From ancient squeaky petroglyphs and children’s book heroine Myrtle the Turtle to fictional superheroes Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, turtles have long fascinated people. While intriguing, turtles need protection, not human homes, say wildlife officials.
When some people find quarter-sized turtles and think they are “cute”, they bring the animal home and soon learn that the turtles are getting too big for their new “home”. Others buy turtles from pet stores or at exotic animal shows in states where their sale is legal. Too often, these turtles are abandoned, say park managers in the area.
In 2020, Fairfax County officers were summoned to capture a 65-pound alligator snapping turtle roaming the backyards near Telegraph Road. His owner likely released him after he got fat, JD Kleopfer, a state herpetologist told the Washington Post. “It probably got beyond the home where the owner’s life changed and instead of finding him a suitable home they just abandoned him,” Kleopfer said. “They live long lives and have specific diets and lighting needs. The novelty fades. People are bored with them or the children stop taking care of them, then the parents throw them in the neighborhood ponds. Turtles live a long time.
Then there is poaching. People take turtles from parks and natural areas for fun, pets, the illegal pet trade and food, local wildlife officials say.
The illegal wildlife trade is a problem of $ 20 billion a year worldwide and affects 7,000 species, according to the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR).
“A big part of this is the illegal pet trade,” says DWR. “The DWR has unfortunately seen a steady increase in illegal trafficking in reptiles, especially turtles. This trend is not limited to Virginia, but is occurring across much of the eastern United States, where the greatest abundance and diversity of turtle species is found in North America. “
Under a new Virginia regulation, it is illegal to own more than one native or naturalized reptile or amphibian per address; collect native or naturalized reptiles or amphibians on public lands, including roads and other public property; and have reptiles or amphibians listed as species in greatest need of conservation (http://bewildvirginia.org/species/) because they are in decline. These new restrictions apply to many common native reptiles and amphibians such as turtles, garter snakes and bullfrogs.
Virginia has 25 native turtle species and subspecies, plus some non-native, and has 15 turtle species on the state’s list.
The new rules are needed because poachers exploited previous regulations for the illegal wildlife trade, state officials say. A person could own five of the most species of reptiles or amphibians. This allowed, for example, a family of four to have up to 20 box turtles. Now, anyone who owns a pet box turtle or more than one of the listed reptiles or amphibians could be found guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor and fined up to $ 500.
In Fairfax County, people take turtles from the wild as pets, for consumption or for the illegal pet trade, according to Katherine Edwards, the county’s wildlife management specialist. People leave turtles at the county animal shelter, some with signs of inadequate care.
In addition to spills and injuries, the region’s turtle populations are stressed by habitat loss, road mortality, predation, pollution and other factors, Edwards explains.
“The most common service call that animal welfare police receive about turtles is from people calling to report an injured turtle,” Edwards reports. From July 1, 2020 to July 1, 2021, they received 109 calls about injured turtles, many of which were hit by a car or got tangled in a fishing line. That year, other calls dealt with questions about turtles crossing roads and nesting. Authorities found a turtle with a hand painted shell. Arlington wildlife officers found turtles chewed on by dogs.
“People usually call when they find a Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina) that is not near water and think it is in danger,” says Edwards. During spring and summer, Snapping Turtles move to the highlands to find a nest and lay eggs. “Snapping turtles cross roads and can travel a considerable distance in water,” says Edwards.
It highlights the non-native red-eared turtle, one of the most prolific species in the pet trade. They were introduced to Virginia from the Midwest. “Red-eared sliders were sold widely in pet stores in many states and most populations were from released or escaped pet turtles. Although now considered naturalized in Virginia, Red-eared Cursors can displace or supplant native turtle species for food, nesting, and pilgrimage sites.
Many animal shelters do not accept turtles and most reptile rescues and nature centers cannot take more, according to local authorities. Local authorities who end up with native turtles coordinate with state authorities to place animals with an authorized rescue group, educator or zoo.
“Turtles are wonderful to see in the wild and this is where they should stay,” advises Rachel Tolman, Arlington County Parks Manager. Edwards agrees: “Native turtles belong to nature and should not be collected or kept as pets. We want people to enjoy turtles and have the opportunity to see them in their natural habitat, but there is no need to bring them home. This could negatively impact local turtle populations.
The best thing for a turtle to do is leave it alone. Turtles may be looking for a place to lay eggs, a new source of water, and other resources.
Turtles instinctively know which direction to go. Don’t move them.
If a turtle needs to be moved, for example, out of an alley, be careful. Snapping turtles can bite. You can catch smaller turtles by the shell around the hind legs and tail.
The Fairfax County Animal Shelter is not equipped to house turtles humane. They refer people to rescue groups and nature centers that provide specialized care.
If you own a turtle
If you legally owned a native or naturalized species of reptile or amphibian under previous regulations, you can keep it as long as you register it with the state. Visit https://dwr.virginia.gov/wildlife/reptile-and-amphibian-registry/ for more details or email [email protected]
Turtle species: http://www.virginiaherpetologicalsociety.com/
Do’s and Don’ts for Turtles, Wildlife Center of Virginia: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MPuEInESLXs
Reptile rescue: https://www.vareptilerescue.org/