Should You Keep a Wild Turtle?

What You Need to Know About Keeping Wild Turtles as Pets

Painted Turtle
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It’s a common enough event: Someone finds a freshwater turtle—possibly a tiny hatchling—and they consider keeping it as a pet. But 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 or not it is legal varies based on the rules in your state or province, but in any case, removing a turtle from the wild can have negative consequences to its population. This is due to some unique biological characteristics of turtle populations:

Turtles Grow Slowly

Turtles invest a lot of time and energy in developing a strong, heavy shell to protect themselves 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 a year old, but snapping turtles have to wait five or six years. Some exceptionally long-lived species start even later—eastern box turtles and Blanding's turtles don’t breed until they are 10 and 16 years old, respectively.

Few Turtles Reach Adulthood

After the long wait to breed, a box turtle or a spotted turtle will lay up to six eggs; larger species will lay more. Unfortunately, the chances are high that an egg will be dug out and eaten by a raccoon, or that a hatchling will be picked up by a passing crow. In fact, it's practically an anomaly when something like this doesn't happen. Overall, the probability that an egg or hatchling will actually make it to adulthood is vanishingly small.

Humans Put Turtles in Danger

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 road networks grew and fragmented turtle habitats over 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.

All of these factors result in a diminishing turtle population. Thus, the loss of adult individuals has a disproportionate effect on the entire population and contributes to the decline. The turtle you picked up may be alive, but if you take it home, it can no longer contribute any breeding effort. As it relates to its own species, it may as well have been killed.

Is it Legal to Own a Wild Turtle?

Collecting turtles in the wild is prohibited in many jurisdictions, either for at-risk species or for all kinds. Additionally, the sale of young turtles less than four inches long has been prohibited by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration since 1974. This is due to the risk of turtles carrying (and transmitting) the Salmonella bacteria, which can make us ill.

Can I Buy a Turtle 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 a captive-born turtle from a wild one.

The Challenges of Keeping a Turtle

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.
  • Turtles can require a lot of space, especially when they grow to adulthood. Large freshwater species will need a sizable aquarium, which comes with associated high costs and maintenance necessities.
  • Heat sources and UV light setups are necessary to keep turtles healthy, and 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.