Last night was a scary night.
Around 10:30 pm, there was a rather sudden downpour of heavy monsoon rain and hail in my area of town. It was coming down hard and fast. When I noticed that the rain had quickly flooded my back yard, I went into a panic.
As some of you may recall, I took in a baby tortoise that I had found crossing the street outside my house last August. I've been keeping him (I don't actually know the gender yet, but I'll use the pronoun "him" for simplicity) as a pet ever since, I dug a burrow for him on the side of the house, and I have named him Koopa. In the past year, Koopa has become quite adept at hiding under bushes in my yard and, surprisingly, at climbing walls.
Koopa the tortoise (summer, 2012).
Well, as I noticed the backyard filling with flood waters (it only took a few minutes), I started to worry about little Koopa and whether or not his burrow was staying dry. We had never had rains like this since I found Koopa, so I had no idea how well the burrow would hold up. In an adreneline-fueled panic, I grabbed a flashlight and a jacket and ran into the backyard. My heart immediately sank when I saw that not only had Koopa's burrow flooded, but that it was already full-to-the rim with water.
My beloved cat, Gynx.
It was like a scene straight out of a nightmare. When I still lived with my parents, we had pet tortoises (they still have them), and I used to have horrible recurring nightmares about them suffering fatal accidents. I would dream that they had been run over by cars, torn apart by a neighbor's dog or cat, or (case in point) drowned in a rainstorm. Worst and most demoralizing of all, I was always helpless in these dreams to save the pets. The dreams would always take place after the accident had occurred when we found or dug up the dead bodies. I also used to have similar dreams about our cat too. They were all horrible dreams, and I was glad that I stopped having them after I moved out of my parents' house. The scene before me now, however, looked like it had been pulled directly out of one of these dreams.
Scared and soaked, I quickly scanned around the area with the flashlight in the hopes that Koopa had escaped the burrow before it filled, but found no trace of him outside. Fearing that Koopa must be trapped inside, I threw off my watch and reached my hand into the burrow. It was like reaching my hand into a clogged toilet, the water was so deep. I found Koopa's body only halfway down the hole, and my heart sunk even deeper as I pulled him out.
He was motionless, with his head and feet tucked into his shell as tortoises are prone to doing when scared or sleeping.
I ran into the house with him in-hand and set him down on the counter crying, thinking that he must surely be dead.
My roommate and I watched him for a few moments, poking at his legs every so often to try to get him to move. I was breathless, and in my memory, the whole scene is now a blur.
After a few pokes, his leg twitched. Was it a sign that he was alive? Or just an involuntary muscle reflex? Come on, Koopa, do something!
Eventually, though, he started moving. He was alive! I was so relieved and grateful.
Koopa is OK!
Either he was sleeping when the burrow flooded, or he was scared stiff. Apparently tortoises can hold their breath for quite a while, as he was probably submerged in the flooded burrow for several minutes at least. I assume this must be an evolutionary survival mechanic to protect them from drowning if their burrow fills with water while they are hibernating. Whatever the case, I am very glad that my little Koopa is alive and seems to be doing well now! But I'll have to keep a close eye on him to make sure he doesn't show any signs of illness from respiratory infection or the like. I'll also be bringing him inside during the night or anytime that I'm out of the house for extended periods for the duration of the monsoon season, or until I can construct a more suitable burrow.
Koopa seems to be OK after the flood. I haven't seen any signs of illness, he's very active, and has a healthy appetite. Hopefully he hasn't suffered any ill effects from the experience.
A note to fellow tortoise-owners: Tortoises can hold their breath for quite a while, but they cannot swim. If you have a pool, or your yard floods, or you otherwise notice your tortoise submerged in water: do not give up hope, and get the tortoise out of the water and dried as soon as possible!
Observed faults in the burrow's construction and use
Several defects in the way I've constructed the burrow contributed to the flooding, and these defects have become painfully obvious to me in hindsight.
Koopa's burrow, v1.2 (summer, 2012), is highly flawed. Other tortoise owner's: do not make the same (nearly fatal) mistakes that I made!
For anyone else who is constructing a burrow for a tortoise, please pay attention and do not make the same (near fatal) mistakes that I made!
Failure to properly elevate the burrow
When I first constructed the burrow, I had used store-bought sand to try to put the burrow on a small mound. Unfortunately, the bags contained less sand than I had anticipated, and the burrow did not rise far above the height of the rocks around it. In addition, it seems that as the sand has settled, it has compacted downwards, which has further lowered the mouth of the burrow to less-than-level with the surrounding soil.
When I rebuild the burrow, I will need to buy more sand and be sure to further elevate the burrow. It may also be a good idea to dig up some sand from the area around the burrow and relocate it into the burrow in order to both increase the elevation of the burrow and decrease the elevation of the surrounding terrain, thus creating a bit of a moat for water to drain and settle into.
This leads me to the next problem:
Failure to provide proper water diversion and/or drainage
When digging the burrow initially, I ran into solid rock about 6 inches below the surface of the soil. The presence of solid rock under the burrow (rather than compacted dirt or soil) means that water cannot drain out of the burrow. Rain water is typically absorbed into the ground soil, but in the case of the burrow, it cannot drain through solid rock.
I may have to dig around the area a bit to see if I can find a spot that does not have solid rock beneath it. However, I also need to keep in mind that I must avoid building the burrow too close to the house foundation or the brick wall. If the tortoise digs below the wall, it could cause the wall's weight to collapse the burrow. It could also provide the tortoise with a possible escape route into my neighbor's back yard, LoL.
Failure to provide adequate shade, and accidentally funneling water into the burrow
Another major problem that I noticed earlier this year is the lack of shade during the afternoon. The rocks surrounding the burrow become very hot in direct sunlight, and Koopa didn't like leaving the burrow during the day because the hot rocks would burn his feet.
In an attempt to alleviate this problem, I dug out paths leading out of the burrow in several directions so that Koopa would have paths of cooler dirt to walk on.
This backfired big time, and almost proved to be a fatal mistake!
When the rains started, the walls of rock lining these paths acted as channels for the water, funneling extra water right into the mouth of the burrow. This probably contributed greatly to the speed with which the burrow flooded.
I have since bought some dandelion seeds and plan on getting some other desert plants to plant in the area around the burrow. When I rebuild the burrow, I will try to move as much of the rocks out of the area as possible, so that the tortoise has plenty of clear dirt to walk on, and to prevent water from being funneled by the rocks. Plants should also help to provide shade, as well as offering the tortoise some convenient and easily-accessible food.