June 20, 2016

Please don't buy your children a turtle because they like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Today, I'm not talking about any of my usual stuff. This falls into that "other stuff" category of my blogging, but it is near and dear to my heart.

The newest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie hit theaters on June 3, and with the recent release of movies like Angry Birds and Finding Dory, it seems like a great time to talk about the most important aspect of animal husbandry: making sure the animal is the right fit for your home.

I'm not an expert, but I've learned a little something about turtles, which is why I've got some serious reasons you absolutely should not impulse buy a turtle for any reason, ever, with swearing mixed in. :D

1. Turtles live a long-assed time.

When I was six, I fell in love with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and we brought home a turtle named Raphael, after my favorite character.

That animal died within six months. So we replaced him, a story I've told before, and here's that animal today:

This is Raphael the Second. He's kind of an asshole. <3<3<3

Raph, as he is somewhat affectionately known, is 23 years old, which is pretty old for a false map turtle.

False maps like Raph typically live 15 to 20 years in captivity. This is a similar expectancy to another popular species, painted turtles, who can live up to 40 years in the wild, but usually live 15 to 20 years in captivity. The ever popular red eared slider can live anywhere from 50 to 70 years wild, and close to that in captivity.

It's important to know this upfront because the absolute longevity of these creatures means there's a good chance if you buy one for your child, it's going to see your grandchildren (should your child choose to have them), and chances are really good, it's going to end up your pet if this is just a phase your child is going through. For up to seven decades.

2. Turtles are damned expensive.

Turtles themselves are not expensive. In a pet store, you're usually looking at between $35 and $40 depending on the species. False maps like Raph usually run around $20 - $25.

But for a basic setup, you need to invest. Here's a short list of the things that constitute a basic set up:

  • Tank of an adequate size (we'll talk about this more in a moment): Depending on the turtle, this can run anywhere from $80 to $500 for an appropriate sized tank.
  • Filtration: There are a lot better resources than me for this information, but we usually try to have a main filter that is rated greater than our tank's capacity. We also use a secondary submersible filter because turtles are fucking filthy, y'all. For us, that means a 75 gallon filter, and the model we chose was $95.99, which was a deal. Some filters can run up to $300 or more. We also got a good deal on our secondary filter--$17.
  • Lighting: Turtles, like pretty much every reptile, need both heat lamps and UVB bulbs. This runs $35-$50 depending on the set up you choose.
  • Heater: Turtles are ectothermic, \which means they regulate their body temperature through external means, like basking. Maintaining a steady water temperature is important. This was actually one of the most affordable implements for us, running about $25.
  • Basking area: Our male map is small enough to bask on a floating turtle dock. $15. We're going to upgrade him to a larger one, though, to give him more space to dry off as he's healing from shell issues. Additional $25.
  • Substrate: Substrate's not a necessity, but I am including it because we have it, and Raph seems to prefer it to the smooth floor of the tank. $25.
  • Gravel vacuum (if you have substrate): We went with two, a large one and a small one. $20 for the large and $15 for small.
  • Skimmer: Turtles are messy. They sometimes leave behind bits of food. If they are shedding, bits of scute may wind up in the water. A skimmer helps get any debris out of the tank before it can cause an issue. Ours was $7.
  • Food: Turtles pellets are $10 for the second largest size container. You can also supplement with live food, vegetables, and frozen mealworms/shrimp.
  • Water Testing Kit: These run about $30 for a reusable kit we'll have to purchase more chemicals for some day. Some folks don't worry about testing the water, but I find it gives me peace of mind to know what's going on in the tank, if our biomedia is working, etc.

So, if you're keeping tabs at home, our total came up to more than $350 for our average sized male map. This doesn't include the stuff we inherited, like his log, which is still necessary for his care and comfort but that I don't have a price for. We also have a second tank set-up that we can use if there's an issue with his primary tank (something we learned the hard way).

3. Turtles require fucking space and some fucking specialized care.

The rough rule of thumb for turtles is 10 gallons for every inch of turtle. For some species, this can get huge. For instance, a female false map can get to be ten inches long, which means at least a 100 gallon tank. This makes them nearly impossible to contain inside--some keepers even use small manmade ponds to keep their larger turtles to make sure that the animals have enough space. In addition, it's important to know upfront how much water your turtle will likely want. Raph is a false map, and these river turtles like lots of water. They're excellent swimmers, so we operate under the "as deep as possible" premise.

Water quality can be a huge issue for some species. Turtles are filthy. They really are. I love them, but they produce large amounts of waste. It's critical to keep their water clean, and for that, you need adequate filtration. It's also important to resist the urge to overfeed them, as this can contribute to water quality issues.

Feeding is important. A shortage of calcium, either the vitamin itself or vitamin D to help absorbtion, can cause shell issues, including retained scutes, as well as reabsorption of calcium from bones and other sources in the turtle's body. Too much protein can possibly contribute to "pyramiding", an issue caused by irregular shell growth. Obesity is also a concern, as it can cause shell deformities and other health problems. It's a balancing act.

Understanding these ins and outs is an important part of turtle care.

4. Turtles pose serious damn health risks.

Like many reptiles, turtles naturally carry salmonella in their gastrointestinal tract. This salmonella is released with waste, and for semiaquatic and aquatic turtles that means they are literally swimming in salmonella.

This risk is serious enough that federal legislation prevents the sale of turtles smaller than four inches by commercial entities. Now, that doesn't mean you can't or shouldn't get one, but it is important to understand the reasoning for the law: turtles under four inches have been linked to serious salmonella outbreaks, some of which have even resulted in deaths and hospitalizations.

 It's a health risk that can be mitigated with care and safe handling, but it's important to understand this risk upfront, especially when considering a turtle as a pet in a household with children.

5. Turtles have unique personalities, and some of them are real dicks.

Some turtles are friendly. Some are not. Raphael the First, for instance, way back when I was six, was very friendly. Raphael the Second is the exact same breed and is kind of a dick. He sometimes interacts with people, but often just ignores us until he sees a food container in our hands.

One of the good things about turtles is that you can often see this personality pretty early on since you're usually not buying a hatchling (more on that in a bit). However, if you're looking for a pet that you'll interact with regularly, a turtle is probably not going to be it. Some species are incredibly skittish, and it can be hard to tell at the outset when you are bringing one home.

6. Turtles should be motherfucking captive-bred, not wild-caught.

I really can't stress this enough. I recently shared a reminder about blue tangs (Dory fish, as most of us parents of small children will know them), which are nearly impossible to bread in captivity and are almost always wild-caught, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention it here.

Turtles are an important part of their ecosystems. They are both predator and prey, helping keep species in check and providing food for others. Removing turtles from their ecosystems stresses both the specimen and the habitat they come from. Sometimes we do it for altruistic reasons--like rehabbing one that's been hit by a car or attacked by a pet--but it's important to reintroduce them to their homes whenever possible.

When you are looking for a pet, it's best to look for captive-bred turtles. In the US, this can be unclear, because while there are hobbyists breeding them, there are also many abundant sources of popular species in the wild. Certain species of maps, for instance, should almost never be kept as pets in the US because they are endangered in the wild but are very easy to catch versus breed, meaning that your pet would likely be a wild-caught specimen from a vulnerable population (Europe and other areas don't have the same issue with these species, which are often captive bred there).

It's also important to know the laws in your area. Some states have specific restrictions on what species you can and can't own, as well as the federal four-inch law that prevents the sale of small turtles by commercial entities.


So please don't buy your kids a turtle because they like a movie. Buy them a turtle only if you're really committed to adding a reptilian overlord to your family.

This isn't meant to be paternalistic or patronizing. I am not the most experienced turtlekeeper in the world, and I'm still learning. But...I have to say it, because I have a heart for these scaly lil exothermic guys (and gals!). Turtles are great. I'm incredibly fond of them, especially of semiaquatic species like my Raphael. I enjoy providing him with care, and I can spend literally hours watching him swim and hunt in his tank. He never fails to bring a smile to my face.

This is a great opportunity to see if your child will really commit to ownership of the turtle. Ask them to do the research and come back to you with what they find. KidRex is an excellent safe search source for children to use to explore this topic. Visit the library together if you can. Find out everything there is to know and see if the passion lasts. If your future turtle is truly worth owning, if it will truly be a welcome addition to your family, the time you put into this research is an investment, and it's worth waiting to make sure that you get it right.

And as you are watching these wonderful (?, because I'm not a fan of the new TMNT) movies this summer, it's a great chance to talk to kids about the most important first step of animal husbandry: responsibility. Responsibility starts before we ever bring the animal home, by making sure that we are respecting natural ecosystems and keeping them as intact as possible, and by ensuring that we can provide appropriate care for the animals that we bring into our lives before we ever commit to them.

I'm linking some resources below if you're still interested in turtles! This was not intended to be a "how to" for keeping turtles, but a thorough look at the considerations, so if you're going forward, please know that there are excellent resources to help and support you in your turtlekeeping!


Austin's Turtle Page

My Turtle Cam

Turtle Forum

Reptiles Magazine (This is a link to a search for turtle care, which brings up a list of care sheets for different species--really great info)

HowStuffWorks: Turtle Care

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