Water Turtles

Though many families seek out turtles as pets, it’s important for retailers to educate them on the specific needs of these herptiles.




Every time somebody walks into my store and starts our conversation with “I have a red-eared slider!” I have a knee-jerk reaction to reply “Oh! I am so sorry!”


They are terrible pets, and an ecological nightmare whenever they are introduced into wild habitats of which they are not native. Like the bullfrog, they are adept at making themselves at home wherever they land, out-competing local species and taking over. Here in California, they have all but driven out our western pond turtle, and I hear similar stories from many corners of the world. A hundred years ago, their territory was the crescent of land and the accompanying rivers surrounding the Gulf of Mexico. Today, they not only claim California, but I hear tales of their encroachment of terrains in Europe, Asia and even Africa.


How did a fresh water turtle manage to go international in a hundred years? Because they are hardier, more adaptable, grow faster and reproduce in very high numbers, and they have become the number one meat source for turtle soup around the world. Wherever they have been exported, they have managed, through escape—or, more likely, well-meaning human intervention—to establish local wild populations. They are attempting to monopolize fresh-water turtle niches the world over!


Because of the same factors of fast growth, sturdiness and high rates of reproduction, they are also incredibly available and inexpensive. Thus, families who wander into pet stores with no intention of buying anything find themselves taking home a new pet turtle.


Here are some things that families probably don’t know:


1. As babies, they are cute and nice. However, they will soon develop the desire and the jaw strength to remove a child’s finger.


2. While many animals carry salmonella, water turtles have a special propensity for being able to transmit the disease to humans. This isn’t their fault; it’s simply because the disease is waterborne and water turtles tend to be among the dirtiest animals.


3. The turtle itself is amazingly inexpensive, but the equipment necessary to properly and humanely keep it will cost hundreds of dollars.


4. While they are omnivorous, they do require whole, freshly-dead, back-boned animals as a staple of their diet. That means goldfish or mice. The pellet food that so many companies produce is no more a proper staple diet for your turtle than fast food is for your child.


I have railed against sliders in these pages before, but I also have to accept that I am an old man yelling at clouds when it comes to this subject. Their omnipresence in the pet stores of our nation is not going to end just because I think it should. So, let’s move forward and accept their presence, and do what we can to make their lives—and the lives of our children—as full and happy as possible.


Proper Care

How do we properly take care of these beasts? First, let’s talk about babies, and then we’ll move on to the adults.


The first thing to know is that it is illegal to sell any turtle with less than a 4 in. carapace shell length for anything but educational or scientific purposes, and a note stating this must be posted in your shop. The law is, however, unspecific as to what those purposes might entail, so any customer clever enough to tell you that they are making the purchase with those intentions—and thus probably clever enough to actually successfully keep said turtle—are eligible for ownership.


There are a bunch of stores out there that sell turtles cheaply and illegally, and lie about what the animal needs in order to get the sales done. Don’t be one of them. Here’s how to do it correctly:


The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta) starts out the size of a quarter. I like keeping the babies in a 10 gal. tank—preferably one of the reduced height “breeder flat” styles—with around 3 in. of water and some flat stones or branches at one end for basking. Over the branches, place a heat light and on the water side, rest a fluorescent UV bulb and fixture. Try to keep the water temperature in the high 70's. The basking spot should feel warm to the touch, but not so hot that you can’t keep your hand there indefinitely. At the start, filtration will not be necessary. However, the water should be changed and the cage cleaned with some regularity.


Diet for babies and adults are about the same. Freshly-killed, whole, freshwater fish—like goldfish—and mice are a staple, supplemented with fresh greensand fruit. They seem to love melon rinds. They will also take some invertebrate prey—worms and crickets, for instance. Keep in mind that, while they will take advantage of live prey when they can, they are largely scavengers and dead prey is what they are after. Many companies have lines of very good pellet foods, but none of them should be a staple.


As the turtles grow, you will want to increase the depth of the water and introduce filtration. When the turtles are around 3 in. long it will be time to upgrade your tank to the 15 to 30 gal. range, depending on the number of turtles and their size. It will now be time to start thinking of serious filtration, both for their well being, and to reduce your own workload. Keep in mind that turtle feces is relatively heavy and a traditional side filter that might be perfectly adequate for fish will fail when it comes to turtles.


There are canister filters that will do the trick, but I have always preferred under-gravel filter systems for turtles. A series of vented plastic plates cover the bottom of the tank, over which you place an inch or so of aquarium gravel. In one or maybe two corners, attach a plastic tube from the plates to near the surface, topped with a power head to drive the water.


This effectively drives the water in a circle through the gravel, through the plates, up the tube and across the tank. For a few weeks you will need to do half-tank water changes to get the system established. Given a few weeks, the gravel will develop strains of bacteria that will literally eat and render inert the feces and urates produced by the turtles. Once established, the tank will need to be cleaned and reset only once or twice a year.


Eventually, you will need to invest one more time. Either purchase a 100 gal. tank that will be the turtle’s home for life, or invest in an outdoor pond. The indoor option is just like the smaller setups. The outdoor option is a little more complicated.


I mentioned earlier that sliders are incredibly destructive to native populations of turtles, but they impact nearly every species they encounter. They are eating machines and can have a huge overall effect on areas to which they are introduced. To that end they need to be set up such that they cannot walk out, burrow out or fly out—I wouldn't put it past them. Conversely, they need to be protected from predators themselves. Raccoons, big cats, coyotes, opossums and even big water birds will go for them. They need at least a 100 gal. pond, replete with a basking island, muddy banks within which they can burrow and build nests, and total enclosure for protection.


There are plenty of stores out there selling turtles both illegally and unethically, and there is nothing you can do to stop that. But you can go to sleep at night secure that your customers who buy these animals know what they are getting and know what they need to do it right. As a business person, I will gladly have that peace of mind and a few high-ticket sales over numerous low-dollar sales that are disingenuous with my customers and cruel to animals. That seems like a no-brainer. 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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