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Tortoises Can Be Trained (and So Can Their People)

redfoot tortoise sits in lap
My smart Malti sitting in my lap begging for treats.

In breaking news, researchers have at long last confirmed that tortoises are intelligent, trainable and have memories like elephants.

This really is exciting….at least for the rest of the world.

As for me, I have to admit I already knew all this.

Reason being – I live with a tortoise.

Of course, Malti is not a giant Galapagos or Aldabra tortoise like the ones from the research study. She doesn’t live in a zoo. Her life expectancy is a mere 50 years rather than 100+.

But I suspect none of these variables actually matters much (if at all) and I further suspect it is only a matter of time before the researchers realize this too.

The tortoise research participants were trained to bite a ball of a certain color in exchange for a food reward. Each tortoise was then tested to make sure they remembered “their” color. Finally, after a period of nine years had elapsed, all tortoises were retested on both tasks.

Every single tortoise performed splendidly on all tasks on both occasions.

Malti is a South American redfooted tortoise. She, like all tortoises, comes out of the egg and is completely on her own from day one. It is on her to survive, find shelter, find food, find mates – the whole nine yards.

Malti came to me when she was five weeks old. For the first year she basically hid under her bedding like all hatchling tortoises tend to do.

But after year one, her smarts really started to show. She quickly figured out that all her victuals come from the big white box (the household refrigerator) and took it upon herself to start walking right up to it and biting on the door when she wanted to eat.

Watch for yourself and see!

She also learned to stand on top of my feet, stand on my legs (when I sit down) and even climb up into my lap – all reliable methods to produce more treats. Recently she learned to let me pat her soft neck skin (something I love that she mildly dislikes) and even rest her adorable head in my hand in exchange for tasty edibles.

redfoot tortoise with grandpa
Malti will readily cuddle up against my Dad or Mom to beg for treats or shell scratches, another type of treat she also loves.

Lest anyone think it is just me she does this with, I have photographic evidence that she does it with my Mom and my Dad as well. And it works just as well.

As of the time of this blog post, Malti has just passed the five and a half year mark. Having raised her from hatchling-hood, I can attest with absolute truthfulness that she is the pro and I am the amateur.

Not only did she quickly take stock of her surrounding environment, sizing up everyone and everything in the interests of ensuring her daily needs get met, but she has managed to train me in the process!

Sure, I kept water turtles as a girl, but Malti is my first land tortoise and I had no idea how to communicate with her or what to expect. She has taken the lead every step of the way, studying me like a mastermind and working me for all she’s worth.

I have never yet seen her forget anything or anyplace she wants to investigate. This is never more apparent than when we are out on the lawn together and she scents her way to a stash of some super-yucky lawn edible (mostly dog or cat poop) and starts to dine.

I always rush over and grab her and take her away to some distant area on the lawn. As many times as I remove her, she always, always, always finds her way back and without any wrong turns. Same goes for when we are inside the house. She knows exactly where the big white box is located, exactly where her giant stuffed alligator is located, exactly where to go to hide out in the cool dark closet.

I am the one left hunting for her – sometimes for half an hour in a casa the size of your average two-car garage.

So, yes, tortoises are smart.

In fact, giant tortoises are not the only species to be studied for signs of intelligence. Malti’s species, the redfooted tortoise, has also been studied.

Moses, a redfooted tortoise, readily outsmarted rats in finding his way out of the proverbial maze. His owner, researcher Anne Wilkinson, wasn’t surprised – in fact, it was her idea to try Moses on the task. But the rest of the science world was duly impressed and awarded Wilkinson an Ig Nobel Prize for her work.

It is pretty easy to figure out what motivated Wilkinson to undertake the study. But what motivated Moses?

In a word….food.

Like my Malti and the giant Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises, Moses lives to eat. Tortoises are “opportunistic feeders,” a term that basically means they eat while the eating’s good. If it is tasty, they will do just about anything, learn just about anything, try just about anything to get it.

The other day I told my mom that Malti is worse than any of the dachshunds our family has kept over the decades – and dachshunds are notoriously food-driven. Malti simply doesn’t give up.

Luckily for her, I do. I just can’t resist her and she knows it because she has learned it, the same way she has learned everything else she has needed to learn to survive in this strange yet friendly world she happens to inhabit.

But in all this, what consistently amazes me the most  is the tone of surprise and sometimes outright shock that these types of scientific papers often use to convey their research findings.

Most of the research reports basically read like this: “Such-and-so [fill in the species here] has demonstrated the capability to do/learn/replicate such-and-so [fill in the task here].”

Through it all, it is easy to read between the lines to perceive the subtext of “can you believe it?!”

redfoot tortoise cuddling
My darling girl is as smart as any homo sapiens I’ve ever met – and in many ways, smarter. After all, she has to adapt to our world and not the other way around. I wonder how well I would do if our roles were reversed?

Yup. I can believe it. I believed it before the researchers ever undertook to formulate the hypothesis, design the study, raise the funds, recruit the research subjects, conduct the research, analyze the data, write up their findings, publish their findings and publicize their findings.

I believe it because I see it every day of my life.

Regardless of whether it is a parrot or a tortoise or a canine or a feline or an insect or a songbird or the mythical Loch Ness monster herself, I am already prepared to believe it before it even becomes a gleam in the eye of an enterprising researcher.

Why? Because mammals, insects, avians, reptiles, amphibians, single-celled organisms are intelligent.

After all, we all arise from basically the same stuff. Malti, like me, was once a single-celled organism that got the bright idea to divide and then divide again and then divide yet again. And now here we are.

Perhaps, for some, the research is needed before we can finally, once and for all, admit to ourselves and each other that any thought we think or action we take that even hints at a belief that other species are second-class citizens is flat out wrong.

For me, the research is not needed. In all sincere humility, I must admit I already know.

And I feel like learning to tune into and trust this deep inner knowing is a huge part of my personal evolution – an odd sort of proof that every ounce of recovery and rebuilding and evolving work I have done to date over the last few decades has been worth it and is working.

I can see deeper now. I can feel what I see. I know what can’t easily be known from the outside looking in but feels effortless from the inside peering even deeper within. There is an aspect of me that is awake now and deeply aware that we are all just snowflakes here, each one irreplaceable and unique, and none more nor less precious or necessary than any of the others.

What happens to any one of us happens to us all, the pain, the joy, the separation, the connection, the greed, the generosity – all of it.

With great respect and love,


Tortoises Can Be Trained (and So Can Their People)

Shannon Cutts

Freelance writer. Author. Cockatiel, redfoot tortoise & box turtle mama.

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APA Reference
Cutts, S. (2019). Tortoises Can Be Trained (and So Can Their People). Psych Central. Retrieved on October 20, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Dec 2019
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