Captive desert tortoises require a secure habitat consisting of an enclosure with at least one burrow. They will readily escape and may travel considerable distances. For security reasons, enclosures should be located in the backyard. However, exceptions are sometimes made if an adopter lives in a rural area with a secure front yard habitat. Adult desert tortoises need an enclosure that is a minimum of 18 feet by 18 feet (324 sq. ft.), including at least a 6 feet by 6 feet area of grass. Grasses and other native vegetation, such as mallows, forbs, and vines, are excellent diet staples for a desert tortoise. Gravel is not a suitable substrate for two reasons. First, it absorbs heat and makes the surface temperatures extremely hot. Second, gravel can be ingested by a tortoise while it is eating. Both heat from and ingestion of gravel can cause health problems for your torotise, or even death.
For adopters that have a dog, the enclosure fence must be high enough to keep the dog out. It must also keep other turtles or tortoises out. Pools, spas, fish ponds or other sources of deep water also need to be fenced off. Desert tortoises cannot swim, so they will drown if they fall into deep water.
Tortoises must always have access to shade, sun, water, and dry ground. The entire backyard can serve as an enclosure if it is fenced with at least a 12 inch footer. The footer prevents the tortoise from digging under the fence and escaping. If the backyard is not fenced, an enclosure can be created by first digging a 12 inch footer. The footer can be constructed with cement or cinder blocks, or by using a barrier of one-quarter inch or one-half inch hardware cloth.
After the footer is installed, the enclosure wall can be built. The wall needs to be at least 18 inches high. It can be made of solid materials like concrete block or adobe, or fencing including one-quarter inch or one-half inch hardware cloth; 1 inch by 2 inch welded wire fencing; or, two inch poultry netting supported by rebar and sunk at least 12 inches in the ground. If the wall is constructed of cinder blocks, it will require a minimum of three layers of block above the surface of the ground. Walls constructed of hardware cloth or a similar material will require a lip along the top edge to ensure the tortoise cannot escape if it climbs the wall. Wire fencing for adult tortoises should have two inch wide spacing, while hatchlings to three years of age require a maximum of one-half inch spacing to prevent their legs and heads from becoming entangled.
Open fencing such as chain link or other types of wire allow tortoises to see out of the enclosure. This can cause a tortoise to try to escape and creates stress. A tortoise can also get its head or limbs stuck in chain link or wire fencing. To resolve these problems, create a visual barrier that is at least 16 inches high against the bottom of the fence. This barrier can be constructed of cinder blocks, opaque Plexiglas, or wood. Metal barriers should be avoided, because they can reflect heat and have sharp edges that cause injury. Desert tortoises climb well, so the shelter, burrow, or other interior structures should be at least 12 inches away from the perimeter enclosure. Fence gates must be at least 18 inches high and self-closing to prevent accidental escape through an open gate.
Shade is an important part of a tortoise’s habitat, so that it can take refuge from the sun when it is outside of its burrow. Shade can be achieved by planting several medium to large plants within the enclosure, or by building a shade ramada with an awning.
Many pest control chemicals can kill tortoises. Avoid using dry fertilizer, snail bait, weed or pest sprays, or systemic poisons in the enclosure. Pest control companies often offer natural or synthetic pyrethrum sprays, which are not harmful to tortoises.