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Info Sheets : Exotics : Turtles

turtleA Lesson about exotic pets: based on a true story - Linda and the Turtles

Part One

Linda was a sophomore in high school in New York City. Linda loved all kinds
of animals, but she and her mom lived in a tiny apartment and weren't allowed to have dogs or cats. For years Linda loved turtles in particular. She had turtle earrings, turtle stickers, a collection of turtle stuffed animals, and a big turtle poster on her wall. In her art class she drew and painted turtles. But most of all she wanted a real turtle for her very own.

She begged and pleaded with her mom to get a turtle. Many of her classmates
had already bought pet turtles downtown and Linda wanted one too. But her
mom told her that the turtles sold in Chinatown were wild turtles that had
been caught in tropical parts of the world. It's wrong, her mom told her, to
catch wild animals and keep them in fish tanks. Plus, a lot of the turtles die while being shipped here. If people keep catching the turtles they might become endangered.

Linda was old enough to understand this, and she certainly didn't want to
hurt any turtles. So she accepted her mom's decision.

But one day Linda's best friend told her about two turtles that another boy
in the school was giving away. His dad doesn't want him to have turtles,
Linda's friend Mary said, and now the dad is threatening to flush the turtles down the toilet. You've got to take these turtles, Mary urged, if you don't take care of them Linda, they're going to die.

So after school Linda and Mary followed the boy Anthony back to his apartment building and waited in the lobby while he carried down the fish tank with two turtles in it, the special heat lamp for the turtles, and a box of food. The two turtles were hiding inside their shells and Linda loved them the minute she saw them. They were green and brown, with just a little bit of yellow here and there on their shells.

Anthony told Linda that he was very sad to give up the turtles but his dad
complained that their tank took up too much space and that the turtles smelled.

"I guess I didn't clean the tank as much as I should have," Anthony
admitted, " I'd probably have to clean it twice a week. I'm just too busy
for that. "

Linda was so excited that she thought she wouldn't mind cleaning the tank
every day.

Mary helped Linda carry everything home and they set up the turtles' tank in the living room. When Linda's mom got home she was pretty angry, because Linda had disobeyed her. Still, Linda's mom loved animals too, and pretty soon she agreed that Linda couldn't have let the turtles be flushed down the toilet.

Lessons from Part One:

  • Turtles require a lot of care. They need to be fed and given fresh water every day. Their tanks must be cleaned frequently in order to prevent odors and illness.
  • Many turtles are trapped in the wild and then sold as pets. This is bad for the turtles and for the environment.

Part Two

The next weekend Linda and her mom went out and bought a book about turtles,
and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables for them to eat. Linda felt that she would never get tired of watching her turtles. They were so shy, but also curious. They loved to eat strawberries. Linda also thought that the turtles loved each other because they sat so close together, they touched their necks and feet to each other, and they never fought over food. Before this Linda hadn't known that turtles needed company.

She began to think that Zack and Zelda, as she had named the turtles, needed
more room. She took the money she had saved up from baby-sitting and bought
a bigger fish tank. Some evenings she and her mom let the turtles explore the kitchen. They put lettuce leaves and chunks of tomato around for Zack and Zelda to find.

One Friday morning though, Linda noticed that Zack seemed kind of wobbly, like he was having trouble walking. Then that afternoon Zelda didn't eat any of her grapes. Linda told her mother that they must be sick. They spent a couple of hours calling around to emergency veterinary clinics until they found one that said they could help the turtles.

The next morning they took Zack and Zelda to the vet. They had to wait in the lobby while the vet examined the turtles in the back. Finally the vet called them into an examination room to talk with him.

"These turtles are really sick," the grey-haired vet said, "They haven't been getting the right kind of light or food. This has caused them to feel tired, to loose their balance sometimes, and worst of all, it's made their shells soft."

Linda started to cry. She felt horrible. She really loved her turtles and had wanted to make things better for them, not hurt them.

"They have a heat lamp," her mom argued, "and we give them turtle food and
lots of fresh fruits and vegetables."

"I know," the vet said, sadly shaking his head, "unfortunately, a lot of heat lamps don't provide the right kind of light. The best kind of light for turtles is sunlight, which gives them vitamin D. Only the best, most expensive lights can do that."

"Also," he continued, "these turtles, in their natural environment, eat a lot of algae and the turtle food sold at most stores doesn't contain the same nutrients."

"Are they going to live?" Linda asked, wiping her nose and eyes.

"I can help them right now," the vet reassured her, "by giving them some
vitamins and keeping them in the back of the clinic for a few days under a
good light. But the treatment for them is going to cost some money. And I'm
not sure there is much you can do to keep them from getting sick again."

"What should we do?" Linda's mom asked.

The vet took a little book out of his pocket and thumbed through it. "If I were you," he told them, as he wrote something on a scrap of paper, "I'd take the turtles to a turtle sanctuary. There they'll get the right kind of light, the right kind of algae, and there are people there who know a lot about turtles and how to help them."

The vet handed them the piece of paper with the name of the sanctuary and
the phone number written on it.

Lessons from Part Two:

  • Turtles are curious, active creatures who need lots of space.
  • Turtles need the company of other turtles and form bonded relationships
    with each other.
  • Turtle care is very complicated. Turtles need heat lamps and special UV
    lamps. Turtles need special foods depending on their species.

Part Three

All the rest of the weekend while Zack and Zelda stayed with the vet, Linda
and her mom thought about the sanctuary. Linda hated the thought of giving
up her turtles, but she also wanted them to be healthy and happy. Finally
her mom said, "Maybe we can take them out there, and if it looks like a nice
place we'll leave them there. But if we don't like it, we'll just say we changed our minds, and we'll bring Zack and Zelda back home."

They called the sanctuary and made an appointment to bring the turtles in.
They had to get a certificate from the vet saying that Zack and Zelda didn't
have any diseases the other turtles could catch. Luckily, Zack and Zelda were disease-free and the vet gave Linda's mom the certificate when they picked the turtles up. The vet bill was pretty high, but Linda's mom paid it, saying she was glad this was just a one-time thing.

On a bright and sunny Saturday morning Linda and her mom drove out to the
sanctuary. They were surprised that it was such a nice place; it had lots of
little gardens and pools for the turtles. Some of the habitats were outside, for turtles native to New York. Other turtles lived inside greenhouse-like buildings that kept them warm in the winter. There were so many different kinds of turtles there, every shape and color, huge turtles and little tiny ones.

Everyone at the sanctuary was very busy. There was a vet, administering vitamins and treatments to sick turtles. Volunteers were feeding the turtles
and cleaning out the pools. One young woman, who introduced herself as Gloria, took Zack and Zelda to their new home. She set them down beside a pool and immediately the turtles dove in and swam to a rock in the center. They climbed up onto the rock and began sunning themselves. There were other turtles that looked just like Zack and Zelda on the rock already, but Linda still knew which ones had been her turtles.

Linda started to cry a little, partly because she was so sad to leave her turtles, and partly because she hadn't even known before that they could swim. She asked Gloria if she could come back and visit them sometime.

"Of course," Gloria told her, "If you'd like you can even help take care of the turtles here. We have an internship program for high school students during summer vacation."

Before they left Gloria put together a big folder of information for Linda and her mom. At home they read all of the pamphlets and Linda decided she really did want to be a turtle intern that summer. She sent them the forms to apply for the internship and arranged to go help out two days a week.

Linda ended up getting extra credit in science at her high school for participating in the summer internship, but she says she would have done it anyway, because she loved all the turtles so much. True, sometimes she had to do boring jobs like washing dishes or folding towels, but she also got to help feed the turtles.

Some turtles were friendly and would come over to see her when she went into
their enclosures. Some even would take slices of fruits or vegetables from her hands. Some turtles were shy, but she still loved to watch them as they ate. Some of the turtles also ate insects, and some needed to take vitamins that were mixed in with their turtle food. She learned the names of all the different kinds of turtles who lived at the sanctuary, what part of the world they were from, what they ate, and what they liked to do. She got to visit with Zack and Zelda and was glad to see that they were very happy and comfortable in their new home.

Toward the end of the summer she even helped with two turtles who was moving into the sanctuary. Joseph and Jeanette were giant tortoises who had
lived in a petting zoo, giving rides to little children. One day Joseph didn't
feel well and wouldn't walk around when petting zoo worker put a little boy
onto his back. The trainer yelled at Joseph, and still he just didn't have the energy to move. Then the trainer picked up a stick and hit Joseph on his head. Joseph retreated back into his shell and the little boy on his back began to scream. The mother, who saw everything, reported the trainer to the police for animal cruelty. In the end the tortoises were released to the sanctuary.

Linda helped lead Joseph and Jeanette into their new home by holding a bowl
of strawberries in front of them. Once they were safely inside their new habitat, the two giant turtles got to eat the strawberries. Linda reached out to touch Joseph's leathery head and was surprised that he didn't pull away. She began to pet him, rubbing his head and neck. Joseph loved it and stretched his neck way out. Linda never knew before that any turtles liked to be petted. She was glad that after such a hard life Joseph and Jeanette would get to live in such a nice place.

Lessons from Part Three:

  • Linda found a way to be around turtles and learn about turtles without
    keeping one in her apartment. By volunteering Linda got to feel good about
    herself for helping turtles in need, and it helped her in school as well.
  • Turtles are individuals with their own personalities and preferences. In the sanctuary the turtles were allowed to be themselves and live the way they wanted to live.

Points to remember:

  • Reptiles need both warming lamps and special UV lamps designed for reptiles.
  • Different species of reptiles have different food needs. If you are caring
    for a reptile it is vital that you learn what species your pet is and what
    exactly his or her nutritional needs are.
  • Reptiles don't like to be confined to small spaces any more than you would, or your cat or dog would. They need enough room to stretch out and exercise.
  • The trade in reptiles captured from the wild is depleting their numbers in
    their natural habitats. This can have a devastating effect on world ecosystems.
  • Although reptiles appear to be very different from humans they still experience emotions and are able to suffer. Many reptiles need the companionship of others of their own species and become lonely and bored when they are isolated.
  • Because reptiles are vertebrates they feel pain in the same way humans do, through a complex network of nerves. For this reason it is wrong to strike, hurt, or starve a reptile. In most parts of the United States purposefully hurting a reptile is punishable by law.
  • Before bringing a reptile into your home consider the cost of caring for
    an exotic pet. Veterinary care for reptiles can be very expensive. Reptiles
    need special, costly equipment, and very specific foods. Do not get a reptile if you feel you cannot provide all of these things.
  • Reptiles need veterinary care just like any other animal, but it is hard to find a vet who treats reptiles. Research vets in your area, or get a recommendation from a local rescue group. Be sure to go to vet with lots of reptile experience.
  • If you are considering getting a reptile as a companion animals, check your local shelters and animal rescue groups. Many have tame reptiles desperate for good homes.

-- Story by Neva Davis

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