June 10, 2003

Looking for a pet? Take a Turtle Tutorial

By Pam Cloud



Your family is out for a leisurely drive on a Sunday afternoon. As you drive along the highway, several turtles can be seen, attempting to cross from one side to the other.

The children in the back seat yell “Stop, Daddy; Oh, Mommy, can we take one home with us?”

While some parents probably would stop, scoop up the box turtle and take him home, that probably isn’t the best idea, especially for the turtle, according to Nic Gorton of Petco.

“The wild caught (turtles) are not used to being cooped up,” said Gorton. “It usually makes them stop eating.”

Clay Porter of Middle Earth Pet Shop said his shop does not carry turtles or tortoises because of federal regulations that limit the sizes of turtles and tortoises a person can keep.

In order to know more about turtles and tortoises, it might be a good idea to distinguish the differences between them.

Porter said water turtles need a habitat of water, while land tortoises, or box turtles as some refer to them, live on the land but do need a water source.

“They don’t have to have water to get into,” said Porter, noting the box turtles do need water to drink.

The box turtles hibernate throughout the winter months by burrowing in the ground, Porter explained. When the summer months start to arrive, the turtles leave their hibernation locales and go in search of food and water.

“After a rain, you’ll see a lot of tortoises,” said Porter.

That’s also when you’ll see them this time of year trying to cross streets, roads and highways.
Vehicles are the No. 1 threat to and killer of many box turtles in this area.

In Florida, along U.S. 27 near Tallahassee and Lake Jackson, turtle enthusiasts are trying to save the many turtles killed each day trying to cross the major thoroughfare, according to a Web site dedicated to the cause. Small fences are being constructed as part of the Lake Jackson Ecopassage to detour the turtles to a culvert which passes under the highway.

Many summertime festivals and fairs have terrapin races for the youngsters and box turtles are sometimes the favorite contestant, with children picking their turtles up along roads or highways or in backyards.

Children often like to paint or decorate their turtle entry to make him stand out among the crowd.

That really isn’t the best thing for the tortoise, according to Jason Daughtrey, director of the Nature Center at the Mount Magazine Girl Scout Council.

“If it was a water-based, nontoxic paint, I don’t know if it would hurt (the turtle),” said Daughtrey, noting that a person should definitely not use any type of toxic or oil-based paint.

Daughtrey said in addition to the harm that could be done to the tortoise, the paint and decoration also takes away their camouflage, which can be a defense mechanism for them in the wild.

Although it is not a good idea to keep wild-caught tortoises, Gorton said captive-bred tortoises make a much better choice for a pet.

“Captive-bred tortoises do much better in tanks,” said Gorton. “They’ve been in tanks all their lives.”

“The life span for a box turtle can be around 70 to 75 years,” Gorton explained. “That can be captive life as well, depending on how well they’ve adapted to captive life and how well they’re maintained.”

Most captive-bred turtles or tortoises do well as pets in appropriately sized aquariums or tanks.

Gorton said there are many items available that can mimic the outdoors, such as heat lamps and waterfalls.

“Try to get it as close to nature as you can,” Gorton said of the tank habitat the turtle or tortoise will be living in.

Turtles eat earthworms and small insects, but do enjoy some fruits and vegetables, he added.

“One thing you should never feed them is iceberg lettuce,” warned Gorton. “It’s like not giving them any nutrition. I recommend they switch to Romaine lettuce.”

Both Gorton and Porter said one of the most important things to remember if handling turtles or tortoises is to wash hands thoroughly as the reptiles can carry salmonella.

Porter said the turtles don’t actually carry the bacteria but can be subject to it if the habitat is not kept very clean.
“I cannot stress enough — do wash your hands constantly, especially children,” Gorton added. “And keep the habitat as clean as possible.”

If a person decides he no longer wants his turtle or tortoise as a pet, Gorton said it’s not a good idea to just turn it loose in the wild, unless it was a wild-caught turtle to begin with.

“If they do start getting tired of it, don’t just let it go in the wild; it might not live,” Gorton said. “Either give it to someone or we have an adoption program here (at Petco).”

Daughtrey said the best advice is to leave the turtles in the wild as they are.

“If you take (a turtle) out of the wild, you’re taking it out of nature,” he said. “It’s not a good idea to take anything out of the wild.”