Today is World Turtle Day, created by the animal-lovers at American Tortoise Rescue as a day to celebrate and protect turtles and their habitats. As someone who lives with one turtle (a box turtle named Yertle) and is about to inherit a red-slider this weekend, I feel compelled to weigh in on the idea of turtles as pets.
Here's what I think: Turtles should not be pets.
Yes, you may think, as I once did, that a little land turtle is a nice, low-maintenance friend for your child. And that's true. Turtles are nice, and box turtles are pretty easy to take care of. Yertle is sweet and kind of lovable. Not cuddlable, but cute.
But turtles are not like cats and dogs. Like Elsa the lion cub, they are born free, meant to be in the wild, not domesticated. For a turtle to be happy, it needs a fresh supply of water, lots of room to move about and fresh food. It needs sun. You can replicate these conditions to some extent and at some expense in a home terrarium/aquarium and your turtle can live for many years. Many, many years, during which the cute son who wanted the turtle will grow up, go to college and you will be left to care for Yertle.
The big-picture problem is that adult turtles are disappearing from the wild. The founders of ATR predict that turtles and tortoises may disappear completely within 50 years. Part of the problem is the destruction of their natural habitats, and part of the problem is the reptile pet industry that encourages people like me to keep these wild things in glass cages in their home instead of letting them hatch baby turtles in natural habitats.
So why don't I just set Yertle free? For the same reason that I am picking up that same son's red-eared slider this weekend and bringing it back to Baltimore from his college apartment in Ithaca, NY. You can't set turtles that have been in captivity free. First of all, I'm pretty sure it's illegal. They would mess up their new eco-system with the kinds of germs and whatnot they've picked up in captivity. And frankly, it would kill them. Yertle would be dead in two minutes as she's a little too big for her shell. Some sort of calcium deficiency, I think the vet said.
The red-eared slider, Franklin, was rescued by my son -- he got it from a friend of a friend who could no longer take care of it. And now the son is done with college and isn't sure where he's going to land, so Franklin will be swimming around in the new glass cage in our dining room.
It really would have been so much better if these two creatures had stayed in the wild in the first place. I'll take care of these guys as long as I can, but really, they would have been better off free.
Here's what you can do to help save turtles and tortoises for the next generation, according to the folks at ATR. Please, heed their advice:
*Never buy a turtle or tortoise from a pet shop.
*Never remove them from the wild unless they are sick or injured.
*Report the sale of any turtle or tortoise less than four inches. This is illegal in the U.S.
*Report illegal sales and cruelty to your local animal control center.
*If you see a tortoise crossing the street, help him get to the other side. Don't make him go back in the direction he came from, or he will turn right around and go back into the street.
Celebrate World Turtle Day by NOT buying a pet
Celebrate World Turtle day with your reptilian friends. (David Mallette / May 23, 2012)