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SLOW BUT SURE

Crunch, crunch, crunch.

The sound emanated from the dry carpet of leaves to my left as I ambled through the woods. What caused this careless rustling? A squirrel? A chipmunk? Nothing moved enough to catch my eye when the sound ceased.

Peering intently into the parched foliage for a while, I spied a beautiful mosaic of colors adorning a shell nearly hidden beneath the debris. It was my favorite denizen of the forest: a male Eastern box turtle!

Superbly sculpted shells, often combined with flashy-colored heads and legs, are trademarks of many of the world's nonaquatic turtles. Most of these creatures are extremely slow moving and shy. They go through life in no apparent hurry - which may in large part explain their life span: Members of many species will exceed half a century in age, and some may surpass 100 years.

Their long lives, meandering movements, gentle natures, and mostly-vegetarian eating habits make tortoises (as land-loving turtles are often called) one of the best reptile pets. Nevertheless,all reptiles can carry salmonella; because of this, it is best to not have a turtle if you have young children, people with weakened immune systems or pregnant women in your home. Always have a veterinarian check a new reptile pet for salmonella, parasites and other possible diseases.

Ample Space

Tortoises are best housed in pens that provide plenty of floor space and some shade. An enclosure for your pet should range from a minimum of 3 square feet of ground per 8 inches to 3 square yards per 12 inches, depending on the species. The larger the pen is the better. Set the pen up in a spot where bushes throw lots of shade but full sunshine still reaches portions of the enclosure. Ensure you've researched the necessary temperature ranges for your species of tortoise as in some areas tortoises can stay outside year round but only a month or two in other areas. Also, provide your tortoise with hiding places and a few things to climb on such as rocks or small logs.

Inside quarters can be simpler; a large cardboard box will work in a pinch, but an enclosure of thin plywood, including a floorboard, will last much longer as will a child's plastic wading pool. In that situation, a hooded basking lamp should overhang one edge so your tortoise can park himself directly below and warm up when he wants to.

Most species enjoy soaking in a shallow tray of water several inches deep at least once a week. However, offer them water once a day for soaking and/or drinking. For a day species, water can be left in the habitat all day. (Make sure you do your homework on the kind of tortoise you have.) You'll have to remove the pan within a few hours because tortoises usually defecate while soaking, fouling the bowl or tray.

Assorted Veggies

Tortoises are generally vegetarian, though few will pass up a juicy bug or caterpillar that crosses their path. Variety is the key to maintaining your pet's health. In the wild, grasses, leaves, and other fibrous plants make up the bulk of most tortoises' diets. So offer a rich mix of deep-colored leafy greens as the foundation of your tortoise's meals; providing fruits is fine also. Do your homework to make sure you are feeding your tortoise the appropriate food. Also, always provide water when you offer food because water is vital to the digestive process.

Adding a few fruits and juicy vegetables is fine, but limit such goodies to 20 percent of each meal by weight. Sure, your pet loves soft red strawberries, overripe apples and peaches, and watermelon, and he'll eat them first if you set out a mixed plate. (It's like kids diving for the cookies and ice cream rather than the spinach and carrots.) For your turtle's sake, use these treats for special times when you wish to have his full attention and as rewards for good behavior.

Captive Breeds

South American redfoot and yellowfoot tortoises are among the best species for captivity. They have calm natures and will feed hardily on veggies you can pick up at the grocery store.

African spurred tortoises are one of the best choices, although you might find their eventual size - more than 24 inches long - somewhat daunting.

The good news is that each year hobbyists are succeeding at breeding more species. A captive-bred young tortoise is such a superior pet compared to an import that you should never hesitate between the two if you have a choice. It's worth paying more, especially when you consider that caring for a tortoise may be a lifelong commitment.