l.s.r., aka “katie”

HibernationIn a REFRIGERATOR?

The first time I heard about refrigerator hibernation, I almost fell out of my chair laughing at the sheer hilarity of the idea.  Turtles in the refrigerator??  My imagination turned to all kinds of scenarios:  triangle-shaped bite marks in my vegetables, claw marks in my peanut butter, and finding little brown pellets behind the bologna.  Plus the reaction of my reptile-phobic friend as she reaches in for a soda only to find a turtle looking up at her – come to think of it, that alone would probably be worth it.

Fast forward about ten years, and my 3 year old juveniles (Dinkey, Plato, and Beaky) and rescue ornate (Turbo) are slugging through yet another winter.  I kept full-spectrum and basking lights on them.  I kept them warm, humid, and hydrated.  I gave them the tastiest foods.  Did they eat?  Not often enough, and certainly not enthusiastically.  One would stop eating altogether and glare at me resentfully as I hovered around the tank.  That one would start nibbling again, and another would go on a hunger strike, keeping buried and not moving.   The four of them practiced rotating anorexia, driving me crazy.  Their little instincts were telling them to sleep, and this aggravating human kept bothering them with food and bright lights.  I figured it was time to do a little more research on hibernation.



There are many opinions concerning the effects of hibernating or not hibernating.  Some say hibernation is essential to the turtles’ health, longevity, and fertility.  Some say it doesn’t matter.  I don’t claim to know myself.  My only concern was that I would hurt them by my ignorance, so I researched the topic for many weeks. I decided against outdoor hibernation because there were so many factors I could not control – varying or extreme temperatures, moisture or lack thereof, plus the fact that our outdoor enclosure is a raised turtle table, limiting the depth that they could bury themselves.  I could have enclosed a section of ground in the backyard for the turtles to dig down into, but we put so much fire ant poison, fertilizer, and weed killer in the yard that past year that I was worried about the toxic effects all those chemicals would have on the turtles.

I went to the internet, specifically to the Kingsnake box turtle forum ( and Austin’s Turtle Page forums (  Paul, Nathan, and Tess were especially helpful at Kingsnake, although I was scolded by another forum member there for considering the refrigerator method of hibernation.  At Austin’s Turtle Page, Dawn and Jan O. are the resident fridge hibernation experts, and they and others were patient and instructive to this anxious, worried turtle parent.  The ATP forum is friendly, helpful, and fun anyway – I try to visit at least once a day.  They have a multitude of herp and other pet forums, and welcome new members.  No flaming or abuse is allowed, and it is very family-friendly.  I get a lot of good information and support from them.


Equipment and Accessories

My husband put his foot down about hibernating turtles in our food refrigerator, so I bought a small dorm-type fridge.  I also got a digital indoor – outdoor thermometer with an extra sensor attached to a wire so I could see the temps at two different areas of the fridge.  About 4 weeks before I put the turtles in, I turned on the fridge and started monitoring the temps on the top and bottom areas.  The ideal hibernation temps are between 40 and 45 degrees Fahrenheit.  This particular refrigerator was on the cold side, so I had to keep turning the knob toward the warmer settings until both temps stabilized in the hibernation - friendly zone. 

Once I got the temps in the refrigerator stabilized, I started on the hibernation boxes.  I went to the dollar store and bought four plastic shoebox-sized storage bins and drilled many holes in the tops.  I filled them almost to the top with a mixture of peat moss and cypress mulch and misted the substrate thoroughly with water.  One thing that was emphasized in my research was the importance of moisture in the substrate.  It should be damp, but not so damp that you can squeeze drops of water out.

The last thing in the setup was to establish an air supply.  Most people on the forums don’t have an air supply and merely open the door once a day, but with the unpredictable hours I work, I didn’t want to take the chance of forgetting to open the door.  I got an inexpensive air pump, some tubing, and a clean glass jar with a lid.  I drilled two holes about two inches away from each other in the jar lid.  I put the tube attached to the air pump through one of the holes to the bottom of the jar.  I took another length of tubing and put it through the other hole, but left the end of the tube near the top of the jar.  The other end of that tube went into the top of the refrigerator between the rubber door seal and the body of the refrigerator.  I glued the area around the two tubes on top of the jar lid so the tubes would stay in place and the jar would be airtight. After the glue dried, I filled the jar about 2/3 full of water and turned the air pump on.  The supply air bubbled up through the water.  The moistened air then traveled through the other air tube into the refrigerator.  This way, the supply air would not dry the turtles out.  I also placed a short exhaust tube at the bottom of the door.  I had to do a little more twiddling with the temperature with the boxes in the fridge and the air supply coming in from the top, but the temps soon steadied.


The Stars of the Show

Now, for the most important part – the turtles themselves!  It’s a good idea to get them examined by a vet and get a parasite check before hibernation.  If the turtle is sick or weak or in any way not in top shape DO NOT HIBERNATE THEM!  Better to keep them awake all winter than to risk their health if they are weak or sick.  Take them to the vet a couple of months before putting them in hibernation so if the turtle is infested or ill the treatment will have time to work.  And one can’t just pluck them out of their enclosures, plop them in the fridge and slam the door shut - they must be cooled down first.  A little less than a month before I hibernated them, I stopped feeding them.  Their appetite slows down in the fall or when it starts getting cool, anyway.  If they have food in their bodies when they hibernate, it could rot and make them sick, so I had to be sure they were empty from mouth to cochlea.  Soaking in tepid water during this non-feeding time is very important to empty out their little digestive tracts, and I soaked my guys every day.  I kept them outside during this time when the weather started to cool – around November.  I piled lots of leaves in their enclosure for the nights it dipped below 50ْ Fahrenheit.  After about three weeks of soaking, cooling, and not eating, my group was ready for the fridge.

I gave them one last long soak (in cool water this time), dried them off, and recorded each one’s beginning weight and the date in a notebook.  After misting the substrate once more, I dug a little clear spot in each box and placed them in.  They immediately wanted to escape, so I had to put rubber bands around the lids.  I have to admit it was a little traumatic for me to be forcing them down into coffin-like boxes, but I took a deep breath, shook the feeling off, and slid the boxes into the fridge. 


Hibernation Environment

The main body of my digital thermometer was on the top shelf above the boxes closest to the freezer.  As I had mentioned before, this thermometer had a wire with a probe on the end so I could slide the switch and measure the temperature in another place – I put that one in the substrate of the lowest turtle box.  That way, I could check the two extremes of the fridge area at one time.  Of course, the temperature next to the freezer always read a few degrees colder than the one buried in the substrate, but that was all right as long as the two temperatures remained between 40 to 45 degrees Fahrenheit.   One person on the forum rotated the boxes when she took them out to soak and check on them – I thought that was a great idea, so I started rotating my boxes between the upper and lower shelves every time, also..  I also placed a humidity gauge on the door shelves, but I suspect it wasn’t working correctly because it always told me it was very dry.  With all that humid air being pumped in, I would think that it would tell me there was a rain forest, albeit a cold one, right there in my fridge.


Checking In

Now, I really only had to take them out, soak them, and weigh them about once a month after that, but I was so fearful that I was taking them out every week, soaking them in cool water for about 45 minutes, weighing them, and misting their substrates.  That’s probably way too often.  After I checked all four’s breathing (hoping they would all be too sleepy to take a nip out of my ear) and verifying that their eyes were bright and clear each time, I realized they were doing fine and I was not killing them, I started taking them out every two weeks.  Each time after they had soaked, I wrapped them loosely in a towel to blot the excess water.  I then weighed them and recorded their weights.  Their weights never went down and some even gained weight because of the soakings.  If one or more of them were to lose more than 10 percent of their starting weight, I would have to warm them up gradually and try to get them to eat again.  If they still acted sick or refused food for more than 2 weeks, I would have to take them to the vet.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to do any of that.


How Long a Sleep?

When I put them into hibernation, it was the middle of November.  After doing some repairs and upkeep on their outside enclosures and carefully watching the forecast on the Weather Channel, I decided that March 19 was the day I would bring them outside again.  I probably should have taken them out sooner when the outside temperatures were in the 60’s to warm them up gradually, but I was afraid that they would catch a respiratory infection in their weakened post-hibernation state.  Outside temps were going to be in the mid to upper 40’s at night and in the mid 70’s during the day with practically no more chance of frost.  Their enclosures get the morning sun and afternoon shade, so they wouldn’t be exposed to very hot temperatures all at once. I gave them one last long soak and placed each one in their outside enclosure Friday night.  I figured they could sleep the night and wake up to daylight on the first day of spring on March 20.



Dinkey and Beaky started walking around slowly with dazed expressions on their faces.  Plato and Turbo burrowed down into their substrate almost immediately.  When I checked on them the next day, Dinkey and Beaky were in the same positions as they had settled down into the night before.  All the turtles remained motionless for a day.  I was getting worried about them – were they supposed to be this groggy even though the daytime temperatures were in the 70’s?

To add to my worries, Mother Nature threw me a curve.  Suddenly, there was a forecast of cold temperatures Sunday night and a freeze warning, of all things, for Monday night.  Sunday afternoon found me rummaging around for 4 separate plastic containers and leaping up to grab Spanish moss out of the trees for the turtles to burrow in.  After I carried the confused critters back inside, they got another soak and seemed happy to snuggle down into the moss.  Beaky’s breathing seemed a bit wet, so I put a heating pad under his tub.  I misted the moss thoroughly and poured water into the bottom of the containers.  That made my entire house smell like, well, wet musty moss, but at least my guys were comfortable.  Other than soaking, I pretty much left them alone until Tuesday – I didn’t want to stress them out with any more activity.  Tuesday, I soaked them in warm water which they all seemed to love, especially Plato, who fell asleep with his little head under water.  After soaking, each one went out in the sunroom with a plate of veggie mush mixed with reptamin, calcium, and vitamins.  I didn’t expect them to eat, but I thought I’d try introducing food just in case. 


Coming back to life

I was emptying the bowls when I happened to glance out to the sunroom and lo and behold, good ol’ Plato had bellied up to the plate and was munching away!  None of the others ate, but they looked more alert than they had been.  Beaky’s breathing seemed less noisy, also.  The next day, Turbo took a few tentative nips of the veggie mush.  Friday, I got some night crawlers to tempt them.  Turbo and Plato each ate one and Beaky finally slurped down a couple.  I put one in front of Dinkey and poked it to make it wiggle.  Dinkey looked off into space as if contemplating the mysteries of life.  After further fruitless urging, I gave up and went inside.  When I looked out the kitchen window later, Dinkey had apparently solved life’s mysteries and was tearing into the worm.  They have since eaten well – I think Beaky ate his weight in crickets Sunday.

Now, with all of them eating, I could finally relax with the knowledge that I didn’t hurt my turtles and might have even done them some good.  They still regard me as She-who-wakes-us-up-to-plunge-us-into-water, and eye me suspiciously when I approach.  Hopefully as the weather gets warmer, they will remember me as She-who-carries-food-in-her-front-legs, and again look forward to my visits.