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A Lifetime Commitment: Turtles as Pets

March 10, 2015 - Animal House

Visitors to the nature center over the past few days may have noticed a couple of our cold-blooded friends missing, and that one of our biggest exhibit hall attractions is under repair.

The diamondback terrapins, usually delighting children and adults while swimming speedily around their large brackish water tank, have been temporarily relocated to our back animal care room while we clean and perform some maintenance on their home–just a small part of the work that goes into keeping our exhibit animals happy and healthy!

While working with these animals as the Animal Care Coordinator and a Naturalist, I often times hear children exclaim how “cute” the turtles are, and “I want one as a pet!”…especially after the release of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie last year.

These animals are indeed very fascinating, and can make a rewarding companion under the proper circumstances–but many people do not realize the responsibility they take on when choosing to bring home a turtle.

Most of the time, the turtles you see in pet stores or reptile expos are still young, and have a lot of growing to do. What may look like a small animal that requires only a 10 or 20 gallon tank will eventually grow into something much larger!

Take, for example, the two native painted turtles living at the nature center that were donated after being kept as pets for 2 years. They are approximately 4 years old currently, and have shells measuring around 5 inches long. By the time they are done growing, they could both have shells up to 10 inches long, and they can live for up to 60 years! Most pet turtles, if cared for properly, can end up being a lifetime commitment.

On top of having a long lifespan and growing much larger than expected, turtles require everyday care and habitat maintenance.

Painted turtles are aquatic, requiring space to swim underwater, as well as an area to climb onto land to bask in the sun (or in our case, a nice sunlight lamp). Our turtles currently live in a long 55 gallon tank that requires a full cleaning and water change twice a month, even with a pump and filter constantly running. Because of the sunlight lamp and heat lamp, we also scrub algae off of the glass every week, and the filter itself must be cleaned frequently. If the large tank is not kept clean, the turtles can end up with health issues like shell rot, or even infections.

Our turtles are fed every day, either a specialize pellet diet, or live insects. The larger they grow, the bigger their appetite gets! Vitamins necessary to keep their shells and bones healthy are added to the food weekly, and our turtles receive a vet check up at least once a year.

These standards are similar for all of our turtle species, from our terrestrial box turtles to the shy mud turtle. And if you chose to bring a turtle home as a pet, these are the standards required to make sure you have a healthy, happy long-lived friend.

Irvine gets many calls every year from people looking to find a new home for their turtles–usually because they’ve grown too big, or they don’t get enough care or attention anymore.

If you think that a turtle is the right pet for you, keep in mind the lifetime commitment and responsibility that goes with it. And please consider adopting from rescue groups like the Mid Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society (