Boxed In

Retailers who are knowledgeable about box turtles can gain family customers that last generations.



When I was four years old, living in an apartment in South Miami, the neighborhood boys would find box turtles and herd them in a large pen behind our apartment. I was fascinated. A few years later, when my family moved into our own house, my older brothers recreated that pen in our back yard and I started collecting local turtles. They were plentiful in the early 1960s and I had soon amassed about a dozen. I fed them table scraps and bait worms. They were happy—even happier than I imagined.


One day, I came out to see several little turtles in the pen with my box turtles. They didn’t look like box turtles. In fact, they didn’t look like any turtles I knew of. I thought my brothers were playing a trick on me, a notion they earnestly denied. We searched together in books to identify them, until one of my brothers figured it out. The turtles I was seeing were, in fact, box turtle progeny. The babies do not have a hinged shell and lack the coloring of adults, which was throwing us off.


This was the first animal I bred—if one can stretch that term to mean keeping animals in conditions in which they will procreate. It started me on a lengthy path that brought me to where I am today.


The sad news is that box turtles are no longer plentiful in the wild, not easy to breed and variably difficult to find in the trade—by virtue of varying state laws. To that end, one should be cognizant of local and state ordinances regarding them and make sure that any purchases you make for resale are legal. But as their range covers most of the United States, even if they aren’t on your wholesaler’s list, you might well have customers coming in with turtles they have found or inherited. Just this week, a gentleman turned over to me a turtle that had been in his family for 47 years, in need of supplies and information. This is where you come in.


Healthy Habitats

There are two options for keeping these turtles: in a cage or in an outdoor pen. Even within the span of time that I have been writing this column, things have changed in this regard. I used to be of the opinion that box turtles only did well if kept outdoors, but technology has caught up enough that I now feel they can successfully thrive indoors.


For indoor care, I recommend a good wooden cage with a glass front, augmented by an overhead heat source—spotlight or ceramic heat emitter—and a UV light. Glass tanks also work, though they are more difficult to maintain. Their advantage is their resilience to humidity—eventually wood cages will break down. I would give box turtles a 10.0 T5 UV bulb. That is generally a strength reserved for desert inhabitants, but box turtles really like to bask. Make sure they have plenty of cover for hiding and a water dish big enough for some bathing time.


I like cypress mulch as bedding since it is mold- and rot-resistant, and tends to not muck up an enclosure. In the wild, box turtles are commonly leaf litter residents, so a substrate in which they can dig and potentially burrow is what they are after.


You may have gathered that this amount of cage furniture requires a large cage, and you’d be right. A 4 ft. by 2 ft. footprint is probably what you’d be looking at for even a single turtle, though a pair or trio could share the same space. An enclosure much smaller than that would be cramped.


I like giving box turtles a wide temperature range—yet another indicator of the necessity of a large cage—with
a cool end in the mid 70s and a warm end in the low 90s.


Feeding Time

Box turtles are distinctly omnivores, with a preference for snails and earthworms. Their penchant for a wide-spectrum diet will come as a surprise to many people, who tend to conflate them with largely vegetarian tortoises. They will ravenously chase down crickets and are not averse to dead mice even in the most putrid state. Wet cat or dog food is also not refused, but should not be relied upon as a staple.


When it comes to vegetables they are very partial to things in the red and orange spectrum, like melon and berries. They tend toward low acidic fruits and vegetables, so avoid citrus and tomatoes—though
I have seen outliers who like that stuff. Bananas and soft squash are very popular, and red leaf lettuce seems to be a favorite among the greens. Everything they eat should be powdered with a mix of quality vitamins and calcium. Both Zoo Med and Repcal make superior versions.


The disadvantage of outdoor enclosures is that your level of interaction with or even viewing of your turtle is greatly diminished. It becomes more of a neighbor than a pet. That said, there is an easy technique for building them homes that really maximizes their ability to thrive. It is called a tomato ring.


A tomato ring is essentially a circular ring made of chicken wire supported by wood or metal rods into which one throws yard clippings, leaf litter and organic garbage. If you plant tomatoes around the exterior, the plants have the wire on which to climb and compost on which to feed. If you build a fairly large enclosure, cap the bottom
to prevent burrowing out and build a lid on the top to keep other wildlife out. Then you will have a perfect box turtle enclosure. Hose it down a few times a week and the turtles will love this high-rise home.


If you live in a section of the country with extreme winters, you will want to bring the turtles in during the cold months. If you have mild winters, the heat generated as the materials within the ring turn to compost should get the turtles through.


By throwing in things like table scraps, you will also be attracting the kinds of insect life—snails and slugs—that the turtles will feast upon. The natural sunlight and varied diet should render calcium and vitamin supplementation unnecessary. It’s very close to a perfect system.


Of course, a more standard outdoor pen is also a possibility. Some of the same concerns will need to be addressed: access to both sun and shade is essential, they need to be protected from predators, and they need to be kept from burrowing out and being left on the honor system. I would note here that it is also imperative
to prevent their access to the exotic plants that are common to many peoples’ lawns and gardens. These exotics may be toxic and the native turtles would have no way of knowing that. Better safe than sorry.


Box turtles are charming and beautiful things. Their personalities vary from species to species and individually within a given species. They are reasonably intelligent and their natural suspiciousness is often quickly overcome with a bit of handling. If treated well, box turtles can remain a family pet for generations. The tradition of a family
pet is often tied to the tradition of a family pet store, thus insuring your customer base for a very long future. PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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