I’m a zoo girl.

One day a week, it is my privilege to work with critically endangered turtles and tortoises. One of them is the Radiated tortoise (Astrochelys radiata), a species native to Madagascar whose numbers have dropped by half in the last ten years. We have a breeding pair of them, and this year I was asked to teach them to drink out of a water  bowl.

Sounds weird.

An animal encounters water, they should know how to drink, right? But some animals do not. If the surface of the water is not moving, many desert animals are not stimulated to drink. They can see the water, and they can smell it, but they don’t quite know what to do with it. The chances of them encountering standing water in the wild are almost non-existent.

Armed with a spray mister and no small amount of determination, I set out to teach our pair what a water bowl is for. When Radiated tortoises feel a spray of rain, they instinctively stand. They have even been known to dance. The idea behind the spray mister is to get them to their feet and then place the water bowl right next to them so that when they lay down, they are practically in it. Then the surface of the water is sprayed to agitate it an hopefully inspire the animal to take a drink.

The animals are naturally shy. At first, I had to stand behind them while I sprayed so that they would come out of their shell at all. Tortoises can see colors, and the bright blue volunteer shirt was a little off-putting and reminded them I was there.  I had no luck at first. They were too intimidated by my presence to drink.

After a few weeks, we began to see some progress. They would stand for up to 20 minutes while I sprayed them, but they still wouldn’t drink. A couple of times, one or the other would land clumsily in the water bowl. I could see twin dimples in the water from their nostrils as they took the scent of the water. They tasted it briefly, and then got startled and pulled back in their shells.

Long story short (too late?), after three months of work, my work is done. Just in time to send them outside for the summer where they will forget everything I taught them. But I did it. There is nothing more satisfying than watching the female turn toward the bowl and dip her head, the muscles in her neck moving rhythmically as she takes a long drink.

5 thoughts on “Drinking Lessons, For A Tortoise”

    1. Thank you! I’m so sorry I didn’t respond sooner. These comments went to spam, and I didn’t even find them until yesterday.

      The sweetest thing is that we have three small radiated tortoises, the offspring of the adults. Two of them behave exactly like miniature adults, and whenever I spray them, they stand and do their little dance.

    1. Working with tortoises is a long-term deal. I’m just beginning to understand how long-term. The wild-caught animals are so skittish and need deliberate interaction to help them adapt. I hope the little ones are easier! My hope is to begin doing some research on tortoise cognition.

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