Outdoor Pens & Runs for Tortoises
- stars & other small, dry area species -
Outdoor tortoise pens on a cloudy day. I am fortunate to live in a warm climate, so my tortoises get to spend a lot of time outside. :O)
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 Stars. 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 the sun is warm and it's not super windy, a temperature of 65 °F (18 °C) and above is often sufficient.
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.
Note: 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.
Landscaping & decorating pens
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. 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)
For babies and small juvenile tortoises, the enclosure should have a predator proof cover.
Bird and deer netting is ok for supervised day time use, but it's not strong enough as a permanent predator barrier.
Climbing & digging
Most adult Indian / Sri Lankan and Burmese Star tortoises are not superior climbers and won't be able to scale stone or wood pen walls, unless the wall has some kind of footholds. Babies, on the other hand, can be quite agile climbers. Avoid keeping any climbable objects or plants next to the enclosure walls. Scroll down to the bottom of the page for a couple of cautionary photos!
Note: You have to be 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.
The garden statues, small patio tables, and step stools not only provide additional shade but also support the netting. In hot weather, you can place water bowls in the shade under the tables to keep the water cooler.
Avoiding cross contamination
I don't keep huge tortoise species, 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.
With very large tortoise pens, it's useful to have a pair of washable garden clogs next to each pen. Having a designated pair of shoes for each enclosure helps prevent transferring microorganisms and parasites between pens (e.g. 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.
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, aka spaces, around them. Using buffer zones helps prevent cross contamination, but it requires a larger total area and more blocks to construct the pens.
By mid to late summer, most of the good stuff has been eaten away. The pens start looking more bare. The double pen in the front is for a breeding pair. There's a connecting doorway behind the yellow flower plants. This way the pen can be divided to separate the sexes if needed. The partial separating wall also breaks the line of sight and gives more privacy to each side of the pen.
Birds and neighborhood cats are the only predators I (may) have to worry about, so I cover my little tortoises' pens with bird netting, deer fence netting, or plastic hardware cloth. 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 around 1/2" x 1/2".
Bird netting (pic lt) 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.
Pay attention to the strength and quality of the mesh, not all bird netting are the same. Some bird nets are made of weaker material that may tear. Plastic nets can also degrade in the hot sun over time.
Deer fence netting (pic rt) 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 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, or something similar, in a strong frame securely attached to the pen. Steel hardware cloth is resistant to gnawing by rodents and other sharp-teethed animals. Hardware cloth with 1/4" x 1/4" openings (pic) is recommended for best security. The openings should be 1/2" or smaller to keep rats out, and 1/4" or smaller to keep mice out.
Leaving dog, cat and tortoise food outside overnight attracts rodents and predators. I empty all food and water dishes every evening and refill them the next morning.
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 use a video monitoring system (pic) that allows me to observe my Star tortoise outdoor pens from inside my house. Just in case. For news stories about tortoise thefts, see the Outdoor Housing section of the Links page.
It's a good idea to provide sight barriers in tortoise pens. They make the enclosure more interesting and help tortoises escape from each other to enjoy some peace. Here, extra blocks and clumps of grass are used for this purpose. Always check corners so that they won't provide any footholds for climbing, or cap them to prevent escapes.
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 from the store to home. 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.
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 will scrape his shell against the surface of the walls. This will 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 boards, will fix it.
Stone pen with edible plants. Mostly, I just sprinkle seeds into the tortoise pens, water them, and watch the plants grow! :O) Sometimes I throw in some organic soil with the seeds as well. On warm days, I water my tortoise pens early in the morning. On really hot summer days, I water the pens during the day as well to help keep them cooler and less dry.
Wooden outdoor pens are popular because they are fairly inexpensive. They are not difficult to build and can be made 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 (pic) 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 looks very weathered because it's almost 20 years old!
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 (pic) 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 more.
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 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.
Portable hog wire panels, or other small livestock fencing, can also be used to build tortoise outdoor pens for larger tortoises. Just secure the perimeter as above.
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 last practically forever because they do not rot. They tolerate rain, heat, and frost.
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.
If you use wire netting with large gaps, like chicken wire, on the bottom of the outdoor pen and your tortoise is an energetic digger (Stars are not), be sure to put a thick layer of dirt on top of it. Otherwise your tortoise may dig down to the wire mesh and get caught in the netting.
Rabbit & chicken runs / pens / houses
For small tortoises who are not diggers or climbers, a large outdoor rabbit cage can be used as temporary tortoise pen. Some rabbit runs even have an attached wooden hutch that looks like a dog house. Chicken hutches often come with attached pens as well, but they are bigger and taller than rabbit houses.
In hot climates, the hutch part of the pen should be positioned in a shady spot to prevent overheating in the sun. Check the temperature inside the hut to be sure. For added stability and safety, you can stake the pen to the ground with dog exercise pen stakes or garden pins.
For babies, the Ware Premium+ Backyard Hutch (pic) small animal pen could be used as a secure, temporary outdoor enclosure. It can be placed on a grassy area to provide natural grazing. For safety, stake it down if your tortoise is an avid digger. The pen size is 53.5" x 24.5" x 21" providing a 1,311 sq in ground / floor area.
Zoo Med also makes a wooden, triangular shaped Tortoise Play Pen (pic). This covered pen is even smaller at 39.5" x 19" x 16" (751 sq in) and only suitable as a temporary pen for little ones. It's available on amazon and ebay (direct links to pen).
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.
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 light weight 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. I piled more blocks in one corner to make some shade there. In hot weather, additional shade is required, for example, you can drape shade cloth or place wood boards on the side and/or top.
Dog crates & pens
For babies and small tortoises, dog play pens and large dog crates can be used as temporary, short-term outdoor enclosures. Steel dog crates provide all around protection against predators like dogs, cats, and big birds. They also prevent the digging of escape tunnels at the bottom. Just remove the metal or plastic crate pan and cover the floor grid with dirt so that it won't get hot in the sun and burn your baby. Always provide shade. Largest dog crates are about 60" (152 cm) long.
Caution! The grid openings in large dog crates can be big enough to allow baby tortoises to escape. You'll need to attach some kind of a wall cover to prevent escapes.
A baby / dog playpen can be used as a temporary isolation pen. This pen folds up when not in use, can be build in any shape, and can be enlarged to any size by purchasing extra wall panels. It works with Stars, but it's NOT suitable for tortoises who like to dig and climb, unless you secure the walls and the perimeter well.
Caution! If you use any type of lightweight, movable enclosure, check that the ground is level along the side walls. No gaps. It's best to stake the sides to the ground. This way, the tortoise can't push himself under the walls. You can also place stone blocks along the outside walls of the pen to provide more security and a sight barrier to discourage escape attempts (see rabbit pen pic above). Netting can be attached to the top.
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.
This nimble little fellow is using the flower pot for support to climb up the wall. See more photos of him. 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.
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.