The Best Outdoor Home for Your Turtle
No question here at the Ornate Bird Garden: your turtle should live outdoors. But should you let it loose in your backyard, or build it a special enclosure? I favor enclosures no matter what because you can keep an eye on your turtles and make sure they are eating enough and not in conflict with each other. But the choice is yours, and it depends on your turtles, your family, and your backyard itself.
Potscrubber roaming the strawberries in her habitat.
What is your turtle's natural environment? Elsewhere (see Is a Box Turtle the Right Pet For You?) I advise acquiring the type of box turtle whose natural environment most closely resembles your backyard. If you live in the desert and you have Western box turtles, you won't have to do much to recreate the right climate for them. If you get a turtle with foreign climate needs, you may need to an elaborate enclosure in which to create the proper environment.
For example, I rescued a three-toed box turtle, which would normally be found in humid areas like eastern Texas rather than in the high desert southwest. I keep her in a large enclosure well-stocked with fresh water, cool mud, and humid grass-clippings.
What about your family members? Got kids? Your turtles will do better in an enclosure to keep them safe from the curious hands of small children, or the running feet of older kids who want to use the backyard as a playground.
One or more cats? Cats shouldn't be a problem for your adult turtles, which will move too slowly to interest them. Do take precautions if you have a mixed male-and-female population (see Which Turtle Makes a Better Pet – a Male or a Female?) and expect hatchlings. Cats will kill baby turtles so you'll need to cover the turtle enclosure with a secure lid.
Got dogs? You must put your turtles in a dog-proof enclosure. You might think your dog is well-behaved, or too old to care about turtles. However, to a dog that is bored out of its mind languishing in a backyard all day, a turtle makes a tempting chew-toy.
A dog, however tiny, can stress out your turtles!
If you have large dogs, you must build a large turtle-pen with a lid. Of course, the bigger you can make your enclosure, the happier your turtle will be. So a lid can be hard to manage. One idea is to situate your turtle in your side-yard with barriers to block escape into the front yard or the backyard. Give your dog the run of the backyard. In this case, you'll want to put your turtle in the east or south side-yard that gets the most morning sun. This is because your turtles will need to bask in the sun in the morning in order to warm up and feel like eating.
Even if your dog has a tiny mouth that couldn't open big enough to encompass a turtle shell, you should still put your turtles in a dog-proof habitat. This is to keep your Chihuahua or whatever from scampering up and sniffing at the turtles all the time, and maybe trying to grab a turtle leg. If your turtles share a backyard with even a tiny dog, they will stress out and hide all the time, never knowing when that dog is going to pop out at them. Then you will miss out on the fun of watching your turtles roam and hunt and bask in your backyard.
What about your backyard itself? Obviously, if your backyard has an open design with no walls or no gate, you will need to build a turtle enclosure. Turtles are escape artists, and can climb or dig their way out of any unsecured environment. Believe me, they have a driving instinct to make an immediate break for freedom if they see a way out of your yard.
What will you do when it’s time to mow the lawn?
If your backyard contains a lot of scrap metal or a swimming pool or a fish pond or some other unsafe environment for turtles, you will need to build a turtle enclosure. If your backyard is severely lacking in climate conditions that turtles need, you will need to build a turtle enclosure. Does your backyard have adequate shade, water, plants to hide in, and food sources such as beetles, snails, and worms?
Also, if your backyard is too huge, you might completely lose track of your turtles. Consider what you will do when it comes time to mow the lawn or invite friends over to play croquet. It might be easier to keep your turtles out from underfoot in an enclosure.
Want to turn your turtle loose in your backyard? Ideally, you have no kids and no dogs. Your backyard is escape-proof. You keep your lawn manicured on a regular basis so that when it's time to mow, you can see where your turtles are and move them out of the way. You have some taller plants for them to hide in, plenty of shade and sun, and water.
Go ahead and let them roam. I tried this with the four ornate males I had in 2005, and found it fun to see them popping up here and there. I kept limited track of them by putting a bowl of water on the back patio. Turtles can smell water over long distances so they quickly learned where to go for water. Through the patio doors, I could watch them approach the water bowl on a regular basis. I would also put out dishes of treats beside the water dish each morning, and they got used to the routine.
Turtles are self-sufficient little guys, and many people prefer to keep them under more loosely supervised conditions than I do: just let them roam and hunt at will in the backyard, and supply them with fresh water every day. If this is your preference, see Escape-Proof Your Turtle Yard.
Want to keep your turtles in a special enclosure? This is my preference. If it's yours, see Build an Outdoor Turtle Habitat.
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