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It's a common enough event: someone finds a freshwater turtle, possibly a tiny hatchling, and they consider keeping the turtle as a pet. Is it a good idea to keep a wild turtle? Are they difficult to care for? It is even legal to do so?
A Simple Answer
It is absolutely not a good idea to keep a wild turtle as a pet. Whether it is legal or not varies depending on the rules in your state or province, but in any case, removing a turtle from the wild can have very negative consequences to its population. This is due to some unique biological characteristics of turtle populations:
- Turtles grow slowly, investing energy in developing a strong, heavy shell to protect itself from predators. As a result, they do not start breeding until late in life. Even a large mammal like a whitetail deer can breed when it reaches one and a half-year-old, but snapping turtles have to wait five or six years. Some exceptionally long-lived species start even later: eastern box turtles don't breed until they are 10 years old, 16 to 18 years for Blanding's turtle.
- Once they start breeding, a box turtle or a spotted turtle will lay up to a half-dozen egg, more for a larger species. While they may breed every year or every other year for decades, the chances are very small that an egg will not be dug out and eaten by a raccoon, or that the hatchling will not be picked up by a passing crow. Overall, the probability that a hatchling will make it into adulthood is vanishingly small.
- Human activities are already putting a lot of pressure on many turtle populations. The hard shell evolved to protect turtles from predators does little to prevent being killed by a car. As the road network grew and increasingly fragmented turtle habitat in the last half-century, roadkill has been the fate of innumerable adults. Adding insult to injury, poaching is rampant to feed the illegal domestic pet trade and international exports.
Because of these characteristics, the loss of adult individuals has a disproportionate effect on the entire population and quickly leads to a decline. The turtle you picked up may very well be alive, but to the population it's coming from, it's essentially dead as it no longer can contribute to any breeding effort.
Is it legal?
Collecting turtles in the wild is prohibited in many jurisdictions, either entirely or for the species deemed to be at risk. The sale of young turtles less than 4 inches long has been prohibited by the U.S. Food & Drug Administration since 1974. This is due to the risk of turtles carrying (and transmitting) the Salmonella bacteria, which can make us ill.
What if I buy one instead?
Turtles advertised for sale in online classifieds are usually labeled as captive bred which in theory can be legal in some states. However, the captive-born or captive-bred label is often a lie to sell wild-caught, poached turtles. There is no effective way to verify these claims as it is impossible to tell apart a captive-born turtle from a wild one.
Another big issue is the release of pet turtles back into the wild. Invasive populations of non-native turtles have been spreading because of this, with negative effects to the local ecosystems and to the native turtles. The most problematic species in this regard has been the red-eared slider, a turtle native to the Mississippi drainage.
Ultimately, keeping a pet turtle is not as simple as it seems:
- Turtles may have very specific food requirements. Sure, some species will be satisfied with store-bought dried shrimp meals, but others require snails, aquatic insects, and similar hard-to-find items.
- They can require a lot of space, especially when they grow to a large size. Large freshwater species will require a very large aquarium, with the associated high costs and maintenance needs.
- Heat sources and UV light setups are necessary to keep turtles healthy. The heat and moisture levels have to be tightly controlled.
- Because of these complicated needs, most wild-caught turtles quickly die in captivity. And if you manage to keep yours alive, remember that most species can live a long time. Are you ready to provide complex care for decades to come?
How Can I Help Wild Turtles?
If you find a turtle crossing a road, the best response would be to allow it to cross safely unimpeded. Remember: do not put your own safety at risk!
If there is a risk of cars coming, you can move the traveling turtle along across the road, in the direction it was headed to. Place it down well off the road shoulder. If the turtle appears to have come from a wetland visible from the road, don't return it there. That turtle will likely have to cross the road once again, on her way to another wetland or to a nesting site.
A large snapping turtle crossing a road should be allowed to move on its own. Do not pick it up by the tail, as this could cause injury. To avoid getting bitten, a shovel or rake could be used to very gently push it off the road.
Commercial Turtle Exploitation Is a Huge Problem, Too
North America is experiencing unprecedented levels of turtle exportation. Demand from China especially has been growing, where turtle meat is widely consumed and Asian turtle populations have already been depleted. In the 2002-2012 period over 126 million individual turtles were exported from the United States*. Half were labeled as being commercially bred, and the rest were either wild caught, wild caught than farm raised, or their origin was unclear. The most commonly exported types were cooters, sliders, snapping turtles, and soft-shelled turtles. Louisiana and California are the top turtle-exporting states, but it is likely that turtles caught illegally elsewhere are “laundered” by moving them to those states for export. This heavy commerce of freshwater turtles is unsustainable and has already negatively affected many wild populations.
- *Mali et al. 2014. Magnitude of the Freshwater Turtle Exports from the US: Long Term Trends and Early Effects of Newly Implemented Harvest Management Regimes. PLoS One 9(1).