How to keep a tortoise in college

And not get lynched by an army of angry porters.

bedder byron Cambridge deception pet porters room secret tortoise

Lord Byron had a bear. The Master of Selwyn had a cat which looked suspiciously like a dog. Illicit pets in college are really just another one of those Cambridge traditions. It is our duty to preserve and further such a righteous cause.

This term I have been keeping a tortoise, and I highly recommend the experience. Some places in Oxford have college tortoises. We can’t go letting those bastards have all the fun now, can we?

Monopolistic gits

Species choice and legal affairs

Some tortoises need a license. Avoid these.

Some tortoises need to be kept in tropical vivariums. Avoid these too.

In my not at all biased opinion, the pinnacle of college tortoise-kind is the Horsefield or Russian tortoise. These do not need a vivarium or a license. They live inside in the winter months (mostly hibernating, though not necessarily in their first year of life). They eventually grow to 25cm, but at 1 year old are only about 8cm long.

In the summer, ideally you should take your tortoise home and let it live outside. In term time though, excursions to the Botanical gardens or innovative use of a window cill/balcony may have to suffice.

They can dig and climb. Beware of any Great Escape-style escapades.

Definitely legal

Economic Considerations

A tortoise from a reputable breeder will probably cost about £100. But if the student loan guilt ever enters your mind, you can always think about it as a long term investment. Pounds per year, it’s not all that bad.

The Grand Entrance

Do remember to use the back door. The box your tortoise arrives in will most likely be labelled “Live Reptiles”. Not one to walk through the plodge, or leave in your recycling box.


Balancing you work/zoological commitments

They say animals are therapeutic. The upmarket version of one of those squishy stress balls. This may be true. (N.B. Do not squish your tortoise.)

What is definitely true, however, is the fact that tortoises in college tend to be popular. Brace yourself for the hordes wanting to touch, coo at and feed it.

And then try to resist doing the same yourself. Essays are likely to move even more slowly than your resident shell-dweller.

Culinary Provisions

Tortoise owners may well be the only humans in the world to value dandelions. These are a very safe bet, and freely available in a college garden near you.

Saying you are “Just of to get some weeds” may, however, make you sound like the least cool and grammatically competent recreational drug user in history.

It might therefore be worth going for something a little more adventurous. Chinese cabbage is rather good, if you can find a botanically minded friend to procure it for you.

Clover too features of the list of tortoise delicacies, having the dual advantages of being tasty and lucky.

Water of course, is also necessary. And a cuttle-fish bone, for calcium.

Like a Michelin Star Restaurant, except cheaper


First you need a Tortoise table. This really means a large box, but that sounds less impressive and means shops can’t charge you as much money.

Our tortoise table also features a life-sized, rubber, toy tortoise. It came with it, and whether it is there to provide company or be used as a sex toy I do not know.

You will also need:

A UV lamp. To act as the sun providing vitamin D3.

A normal lamp. To act as the sun providing heat.

These need to be turned on for 10 hours a day, then turned off overnight. This gives the tortoise a good 14 hours sleep a night. Oh to be a small domestic reptile…

I would

Toilet habits

Happily, tortoises poo only rarely. Still often enough to provide occasional amusement when they choose to dump on a guest though.

Excitingly, they also sometimes do white poos (well, urates, if we are going to get technical).

Tortoises also enjoy warm, shallow baths which keep them hydrated.

Health and safety

Apparently tortoises are banned from colleges partly because their lamps can be fire hazards. Obviously far more so than all those formal hall candles, Fellows rooms piled with books, wood panels etc… So do be sure to get them fire-safety tested.

Also watch out for mischievous eagles hanging around. Not only might they eat your darling pet, they may also kill you. Highly reliable classical sources assure us that the playwright Aeschylus was killed when one dropped a tortoise on his head.

Better to be safe than sorry.

Don’t panic: not an eagle

Bedder bribing and Porter avoidance

Unfortunately, our bedder seems to have a rare condition meaning that she thinks she is Sherlock Holmes incarnate.

And so the tortoise was unceremoniously evicted.

Do not fear – it has merely been moved to another college. How long will it survive there? Will it again be turfed out? Will we run out of new colleges to hide it in?

Who knows. Only one thing really matters: The noble quest to bring animal life to our speciesest, homo-sapien-centric university lives on.