Water turtles can be a delight to own, but retailers need to help customers understand what they are and are not getting when they buy one as a pet.
We have a small pond in front of our store that remains active in all but the most dire of winter months. We keep the pond stocked exclusively with red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta), the seemingly omnipresent water turtle of our business. Still, I cannot remember the last time I purchased one; our stock consists entirely of donated animals that people have found, been given or purchased, and no longer want. I sell them for next to nothing, and even so, we rarely have less than 20 of them.
What is going on here? Well, for a variety of reasons, sliders are the animal that everybody thinks they want as a pet, until they have them as pets. They get surprisingly large—between eight and 13 inches—and require massive filtration. They are also reputed carriers of salmonella—not as true as some might have you believe, but true enough to warrant attention to cleanliness—and do not tolerate cohabitation with fish, snails or any other typical aquarium specie, almost all of which they consider food.
We have a sign over our pond that reads, “Caution: Sliders are like freshwater sharks. Dangling fingers are subject to removal.” Yup. While many imagine them to be gentle vegetarians, they are in fact voracious predators, and can deliver an impressive bite. Are you starting to get the feeling these might not make the best of pets?
Many people acquire them as hatchlings, having no idea what they eat, how big they get, or that they will eventually grow up to defend themselves by biting. While selling a turtle of less than four inches in length is technically illegal, this law is easily circumvented or, more commonly, ignored, and I often find them for sale in pet stores, ethnic food markets and flea markets. They are typically an impulse purchase, and customers buy them with absolutely no concept of how to care for them. As a result, they are mostly doomed to an early death or, worse, release into the wild.
Red-eared sliders are probably the most prolific, aggressive and adaptable freshwater turtle on the planet. Virtually every time they have found their way into a new environment, they have out-competed the local species of turtle and taken over, becoming an environmental disaster of epic proportions.
Abandoned pets constitute one avenue of release; another common route is the “mercy” release of turtles otherwise destined for the dinner table. Many of them are also escapees from poorly enclosed backyard ponds. Many years ago, I noticed a rash of people coming in to buy water turtles from me who seemed to have no interest in purchasing supplies or even food. A conversation soon revealed that these well-intentioned folks came from the local Buddhist ashram seeking the turtles for ceremonial release back into the ocean as a method of increasing their personal karma. Their surprise turned to horror when I informed them that releasing a freshwater turtle into the ocean ensured both a slow and painful death for the turtle—and perhaps a crushing blow to their karmic future.
Given that sliders are pretty terrible pets, and we’re all in the business of selling pets, let’s get on to the good news. They can be charming and entertaining aquarium inhabitants, combining physical beauty with a surprising amount of activity for a reptile. Water turtles are, for the most part, fairly uniform in care, and they are not difficult to maintain if set up properly.
Most of them require enough space to swim comfortably and a spot to bask and dry, which translates roughly to a 10-gallon tank for hatchlings and juveniles, and a 30- to 50-gallon tank for adults. The basking area needs to be large enough to not be a precarious perch and to be lamp-heated enough to be warm to the touch but not so hot that one would be uncomfortable leaving one’s hand there for an extended period. As well as having basking heat, their water temperature should be regulated to stay in the mid to high 70s. A submersible heater will do the trick, but avoid simple glass heaters, as a large turtle has the capacity to break them. There are good titanium- or plastic-encased models on the market. I consider a UV light helpful but not absolutely essential for most species. Water turtles require some heavy-duty filtration; either a good canister filter or a strong power head/undergravel filter will do nicely.
Many people are under the impression that a steady diet of any of the many pellet turtle foods on the market is sufficient. I would no more do this than I would raise a child on nothing but canned goods and fast food. Most turtles have evolved in the wild as combination predators and scavengers, and they primarily want freshly killed, whole, vertebrate prey. In captive situations, this translates to freshly killed or frozen goldfish or mice, halved to provide an enticing scent in the water. Water turtles’ swallowing mechanisms require that they be submerged; feed one on land, and you will see it grab the food and make a mad dash for the water. Do not feed freshwater turtles seafood; the increased sodium levels in seafood eventually play havoc with their body chemistry.
With real food established as a staple diet, pellet food can act nicely as a convenience food. Most water turtle species will also eat vegetable matter as a small percentage of their diet. To that end, I will occasionally throw into the tank some leafy greens or, much to the turtles’ delight, melon rinds. I also find many of them appreciate the treat of an eggshell.
Of course, red-eared sliders are only one of many species of water turtles. One kind of turtle I have particular fondness for is the painted turtle (Chrysemys picta), a lovely and relatively small turtle that is often beautifully marked, especially on the bottom carapace. However, this is a particularly shy animal, and tends to do poorly when mixed with other species. This is also true of soft-shelled turtles (Apalone ferox), which have easily bruised shells and require a somewhat different setup (shallower water and a fine sandy bottom), and diamondback terrapins (Malaclemys terrapin), a stunning beauty that requires brackish water rather than fresh to avoid shell fungus.
However, most American water turtles and many foreign species will cohabit nicely. I have successfully mixed many kinds of sidenecks, cooters, sliders, map, mud and musk turtles, and they have thrived together without issue for years. One word of caution: any turtle that develops a cut, sore or abrasion will bleed in minute amounts into the tank and suddenly become the subject of a feeding frenzy that can quickly develop into a horrifying scenario. Check new turtles carefully before introducing them into a community tank, and watch them closely once you have introduced them.
Any pet store that has herptiles at all will benefit from keeping a large, well-maintained turtle tank. As I said, they are active and beautiful creatures and will draw in many an otherwise reluctant customer to your exotics department. A large turtle tank is easy to maintain and is the key to generating turtle sales. Each turtle you sell has the potential to bring in a literal wealth of ancillary product sales. The key is, of course, to sell them in such a way that the customers know what they are and aren’t getting. You might lose a few of the “my kid wants a turtle” sales. At least, you won’t lose a few kids’ fingers.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.