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The Newsroom: Articles: Slider Turtles

"Misery on the Half Shell"
by Katrina Smith, Mid Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society
Reprinted with permission from the November 2002 issue of Terrapin Tales, the newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society

Author's Note: This article is in response to the observed, continual abuse perpetuated on countless red-eared sliders. It is not intended to be a commentary on the FDA "four inch rule."

Slick the Slider Turtle
Slick the Slider as a baby

Detailed information on the natural history and captive care of all species of North American Box Turtles.
Website of the world-famous Tortoise Trust: It provides a wealth of information on the care and breeding of chelonians. Tortoise Trust offers on-line courses in chelonian biology and husbandry.
Devoted to all aspects of sulcata tortoise captive care.
This site provides information on the care of many species of aquatic turtles.
Website of the World Chelonian Trust: It provides valuable advice on the husbandry of a large number of chelonian species. It also provides an extensive gallery of photos of different species. Considerable coverage is given to the state of the world animal market.

Recommended On-line Sources of Chelonian Food
Website of Nasco Biologicals and Educational Kits Production Facility: It produces "Turtle Brittle", a good pelletized chow for bottom-feeding aquatic and semi-aquatic turtles as well as for box turtles (served pre-moistened).
Website of Nutrional Support Services at Walkabout Farm: It provides excellent turtle, tortoise, herbivorous/omnivorous lizard diets, live food diets (for mealworms, supermealies, flesh flies), and reptile and amphibian vitamin/mineral dusts. All diets and supplements are designed by Dr. Susan Donoghue (MS, VMD, Diplomate: American College of Veterinary Nutrition), based on scientific research and extensive testing. All orders are prepared to order (always fresh!), and are made from organically grown, high quality ingredients. Highly recommended!! This is a good source of various cut hays and grass (pasture) seeds. Opuntia berries and spineless pads (excellent foods for tortoises and box turtles) are also sold. The pelletized Mazuri® Fresh Water Turtle Diet sold on this site is good. MATTS does not recommend the other commercial chows sold for turtles, tortoises, lizards and amphibians on this website.


Code of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume 8, Parts 800 to 1299

de Vosjoli, P. (1992) The General Care and Maintenance of Red-Eared Sliders. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Santee, CA

Earnst, C.H., Lovich, J.E., and Barbour, R. (2000) Turtles of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

'The "Four-inch" Regulations With a commentary by Michael J. Connor', Tortuga Gazette 29(2): 4-5, February 1993

Williams, T, 1999. The Terrible Turtle Trade. Audubon, March-April, 44-51

He was not quite two inches long, but his energy made up for his size as he stared up from his enclosure at the animal shelter. A family had been visiting New York City during the previous month, and had bought "Stewart" from a store or street vendor in the city, probably from Chinatown. His price was probably between $5 and $15, depending on the vendor. The vendor probably told the family that he would always stay small, could live in a little plastic container his whole life, and just needed water and some dry food to live. They brought him home to Washington, D.C., but for some reason decided to give him to the animal shelter a month later.

Stewart, a baby red-eared slider, Trachemys scripta elegans, which many people remember as the "dime store turtle" of their youth, is a primarily aquatic turtle native to the United States in the Mississippi Valley from Illinois to the Gulf of Mexico. Sliders are probably the cheapest-and the most abused-turtle in the pet trade. During the 1960's and 1970's, millions of hatchling-sized sliders and painted turtles, Chrysemys picta, were produced by turtle farms in the South and sold in pet stores, department stores, and dime stores across the country. The little green turtles with the red stripes on their heads were considered disposable pets due to their inexpensive price and usually short-lived nature. A baby turtle would be purchased, usually along with a small plastic container with a plastic palm tree in the middle, and set up on the coffee table at home. In less than a year the baby was usually dead due to severe malnutrition, shell rot, or respiratory or other infections, if the baby hadn't been crushed or left in the sun too long by unattended children.

As horrible as this sounds, the mass market of baby turtles continued until federal regulations restricting the sale of turtles and their eggs became law in 1975. These regulations, created by the FDA and listed in the Code of Federal Regulations, 21 CFR1240.62 (April 1, 1999 edition, pages 638-640), made it illegal to sell any chelonian-turtle or tortoise-under four inches in length unless for bona fide scientific or educational purposes. The law was not created to alleviate the suffering of these animals, but to protect young children from the risk of salmonella. Although any reptile can carry salmonella, none seemed to appeal to a child like a baby turtle. The little plastic containers on coffee tables provided easy access for toddlers and young children to play with turtles. All it took was a hand in the mouth after playing with the turtle for a child to catch salmonella. A baby turtle would fit easily into the mouth as well, and more than one child proved this point.

Slick the Slider Turtle
Adult and two baby sliders


The FDA regulations have not stopped the sale of turtles. They just require pet stores to sell larger turtles. Since sliders grow and reproduce quickly, turtle farms continue to produce them for the pet trade. A four- to six-inch slider usually sells for $15 in most pet stores. Although hardier, the slider does not make a good pet for the average person.

Females, which are larger than males, grow up to eleven inches in length. Being primarily aquatic, they require a large aquarium with a haul-out spot, heat lamp, water heater, full-spectrum (UVB) lighting, and a strong filter-about a $300-$700 initial investment. A slider produces a large amount of waste that, even with a filter, makes frequent water changes a necessity. Sliders do best in ponds, but because they are often sold where they are not native, they must have a pond in a fenced yard. Then, the pond has to be deep enough to prevent total freezing in winter, or a pond heater must be installed. Females can and do produce infertile eggs even if not exposed to males, and can become egg-bound if not provided with a proper laying area. Egg binding requires veterinary attention, and can be fatal.

An unsuspecting consumer might buy a slider in a pet store and be sold a twenty-gallon tank with a heat lamp to go over a screen for the tank. He's lucky if the pet store sells a cheap filter and floating cork bark for basking. If the turtle is lucky, this new turtle keeper will do some research and quickly realize that a whole new set-up is in order. If the turtle is unlucky, he'll stay in an unheated, unfiltered, too small tank for the rest of his life. Although he might live years in substandard conditions, he will likely die short of his 30-50 year natural lifespan.

Adult and baby slider

Without proper heating, a turtle's immune system is suppressed, leaving him vulnerable to infection and disease. Add dirty water to that, and you have a recipe for disaster. Turtles kept under such sub-optimal conditions are likely to develop shell rot, a painful infection that eats away at the living bone that can eventually lead to septicemia ("blood poisoning") and death. These turtles are also likely to develop fungal and bacterial infections of the skin; many aquatic turtles come to rescuers with infected feet and swollen toes.

Turtles are prone to the devastating affects of malnutrition when they are forced to live at sub-optimal temperatures. They often have a poor appetite and cannot properly digest what food they do eat. These turtles are also prone to pneumonia and other respiratory infections.

Turtles require special full-spectrum lights, in addition to proper heating and a well balanced diet, to prevent metabolic bone disease, a disorder that can cause, among other things, severe limb and shell deformities.

Herpetological societies and reptile rescue groups across the country receive hundreds of unwanted pet sliders each year, as do animal shelters. Due to their large size and special needs, their placement is difficult. Many uninformed owners decide to release their pets after they become too much work, or after they learn what is really required to care for a slider. This is problematic, as pets often carry parasites and diseases that native, local turtles cannot fend off. Non-native sliders have become established in almost all areas of the US. They are even found in Japan and other countries, as the pet industry is allowed to ship babies overseas for the pet trade and adults for the food markets in Asia. The European Union, Israel, and other countries have banned their importation for fear that they will push out native species.

But, if it is illegal to sell turtles less than four inches in length, how did Stewart end up at a shelter at such a young age? Greed and higher priorities might be the best explanation. Some stores will sell undersized turtles if they are sure that their animal control or health department have "better things to do" than bust them for baby turtles. Flea market vendors might sell them, and some county fairs and carnivals give them away as prizes. Again, these are illegal activities. High tourist areas such as east-coast boardwalks and New York City are especially problematic. Internet turtle chat rooms are full of people asking for advice on baby turtles purchased on the street. One such person decided to put his new baby sliders on dirt in an aquarium, as he didn't know what type of turtle he'd purchased. Rescue groups across the country are asked to find homes for sliders purchased by tourists in NYC. Sometimes the buyers do their research and decide the animal is too much work-or they get the proper setup and the turtle gets larger than they are willing to accommodate. Either way, the turtle looses out and rescuers are scrambling to find homes for hundreds of unwanted animals.

How can the average person help combat the abuse and misery that befalls these beautiful animals? Education is the first step. Never, ever acquire an animal without first learning its needs. Research articles on chelonian care on the Internet. Contact a local or regional herpetological or turtle and tortoise society for advice on how to care for turtles. These organizations can often point you to the best books and online articles, as well as recommend the best animal for your lifestyle. They probably have more than enough sliders and other turtles for adoption, too, and can arrange adoptions once you have decided if a pet turtle is for you. Educate your family and friends as well. Warn them to avoid impulse purchases of animals. If they are planning a trip to NYC or other high-tourist areas, ask that they refrain from purchasing living animals on their trips.

In the case of illegally sold baby turtles, contact the authorities. Local health and animal control departments should be alerted to the sale of baby turtles. The city or county government listings in the blue pages of a phone book should have these numbers. Regional FDA offices can also be called and a consumer complaint filed. Check the federal listings in the blue pages of a phone book for the number of the closest FDA office. Even if a pet store has a sign stating, "For educational purposes only," the store is breaking the law-FDA regulations allow for only "bona fide" educational purposes! For babies being sold in flea markets or pet stores, consider writing a letter to the owner of the property (particularly if the store is in a mall or shopping center), alerting him to the illegal activities occurring on his property. Be sure to include any relevant county or city health codes, and the FDA regulation.

For New York City specifically, contact the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene's Central Complaints Unit as well as the precinct police. The sale of baby turtles less than four inches in carapace length is a violation of section 2.58 (a) of the NYC Health Code in addition to violating federal regulations. The health department's Central Complaints Unit can be reached at 1-877-692-3647. The police precinct in Chinatown can be reached at 212-334-0711.

If the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the police won't respond to the situation, consider contacting the Mayor's Action Center at 212-788-9600 and the City Council at 212-788-7100 to alert them to the problem. Contrary to popular opinion, the ASPCA will not respond to reports of baby turtles for sale, no matter in what condition the babies are kept. Since it is a health code matter, it is not the responsibility of the ASPCA. Again, call the regional FDA office in addition to the health department and police.

Stewart's story ends happily. His original family seemed to have taken good care of him. When he arrived at the animal shelter, his shell was hard without signs of infection, his eyes bright with no signs of swelling, and his breathing was normal. He was fostered for a few months to ensure that he was growing and healthy. A ten gallon tank with a water heater, small filter, UVB light, low-watt basking light, and a small piece of floating cork bark worked well enough for the short term. He was soon adopted by a family that added him to a 40-gallon pond on their deck. The sunlight will ensure that his shell grows evenly and strong. Natural aquatic vegetation provides a basking platform as well as shade from the sun, and supplies him with plenty of nutritious snacks. He'll be brought indoors for the winter. In two or three years he'll be big enough to add to the 500-gallon pond in a fenced-in backyard, where he'll hibernate during winter. Stewart was lucky. Let's hope we can continue to find more homes like this for the other babies out there.

Reprinted with permission from the November 2002 issue of Terrapin Tales, the newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society

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