on the Half Shell"
by Katrina Smith, Mid
Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society
with permission from the November 2002 issue of Terrapin
Tales, the newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise
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
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
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
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
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.
www.turtlecafe.com 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.
of Federal Regulations, Title 21, Volume
8, Parts 800 to 1299
Vosjoli, P. (1992) The General Care and
Maintenance of Red-Eared Sliders. Advanced
Vivarium Systems, Santee, CA
C.H., Lovich, J.E., and Barbour, R. (2000)
Turtles of the United States and Canada.
Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington,
'The "Four-inch" Regulations With
a commentary by Michael J. Connor', Tortuga
Gazette 29(2): 4-5, February 1993
T, 1999. The Terrible Turtle Trade. Audubon,
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.
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.
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.
and two baby sliders
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.
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.
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.
and baby slider
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
with permission from the November 2002 issue of Terrapin
Tales, the newsletter of the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise
a comment on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.