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Koopa eating a dandelion
Koopa eating a dandelion back in spring of 2014.

Last year, my pet tortoise, Koopa began to outgrow her second burrow, and I had to construct a larger one. It was just in time, too, because she had actually begun digging underneath a brick that had lined the back of the burrow. If she had dug around the dirt a little bit more, the brick could have fallen she may have gotten stuck.

[LEFT]Koopa was getting a bit too big for her old burrow.
[RIGHT] She also dug under the brick that lined the back of her burrow, which could have caused her to get stuck.

The Nipper Nightmare : Losing a life-long companion

Koopa becoming trapped in her burrow is something that I was particularly sensitive to, since earlier that year, one of the family's other pet tortoises had died. Nipper was a tortoise that my parents got when I was very young (around eight). I had grown up with her, and she had become a constant fixture in my life. Her appearance in the backyard was always the signal of the start of summer.

But she somehow became trapped in the burrow after hibernating the previous winter. She tried to dig herself out, but apparently didn't quite make it, and she either suffocated or starved to death burried under the ground. In May, after all the other tortoises had awoken from hibernation, and Nipper was still AWOL, my dad dug up the burrow to look for her, and found her lifeless corpse. It was a scene that I had lived all to many times in my nightmares growing up, as the health and safety of the tortoises was always a source of anxiety during the long months of their hibernation.

Her death was particularly traumatic for me, as I was completely unprepared for such an eventuality, despite having rehearsed it so many times in nightmares. When you adopt a puppy or a kitten, you also take on the uncomfortable burden of knowing that the animal that you are going to grow and love comes with an expiration date. Cats can live for an average of 15 years; whereas, a dog is fortunate to make it past 10 or 12 (depending on the size and breed). But the lifespan of the desert tortoise isn't entirely known. I've seen estimates ranging from 50 years to 150 years. But I think the general consensus is somewhere between 50 and 80.

Nipper with Bubbles
Nipper sharing a meal with her child, Bubbles.

In any case, when we adopted Nipper, there was a realistic expectation that she could outlive me! Having to cope with her death was not something that I was prepared to handle because I had a realistic expectation that I would never witness it. I always figured that I'd be passing her on to my children or grandchildren. So for her to pass away due to an entirely avoidable accident after a mere 20 years was heartbreaking. She was in the prime of her life, and should have had many more decades of happily chomping on dandelions.

I didn't talk about her death on this blog at that time because, frankly, it was too hard for me to talk about.

She is survived by a handful of children, three of which we still have, and one that was given to a friend of my father. As far as I know, all four are still alive and well. And I hope that they all get to enjoy the long, happy lives that their mother was denied by cruel fate.

Tortoises may not be the most playful, cuddly, or affectionate of animals, but they are generally very gentle and very serene. And Nipper was as sweet and gentle as they come, and we loved her dearly. She deserved better.

R.I.P. Nipper. Our little Sentinel of Summer.
1993 - 2014

So after already having experienced one close call with Koopa, I was determined to do everything I could to ensure a safe hibernation for her, and to avoid a repeat of the previous summer! So when I saw that she was scratching the top of her shell against the ceiling of her burrow, it was time to tear the thing up and build her a bigger, better one. Even though the current one was only two years old.

Koopa Burrow 2
Koopa's old burrow.

The new burrow (v3.0)

First things first, I had to tear up the old burrow. It had been elevated a little to prevent flooding, but was dug directly into the ground. It wasn't very deep because I have solid rock less than 6 inches beneath the soil in my back yard. Since I couldn't dig any deeper into the ground, I had to build the new burrow above-ground in order to make it bigger and leave Koopa room to grow.

I recruited a couple friends to help me dig up the old burrow and shovel dirt onto the new one. The whole process took a couple of afternoons with two people working at any given time. Thanks Dylan and Nick for the help, and thanks to my girlfriend Jen for recording the event with pictures!

I didn't want Koopa digging underneath the walls or out the back as she had tried to do before, so I laid ceramic tile on the ground to create a "floor" and then used large, interlocking bricks to create the walls. Once that was done, I filled it with dirt and sand to provide insulation and give Koopa the opportunity to follow her natural instinct to dig.

[LEFT] The floor and walls of the new burrow (with Koopa for reference).
[RIGHT] Filled in with sand to provide insulation and allow Koopa to dig.

Next came the tedious process of covering the burrow with a mound of dirt. I covered it with a wooden board wrapped in plastic sheet in order to avoid water damage and rot. I rented a U-Haul flatbed and bought a ton of dirt from a local STAR Nursery a couple days prior. I recruited a friend of mine to help me shovel dirt onto the mound while Koopa waited in a cardboard box off to the side to avoid being trampled on or run over.

Koopa Burrow 3 - building mound
Creating an insulating dirt mound.

I put another sheet of plastic over the mound so as to hopefully cause rainwater to run off the side of the mound instead of soaking the dirt and making the burrow damp (which can lead to the tortoise becoming ill). Then we covered it in more dirt. And then more dirt.

Lastly, I put a slab over the top of the opening so at to block rain from falling directly into the opening. I also piled up a small mound of dirt inside the opening so that rain water would pool there instead of draining further back into the burrow.

Then it was time to release Koopa into the burrow to see how she liked it. I don't think she likes change, because she was hesitant to enter at first. But she eventually went in and made herself comfortable in the back. As the fall went on, she dug herself a little nook in the back of the burrow so that she wasn't even visible for most of the winter.

I'd shine a flashlight down there every now and then to make sure that the hole was staying dry and not too cold. Sometimes, I could see her shell sticking out of the dirt. Other times, she was completely disappeared beneath the dirt. I was a little worried about how well insulated the burrow would be. But fortunately, we had a very mild winter this year. There was only a couple weeks of freezing temperatures.

Koopa makes herself snug and cozy in the new burrow.

During her hibernation, I also made some other modifications to the area surrounding the burrow. I tried planting some dandelions and other desert "weeds", but haven't been able to get them to grow. That's right, I have such a black thumb that I can't get weeds to grow! I also wanted to plant a small cactus that I had bought, but it's roots are probably too tall due to the soil being so shallow. I'm planning on building a planter for it and the dandelions, but that's going to be a project for later in the year.

Koopa burrow 3 - complete
The completed burrow (March 15, 2015).

The burrow seems to have been a success, since Koopa came out of hibernation this past weekend. And as far as I can tell, she seems to be perfectly healthy. We gave her some dandelion flowers and leaves and cactus chunks to eat and some water to drink, and she gobbled it up and wandered around the yard a bit.

But there is always more work to be done. She needs some more desert plants to be planted back there, so that she'll have food to eat when I'm away. And I still want to add some more dirt to the mound for additional insulation in case next winter is colder than this past winter. This burrow should hopefully last for a handful of years at least - assuming that she doesn't hit a massive growth spurt. So during that time, there will no doubt be some iterative improvements. The next burrow will likely be her final, adult burrow, and that will be a much larger project that will require quite a bit of planning. I'll probably build a burrow similar to the one recommended by the Tortoise Group website.

But in the meantime, my little baby is back, and I can't be happier to see her!

Koopa came out of hibernation on March 14, 2015, and seems to be perfectly healthy.

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