Shelled Wonders: Turtles and Tortoises

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They’re those cute little swimmers that are so appealing to children–perhaps a Red Ear Slider turtle or a Red Footed tortoise–that you’ve seen in the pet stores.

Bringing one into your home as a pet sounds like a great idea; it would live in an enclosure and just require turtle food, right? Think again. Before making the decision to purchase or adopt one of these fascinating chelonians, please do your research, for your own well-being and that of your pet.

What’s the Difference?
Turtles and tortoises are both reptiles, have scales and are cold-blooded. The primary difference is in habitat and diet. Most turtles spend much of their time in the water, whether fresh or salt, have webbed feet and are omnivores. In cold weather they burrow into the mud, where they’re inactive until spring. Tortoises are land dwellers, have round, stumpy feet and are herbivores. In hot, dry habitats, tortoises dig burrows where they will go when the sun’s heat is excessive. They’re members of the order Chelonia, hence the name chelonians.

Both can grow into larger turtles and tortoises, which requires that the expectant owner take note of the anticipated adult size and the area it will need. Turtles may need both an aquatic and terrestrial environment, and tortoises generally need a significant amount of space in a habitat that’s suited for them. Enthusiasts advise not allowing them to roam in your home, which may not be temperature controlled or secure. In particular, dogs can be antagonistic to turtles, attacking and chewing appendages and even shells.

Turtles require at least a 29-gallon or larger glass aquarium with a screen top, proper lighting and heating. They’re messy eaters and produce a lot of waste, so the filtration system must be geared to handle it. Scheduled cleaning is a must.
Tortoises need an enclosure that’s 40 gallons or larger, with a screen top, heating, ventilation and a rocky or wooded spot for a hiding area. They require a temperate and either moderately humid or arid environment, depending on the species. Maintaining the correct conditions calls for thermometers at both ends of the enclosure plus a hygrometer to measure the humidity.

Diet and Veterinary Care
All turtles and tortoises need fresh food, and some need large quantities of it. Each species has a varied requirement of food sources and some have a very specific list of foods that are only available in their home range.

Make sure you have access to a veterinarian who has additional training in reptile and amphibian medicine before you select your turtle or tortoise. They’re known as herp veterinarians, for the specialty in herpetology; they can provide information about dietary needs and other conditions the pet requires. Specialized veterinary care can come with a high price tag; be sure you can afford one of these delicate creatures.

Health Concerns
It’s safe to assume that a turtle or tortoise you bring into the house will carry the ubiquitous salmonella bacteria, which can cause serious illness in humans. The risk of transmission can be reduced by thorough hand washing with soap and water after handling the animals or anything that touches them. House them away from dining and food preparation areas. Children under 12 should always have adult supervision.

Finding your Turtle or Tortoise
It’s illegal for pet stores in the U.S. to sell any turtle smaller than four inches. As with any animal, look for one that is active and has clear eyes. Swollen eyes and a runny nose are indicators that the animal is sick. The larger stores offer excellent information about the required habitats, behaviors and diets of their animals on their websites, so you can be prepared to make a fully informed choice.

Don’t remove a chelonian from the wild, as tempting as it might be. Most are legally protected species, so don’t be part of the process of their further decline. In addition, there’s always the possibility of introducing bacteria or disease into your home environment.

Rescue groups specialize in re-homing tortoises and turtles; their experts can match you with the correct species and provide education about its needs. For example, the Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society emphasizes that adopting a turtle can be “rewarding and fun with the right preparations.” Their process requires that an adopter submit an application; on approval, a photo of the proposed housing is required, plus a veterinarian reference. Applicants also sign an adoption contract agreeing to humane care, abidance of laws and ordinances, and agreeing not to sell, trade, release or give away the animal without written permission from the Society. Other groups, such as American Tortoise Rescue in Malibu, California, offer permanent sanctuary to abandoned, lost and special needs tortoises.

If you take the plunge, know that it’s often a lifetime commitment. Turtles and tortoises can live 50 to 100 years or longer, so your children and grandchildren may be caring for one of the world’s oldest creatures for years to come. HLM

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