masonry units, foundation blocks, cement blocks, cinder blocks, or breeze blocks. Concrete blocks can be be gray or brown in color. All you need to do is to stack them. You can finish the top of the wall with thinner 2" block caps to hide the holes on the top of the walls.
These blocks are very heavy, 20-30 lb each, and require no mortar to install, unless your tortoises are jumbo size or super excavators. For example, big sulcatas can push the walls down and burrowing tortoises may dig under the block walls to cause them to collapse.
Plain concrete blocks cost less than $1 a piece, but they are not very attractive looking. A more visually appealing alternative to plain concrete blocks are concrete slumpstone blocks. They are available in various sizes, shapes, and colors. They can look like chiseled stone or old adobe bricks with a textured surface.
Chain link & welded wire panels
In the past, I have used chain link dog kennel runs as outdoor tortoise enclosures, but they are not the prettiest of enclosures to use in common yard areas. A less intrusive alternative is to use low height chain link fence mesh. Vinyl coated mesh is available in several heights and colors. Black or green mesh seems to blend in the surroundings better than galvanized.
On the other hand, if you'd like to build a walk-in tortoise pen with a top, tall kennel or tennis court chain link panels are perfect for that. Large, outdoor walk-in bird aviaries would work as well, but they tend to be quite expensive.
Nowadays, many dog kennels / runs are made with welded wire mesh panels instead of chain link. These modular panels are nice looking, strong, and they are available in several sizes and heights. They can be attached in various ways to create pens in almost any size to fit your available space. The wire mesh is usually black and the mesh openings vary from 1" to 4" and larger.
I have used 1" x 1" grid welded wire mesh panels to build predator secure night time pens / cages for my chelonians that stay outdoors overnight. I have not found any welded wire kennel panels (pic) with smaller openings than this. Based on pet rat keepers' experiences, the 1" wire mesh openings are still big enough to let small rodents like baby rats through. This can be remedied by covering the panels with steel hardware cloth. Wire cloth with 1/4" openings is the safest to use.
For avid diggers, attach a wire mesh floor to the pen, or secure the pen perimeter by placing big stone blocks along the outside wall, or extend the walls below the ground level.
To prevent your tortoise from seeing through the wire panel walls and trying to get out through them, cover the bottom of the run about a foot high with wooden boards, plants, or chain link fence slats. You can also plant grasses or vines along the sides as a vision barrier. A top netting or wire panel can be added to make the pen fully predator proof.
Wood or plastic timber kits
A fast and easy way to construct an outdoor enclosure for a baby or a small tortoise is to use ready made sandbox or raised garden bed kits made from wood or composite plastic timbers. These kits are easy to put together. Plastic timber pens require no maintenance and they can last a long time because they do not rot.
Some raised bed garden kits even have a wire net bottom and a top frame. Others come with a canopy frame. All you need to do is to attach some wire mesh or netting to the top.
Small, ready made pens for TINY HATCHLINGS
These commercial, triangular outdoor pens are ONLY suitable as short term outdoor pens for HATCHLINGS and VERY SMALL BABIES up to 100g or so. They are somewhat expensive for their size, but if you need an outdoor pen quickly for a hatchling and don't want to build anything, these can work for a while. You can even attach or more of these triangular pens together to create a longer pen. Of course, if you are handy with tools, you could build a much bigger one yourself for less money. :O)
On hot days, the hutch part of the pen should be positioned in a shady spot to prevent overheating in the sun. Always check the temperature inside the hut to be sure! I keep a remote thermometer probe there.
For added stability and safety, you can stake the pen to the ground with dog exercise pen stakes or garden pins. Or better yet, place bricks or concrete blocks around the outside perimeter to create a sight block and prevent digging escapes under the walls.
These wooden triangular pens are commonly sold under tree different brands, for example, Zoo Med, Ware, and Pawhut. Their overall sizes and mesh openings vary by the brand. The Zoo Med pen is the easiest to find because it's sold by many stores and is usually available on amazon and ebay (direct links to pen) as well.
The Zoo Med pen works well as an outdoor pen for the first few MONTHS of their life, up to 50-100g or so. I REMOVE the inner door wall and the floor boards. This allows me to keep the house part cooler by watering the ground inside it.
When your baby tortoise outgrows the pen, you can remove the end wire panel and turn it into an outdoor hiding place. Maybe grow some vines over it to create a shady cave.
The Zoo Med Playpen is quite small, so it's only suitable for TINY HATCHLINGS up to 50-100g in weight or so. For scale, the hatchling above is 2" SCL in size. For security and sight block, it's best to place bricks or concrete blocks all around the pen.
I leave the inner door panel and the floor boards off. This way, the babies are always walking on a natural surface (soil), not on wood boards. I water the soil, especially under the shade area, to keep the house part cooler and more humid.
I place concrete bricks around the pen for security. This pen is small, but allows tiny hatchlings to spend the day outside safely. Weather permitting. Notice that I've removed the inner door wall and the floor boards.
Caution! During hot weather, the hutch part should be placed in a shady spot, and the whole pen should be located away from brick walls or other structures that can collect heat, emit heat, or block the breeze.
Here's the occupant of the above pen. A tiny Angulate tortoise hatchling. This pen is small, but even then I often have a hard time finding her among the grass! :O)
Many people like to build their own tortoise pens and houses from scratch, but not everyone has the interest, time, space, or tools to do so. Or the big truck to haul the building materials home in the first place. :O)
I am not a DIY builder, so I am always looking for items that I can repurpose or alter for my tortoises. Rabbit pens and runs can be modified fairly easily for tortoise use. I always look for rabbit runs that use small space (1/4" - 1/2") hardware cloth, or at least have very closely spaced bars.
Here's an example. I chose this pen because it's larger than most and uses 1/2" hardware cloth. Attach two, three, or more of them together to create a larger pen.
This BABY tortoise pen is actually a rabbit run made with 1/2" hardware cloth. It's a well priced, 71" x 36" x 19"H (2,556 sq in) size Advantek pen. It has two top openings and two end openings.
You can join these pens together length wise by leaving the end panels out, or sideways if you cut new openings in the wire netting. The wood is lightweight and on the softer side, so it might not be strong enough for night use, but it works well for supervised daytime use. So easy, no building required! :O)
The landscape blocks around the pen block the babies' view out of the pen and also prevent them from digging under the walls and escaping. In hot weather, additional shade is required, for example, you can drape shade cloth or place wood boards on the side and/or top.
Climbing & digging
Adult Star tortoises are not very good climbers, but even they may scale enclosure walls if cage furniture or plants are positioned too close to the walls. Babies, on the other hand, can be quite agile! Remember to place all pen items away from the walls and cap the corners if needed.
You have to be especially careful with good climbers and diggers like Box turtles, Greeks, and Russian tortoises. Climbers need pens with high, escape-proof walls and/or cover, and diggers need some kind of dig proofing around the perimeter.
This nimble little fellow is using the flower pot for support to climb up the wall. Photo courtesy of Devin Louis.
These little Burmese Stars liked to hide under this grass bush. So, I let it grow even though it was close the wall. One day I found one of the babies on top of the stone wall. He had used the grass bush like a set of stairs to climb up. He did it twice on one day. Smart little guy. If I didn't have the netting on top, he would have escaped. Needless to say, I cut that patch of grass down.
My Greeks are way better climbers than my Stars! Before I capped the corner, this Golden Greek girl did escape from her pen by climbing up this same corner. Twice. Once with no net and once by slipping under the cover netting. Since then, she has been known as Hudina (female version of Houdini). :O)
You can see how each level of the rock wall slightly overlaps the one below to discourage climbing, but that wasn't enough to stop her. It would be safer to build a free form pen with no straight corners, or one with a lip all around.
Here's another example of Golden Greeks' climbing abilities. If you look closely, you'll see one on top of the plant eating. He obviously thought that the new leaves on the top were better tasting than the older, bigger leaves on the bottom. If this plant had been next to the side wall, he could have escaped.
As disheartening as it is, tortoise thefts do occur! For this reason, many tortoise breeders like to keep their exact location unknown and may meet buyers only in public places. Tortoises kept outdoors overnight are the most likely targets for thieves.
I have a video monitoring system that allows me to observe my outdoor tortoise pens from inside my house. Just in case. For news stories about tortoise thefts, see the Outdoor Housing section of the Links page.
Moving tortoises between pens
Natural tortoise rearing proponents are strongly against moving tortoises between indoor and outdoor pens on a daily basis. Some tortoises do find this kind of environmental change distressing while others are fine with it.
Interestingly, I found an article on husbandry and breeding of Golden Greek tortoises that addresses this issue. It was written in 2007 by David S. Lee and Mike Lowe of the Tortoise Reserve [offsite].
Excerpt: "Group wintering indoors: Despite being moved in and out, and from pen to pen on a regular basis these turtles show no sign of stress and seem content with the routine, often feeding and mating within minutes of being moved. This is contrary to what some authors have suggested as they insist that the captive tortoises should be handled and moved as little as possible in order to assure consistency and to achieve maximum reproductive success."
I move my Star tortoises in and out daily. They seem to have adapted to it without problems. Switching between indoor and outdoor pens is a familiar routine for them.
The keyword here is "routine." Whatever you do with your tortoises, it's best to develop a schedule for it. Tortoises like familiarity and routine. New, unknown places and unexpected changes in their daily life are stressful for them.