Baby turtles can be a hazard in a half-shell for the unprepared family

Baby turtles can be a hazard in a half-shell for the unprepared family

For turtles that haven't been bathed in radioactive ooze, their biggest threat isn't from masked villains like the Shredder, but rather from well-meaning families looking for easy-to-care-for reptile friends.

With the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles currently starring in a Nickelodeon cartoon, several series of comic books and a Hollywood blockbuster film that opened Friday, reptile groups and animal care advocates are preparing to battle a wave of misinformation about raising turtles as pets.


Katrina Smith, adoptions coordinator for the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society, said every time the Ninja Turtles jump-kick their way back into the national spotlight, children, looking for a little Leonardo of their own, are given baby turtles as gifts or pets, without being prepared for the responsibilities associated with them.

Nationwide, purchasing baby turtles less than 4 inches long is illegal. Smith said the FDA passed the regulation in 1975, intending to curb the gifting of baby turtles to small children due to the health risks of salmonella.

"Nearly everyone that's over a certain age remembers having a baby turtle in a little glass or plastic container somewhere in the house," Smith said. "Kids would play with them and some would even put them in their mouth, and there was a great deal of problems with salmonella."

Despite the ban, Smith said, many small vendors try to illicitly sell the small turtles at beaches or tourist locations. The most popular commercial turtle is the red-eared slider, a non-native species to the mid-Atlantic. Smith said these vendors will convince families to purchase these small turtles with the promise that they will remain small and easy to care for as they age.

"Families will see something and buy it on a whim. Because sliders are a captive breed, they're creating an artificial market by selling this product that is a hoax," Smith said. "When should you listen to a street vendor? When they sell you a Gucci, you know it's not a Gucci. This is the same idea. They're preying on families' lack of education on turtles."

Scott McDaniel, president of the Susquehannock Wildlife Society, said many people are not prepared for the expense or difficulty of raising a turtle as a pet.

"Turtles require a specialty diet. People think they can just feed it store-bought pellets or raw hamburger," McDaniel said. "They also need UVA and UVB lighting so they can bask as well as frequent water changes. The big issue is that these turtles, which start off an inch long, can grow to eight to 10 inches in just five to 10 years."

A full-grown turtle can require a 100-gallon tank that stretches six feet across as well as a high-tech filtration system, which Smith said can run from between $100 to $150. As they grow, the turtles are often harmed by unprepared owners with cramped containers, malnutritious food and a lack of warm light.

"It's a long-term investment for a little kid," McDaniel said. "Most people don't sign up for that. Then families decide they don't want it so they go to Piney Run or Liberty Reservoir and dump them. These turtles are from the Mississippi drainage, and these kids are introducing a non-native species that lay eggs and cause a big mess."

Smith said loosed red-eared sliders cause havoc in the environment, pushing out other species by taking nesting and basking sites. In addition, their appetite for nearly all plant life and other species' eggs devastates the natural ecosystem.

Store-bought turtles released into the wild may also carry dangerous diseases that can harm entire families of wild turtles.

"Right now the ranavirus [a deadly reptile disease] is one that we're worried about," Smith said. "They can kill off an entire season's worth of tadpoles, which is just devastating for box turtles."

Smith said though she wasn't working with the society in the late '80s and early '90s when the first Ninja Turtles cartoon was on the air, she has heard horror stories of turtle mistreatment at the hands of excited children from the era. She said families should take the time to do their research before committing to a turtle.

"If you're going to get a pet turtle, consider adoption. Make sure you're aware of state laws and do not take a turtle from the wild just to be a pet," Smith said. "If you see a sick or injured turtle, call a wildlife rehabilitator."


McDaniel also warned against just grabbing a turtle from the wild.

"A lot of people think they're saving them by taking them in," McDaniel said. "Once you've taken an animal out of the wild, it can't reproduce; you've pretty much killed it on an ecological level."

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles don't have to be a negative influence on reptile fascination — they can also inspire a love of science and nature.

"I grew up in Carroll County catching turtles and studying them in the wild, and a lot of that started with the Ninja Turtles," McDaniel said. "The movie and the cartoon sparked a life of researching for me. It's kind of neat to see younger kids who see this movie or show and build whole careers based on that."

McDaniel said children who are interested in turtles can visit the aquarium or zoo, contact the Susquehannock Wildlife Society for a nature walk or just travel into the woods themselves.

"Go on hikes at Piney Run or Hashawha. Most of these places have a decent turtle population," McDaniel said. "You have some spots where you can still see them sitting up on logs. You can examine them and have fun with them as long as you're careful and leave them in their habitat."

Reach staff writer Jacob deNobel at 410-857-7890 or