Turtles Aren’t the Best Choice for Pets

Eastern Box Turtle - Photo: Brent T. Wheat

Indiana is home to many types of wild turtles. Our beautiful spring weather beckons those to take in some sort of outdoor activity. So it’s only natural that our paths cross with the slow moving reptiles. Spring is the best time to see many types of turtles because this is when they travel to breed and find suitable spots to nest.

When coming across turtles many like to take them home for pets. Because of their casual demeanor they are easy to catch and some mistakenly think they would be just as easy to care for. In reality, keeping a wild turtle for a pet doesn’t do the turtle any favors, or you.

The common snapping turtle, smooth softshell turtle and spiny softshell turtle are considered game species and regulated by hunting and fishing laws in Indiana. Endangered species and the eastern box turtles cannot be removed from their natural environment. But others sometimes find themselves carried to people’s homes in boxes and even shirt pockets.

So why wouldn’t something as docile as some turtles (excluding snapping turtles) make a good pet? The DNR says they require time and expense for proper care and some species can live for decades. Everyone loves a new pet. But once the newness wears off, attitudes and proper care can wane. Turtles are solitary in nature and as the months pass can become boring pets, especially for children.

Keeping them in confinement requires more than most realize. They are cold blooded and in some cases require a small source of external heat. They also need to take in ultraviolet light for proper growth and health.  Without this special light, many health issues arise such as metabolic bone disease. It is very important to know what kind of species you want and the care it needs before you acquire a pet turtle. Many require special food and tanks.

Each species has different feeding requirements, with some being strictly carnivores or herbivores. Map turtles, for example, have restricted diets that must include snails, aquatic insects and crayfish. Some species of aquatic turtles, such as the red-eared slider, map turtle and soft-shell, grow to good size, requiring a large tank for swimming and basking.

Land turtles need a large pen, with sufficient substrate, properly sized water bowl, a hide area, as well as heat. Some require more humidity than others.

When the time comes and you no longer want your pet turtle, you are not supposed to release it back into the wild, cautions the DNR. Not only do its chances for continued survival become slim, the once captive turtles are more likely to transmit diseases to the wild populations.

Some species have been known to carry the salmonella bacteria. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that children, pregnant women, and persons with compromised immune systems avoid direct contact with reptiles to avoid the bacteria.

The DNR does not encourage the keeping of turtles as pets, but does allow it if the turtle species is obtained legally with a hunting or fishing license.

Many native, wild-caught turtles are still sold as pets, even though this practice is illegal in Indiana. The collection of wild turtles has caused many species to become endangered, especially when combined with habitat loss, water pollution and predators.

Predators such as raccoons eat a large number of turtle eggs each year. Some species do not breed until they are several years old, meaning it can take many years for a population to become established. You can aid in the protection of Indiana’s turtles by helping to preserve their habitat especially wetlands, through local conservation organizations or the Indiana Nongame and Endangered Wildlife Program.

In case you were wondering, here is a listing of Indiana’s native species of wild turtles:

John Martino
Martino is a well-known outdoor writer throughout Indiana and has served as longtime outdoor columnist for the Kokomo Tribune newspaper. Martino has won numerous awards for both his writing and his service to youth, conservation and the community. He recently retired as Superintendent of Parks and Recreation for the City of Kokomo and now works as Ivy Tech Executive Director for Facilities for the Kokomo region.

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