Pet Turtles & Tortoises
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Pet Turtles & Tortoises




As a young child growing up in South Jersey, it was always exciting for me to see a box turtle or a water turtle crossing the road. All too often I would see one squashed by a car or truck; occasionally, it was evident from the location of the deceased turtle that someone had gone out of their way to deliberately run it over. We routinely stopped and moved road-crossing turtles to safety; as I grew a bit older, my mom and I built a large outdoor enclosure so I could bring home some of the turtles I found to keep as pets.

When I went to college, we released the box turtles onto our semi-wooded property. Many years later, I still see some of those turtles each summer wandering around the back yard or crossing the driveway as they travel on their appointed rounds. Sadly, it is the only place I still see box turtles in South Jersey; they are all but gone now.

The following article was written for us by Susan Tellem of American Tortoise Rescue. Susan discusses general pet turtle and tortoise care as well as how to, and how not to, acquire a turtle or tortoise as a pet.


What You Should Know About Owning a Turtle or Tortoise

People love their turtles and tortoises; consequently, the number of people owning them grows every year. This is both good news and bad news. While people are buying and trading large numbers of tortoises and turtles, the number of these animals in the wild is decreasing significantly.

A great number of businesses and individuals are profiting from pet turtle and tortoise sales. Pet stores, online retailers, reptile breeders, street vendors, tortoise clubs and others profit from the sale of these gentle creatures. Pet tortoise and turtle adoption is a logical solution to stopping the sometimes illegal and often dubious sale of reptiles. Animals eligible for adoption come from an existing group of captive reptiles; therefore, no native turtles or tortoises are harmed or ripped from their wild habitats.

Turtles can suffer injuries and stress from violent capture in the wild, usually performed with barbaric hooks or turtle traps. During transportation from forest, field or desert to pet stores, turtles and tortoises are piled on top of each other in cramped, cold, soggy burlap bags. From the boy who caught and sold a wild turtle for 25 cents to the pet store that makes a hefty profit of $40 or even more is a disastrous trip for a turtle or tortoise. Upwards of 90 percent of them die before they go on sale, and many live the rest of their lives in small tanks, a miserable existence for such a wild and free roaming creature.

Habitat destruction, live markets where turtles are sold for food, and international trade in exotic animals have led to a stunning decline in populations of these gentle creatures. They face extinction throughout the world. Turtles, which evolved on this earth 200 million years ago — long before the dinosaurs — are predicted by biologists to see a future of only 50 years. By then there will be no more in the wild. What a sad end to such a harmless creature.

Turtles and tortoises are wild animals which pose special problems as house pets. These reptiles can carry salmonella, a bacterium that is potentially fatal to children, seniors and adults with compromised immune systems. At American Tortoise Rescue, we assume that every turtle and tortoise has salmonella, so we wash our hands after touching each one. Because of dangers such as this, it is very important that you do your homework before purchasing any animal, especially a turtle or tortoise.


Read Before Buying Your Pet

If reptiles interest you, read up on their special care requirements. The Internet is full of good information, especially sites that rehome and adopt turtles and tortoises. Reptile books are not as reliable and often have incorrect information.

Many people change their minds when they see how much care these animals really need. Take into consideration that turtles and tortoises, for the most part, are not very exciting creatures. They tend to sit — hence their long lives. Contrary to what many children and their parents thought after seeing the Ninja Turtles movie, they do not hop, skip and jump through the air. This can be a huge disappointment for a child who believes his turtle has magical powers when the turtle sits there like a log.

For those who are determined to have a turtle or tortoise become a member of the family, here are some key facts.


Water Turtles

Plan on giving a water turtle, like a common Red-eared Slider or a cooter, a home in a pond only. Tanks are cruel for these creatures, which are used to traveling from pond to pond in the wild. They need a safe area, protected from predators like raccoons and dogs. Electric fencing is a good solution, or a screened cover over the pond.

Some water turtles are carnivores, so you must plan on feeding them live food like feeder goldfish as well as a prepared turtle food. They do not need to be fed often — once or twice a week is fine for pond turtles that scavenge. Water turtles hibernate under water all winter and need protection from predators during this time as well.

Choose a healthy turtle at least four inches in length. (It is against federal law to sell any turtles or tortoises under four inches anywhere in the U.S. Report pet stores and breeders who violate this law. They should receive a hefty fine.) Just like any healthy animal, turtles should have clear eyes and be active. A runny nose or swollen eyes are indicative of a sick turtle. Remember that a turtle which is ill is more likely to carry salmonella. You must wash your hands with warm soapy water if you handle it or the water it lives in. If you do this, it is unlikely that you will get sick.

Keeping these wild animals in a tank is cruel. What is even more shocking is keeping these salmonella carriers in schools as a hobby. Please actively discourage this if your child’s teacher is thinking about adding a turtle to the curriculum.


Land Turtles and Tortoises

Land turtles and tortoises are a different matter altogether. Do not buy one at the pet store no matter how cute you think it is. The pet store owner will be encouraged to replace it with another animal pulled from the wild. There are a number of good tortoise rescues throughout the U.S. These rescue agencies will help to match you with the right tortoise for your lifestyle and habitation.

Choose a tortoise that fits your household. Small tortoises like Russians or box turtles are good for people living in homes with small yards. Both of these hibernate and both like cooler weather. Box turtles are carnivores so you will have to feed them snails or worms along with some greenery. Apartment dwellers often think a box turtle in a tank is cool. It is not. These turtles suffer greatly when not allowed to enjoy sunlight and roam freely. Get a bird or a cat instead.

If you have more room, a Desert, Leopard or Sulcata Tortoise will be a good choice. These are vegetarians. The Desert hibernates, but the other two do not. The Desert is endangered or threatened in several states, so you will need a permit. It is illegal to adopt these out of the state of origin, so if you live on the East Coast, don’t plan on a Desert. In fact, Deserts, Leopards and Sulcatas are all from hot climates and do not do well on the East Coast like Russians and box turtles do.

Leopards and Sulcatas are called great tortoises because they grow very large. Leopards are bashful. Sulcatas are not. Sulcata Tortoises can grow to weigh 200 pounds, so unless you have at least a half-acre fenced enclosure, this is not a good choice.


Some Safety Measures

While turtles are more likely to carry salmonella than tortoises, it is best to treat every turtle and tortoise as if they carry it. Good hygiene is important. Children under 12 should not be around a turtle or tortoise without parental supervision.

Dogs should never inhabit the same area as a tortoise. Dogs can chew the tortoise’s arms and legs as well as their shell, and can even kill the turtle or tortoise. There are many sad stories from pet owners who thought that this “would never happen to me.”

Have a qualified exotic animal veterinarian check out your new turtle or tortoise to make sure that it is healthy and gets a good start.

Finally, remember — you have been entrusted with one of the world’s oldest living creatures. This “rock with legs” has a personality and wants a warm, clean home and good food. It will live from 25 to 100 years, so when you make this commitment, it is often for a lifetime.


Authored by Susan M. Tellem, R.N., American Tortoise Rescue, Malibu, California.
Original article published 4 April 2006, copyright Ten Spider Enterprises & Susan M. Tellem.



Follow links to the right to learn more about pet turtles and tortoises and how to rescue or adopt a captive turtle or tortoise to raise as a pet. At the left margin, Related Links address topics of interest pertaining to pets and companion animals. View the Exotic Pets SiteMap for a complete list of exotic pets topics.


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