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Why Tortoises Rock

What does training Aldabra tortoises have to do with cleaning and feeding dogs in a shelter setting? Dr. Emily Weiss revisits an old classic about her early days as an applied animal behaviorist.


“A Blog Story: Why Tortoises Rock”—originally published July 15, 2010

One of the most powerful experiences in my professional career as an applied animal behaviorist involves tortoises. I know what some of you are thinking… I have worked with some amazing creatures from orangutans, lions, bears, elephants and more—so why tortoises? Because the tortoises taught me what “sentient being” really means, which has weaved into the work I do every day with shelters.

Aldabra tortoises are very large tortoises similar to Galapagos tortoises. The zoo I worked for had 4 of these tortoises. They had access to an outside area where they could graze and wallow, as tortoises will do. In summers they had continuous outside access, but in the fall, they needed to come in at night, as the temperatures would drop to levels that were dangerous to tropical tortoises. The keepers would put a call out each evening to have folks come help lift the tortoises and bring them in. If a 500-pound tortoise does not want to come in, he will put his body inside his shell and hunker down… 4 keepers were needed to pick up a tortoise!

Having observed the success of the positive reinforcement training I had been doing with some of the other species at the zoo, the tortoise keeper suggested that we target train the tortoises so that they could bring them in and out on cue. So, armed with cantaloupe slices (a favorite of the tortoises), a bright red ball on a stick and lots of patience, I began to train them. We started by simply pairing a cue with the delivery of food. The tortoises learned this quickly, and we moved to teaching them to touch their noses to the target (the bright red ball).  About 3 weeks into the training, the tortoises changed my world…

I walked up to their exhibit, which was surrounded by families watching the tortoises.   Just out of habit of talking, I called out to the tortoises, “Hey, guys!” … and they stood and turned and looked directly at me! Remember, their exhibit was surrounded by people, but they recognized my voice and oriented directly toward me! A tortoise?!

We trained the tortoises to allow us to pull blood samples from a web of vessels under their front legs. This required them to stand and stretch very tall so we could access that webbing. We published a manuscript in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science on this technique—lots of zoos are no longer wrestling tortoises, instead using targets and touch. The tortoises were so motivated by touch that I could often train them without any food reward, using scratching and stroking of their necks as a reinforcer instead. I would come to the tortoises to just say hello, and they would lay their heads and necks on my lap.

So… how does this relate to saving lives in a shelter? A couple ways. I had assumed that a tortoise would behave much differently than they actually did, so I learned to never assume. Assuming can put lives at risk.

Also, the interaction between the human and nonhuman animal can be powerful, and depending upon the species, our presence may be a powerful training tool in and of itself. I have found this to be a great tool for working with shelter dogs and cats in such simple acts as cleaning and feeding.

My experience with the tortoises served as an epiphany for me. What experiences have helped to shape your world view?



Photo courtesy of Rennett Stowe


Related Links

Blog: “How To Train a Cat”

Blog: “So, Why Does My Dog Do That?”



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