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What you should know before getting a turtle or tortoise

People love their turtles and tortoises so consequently the number of people owning them is jumping every year. This is good news and bad news. At the same time people are buying and trading a large number of tortoises and turtles, the number of these animals in the wild is decreasing significantly.

A great number of businesses and individuals are profiting from the sales, including pet stores, online retailers, reptile breeders, street vendors, tortoise clubs and others profit from the sales of these gentle creatures.  Adopting is only and logical solution to stopping the sometimes illegal, and often dubious, sale of reptiles. The animals come from an existing group of captive reptiles, and therefore, no turtles or tortoises are harmed or ripped from their wild habitat.

Turtles can suffer injuries and stress from violent capture in the wild, usually with barbaric hooks or traps. During transportation from forest to pet stores, turtles and tortoises are piled on top of each other in cramped, cold, soggy burlap bags. From the boy who caught the wild turtle for 25 cents to the pet store that makes a hefty profit of $40 or even more is a disastrous trip for a turtle or tortoise. Upwards of 90 percent of them die before they go on sale, and many live the rest of their lives in small tanks, a miserable existence for such a wild creature.

Habitat destruction, live markets where turtles are sold for food and international trade in exotics have led to a stunning decline in these gentle creatures. They face extinction throughout the world. Turtles, who came on this earth 200 million years ago - way before dinosaurs - are predicted by biologists to see a future of only 50 years. By then there will be no more. What a sad end to such a harmless creature.

Turtles and tortoises are wild animals, and they pose special problems as a house pet. These reptiles can carry salmonella that is potentially fatal to children, seniors and adults with compromised immune systems. We assume that every one has salmonella, so we wash our hands after touching each one. Because of this, it is very important that you do your homework before purchasing any animal, especially a turtle or tortoise.

Read Before Adopting Your Pet
If they interest you, read up on reptile's special care. The Internet is full of good information, especially sites that rehome and adopt turtles and tortoises. Reptile books are not as reliable and often have wrong information.

Many people change their minds when they see how much care these animals really need. Take into consideration that turtles and tortoises, for the most part, are not very exciting creatures. They tend to sit - hence their long lives. Contrary to what many children and their parents thought after seeing the Ninja Turtles movie, they do not hop, skip and jump through the air. This can be a huge disappointment for a child who believes his turtle has magical powers, but sits there like a log.

For those who are determined to have a turtle or tortoises become a member of the family, here are some key facts.

Water Turtles

Plan on giving a water turtle, like a common red-eared slider or a cooter, a home in a pond only. Tanks are cruel for these creatures who are used to traveling from pond to pond in the wild. They need a safe area, protected from predators like raccoons and dogs.

Electric fencing is a good solution, or a screened cover over the pond. These are carnivores, so you must plan on feeding them live food like feeder gold fish as well as a prepared turtle food. They do not need to be feed often, once or twice a week is fine for pond turtles who scavenge. They hibernate under water all winter and need protection from predators during this time as well.

Choose a healthy turtle at least four inches in length. It is against federal law to sell any turtles or tortoises under four inches anywhere in the U.S. Report pet stores and breeders who violate this law. They should receive a hefty fine.

Just like any healthy animal, they should have clear eyes and be active. A runny nose or swollen eyes are indicative of a sick turtle. Remember that this turtle is more likely to carry salmonella. You must wash your hands with warm soapy water if you handle it or the water it lives in. If you do this, it is unlikely that you will get sick.

Keeping these wild animals in a tank is cruel. What is even more shocking is keeping these salmonella carriers in schools as a hobby. Please actively discourage this if your child's teacher is thinking about adding a turtle to the curriculum.

Land turtles and tortoises are a different matter all together. Do not buy one at the pet store not matter how cute you think it is. The pet storeowner will be encouraged to replace it with another animal pulled from the wild. There are a number of good rescues all around the country. They will help you find the right tortoise.

Choose a tortoise that fits your household. Small tortoises like Russians or box turtles are good for people living in homes with small yards. Both of these hibernate and both like cooler weather. Box turtles are carnivores so you will have to feed them snails or worms along with some greenery. Apartment dwellers often think a box turtle in a tank is cool. It is not. They suffer greatly when not allowed to have sun and roam freely as before they were cruelly captured. Get a bird or a cat instead.

If you have more room, a desert, leopard or sulcata tortoise will be good choices. These are vegetarians. The desert hibernates, but the other two do not. The desert is endangered or threatened in several states so you will need a permit. It is illegal to adopt these out of the state of origin, so if you live on the East Coast, don't plan on a desert. In fact, deserts, leopards and sulcatas are all from hot climates and do not do well on the East Coast like Russians and box turtles do.

Leopards and sulcatas are called "great" tortoises because they grow very large. Leopards are bashful. Sulcatas are not. They can grow to 200 pounds, so unless you have at least a half-acre fenced in, this is not a good choice.

Some Safety Measures

While turtles are more likely to carry salmonella, it is best to treat every turtle and tortoises as if they carry it. Good hygiene is important. Children under 12 should not be around a turtle or tortoise without parental supervision.

Dogs should never inhabit the same area as a tortoise. They can chew the tortoise's arms and legs as well as their shell, and can even kill the turtle or tortoise. There are many sad stories from pet owners who thought that this "would never happen to me."

Have a qualified exotic veterinarian check out your new turtle or tortoise to make sure that it is healthy and gets a good start.

Finally, remember, you have been entrusted with one of the world's oldest creatures. This "rock with legs" has a personality, wants a warm, clean home and good food. It will live from 25 to 100 years, so when you make this commitment, it is often for a lifetime.

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