Why to Keep Wild Turtles Wild

It is critical to the long-term survival of our native turtle species that individuals never be taken from the wild. Below is a series of 7 reasons why it's so important to keep wild turtles in the wild, where they belong.

Reason #1: It’s a huge detriment to the local ecosystem

Blanding's turtle

Blanding's turtle during release

Taking a turtle from the wild means they are effectively dead to their population. Turtles are very long-lived, with similar lifespans to humans. They are incredibly important to their local ecosystem, and taking them from their habitat means there’s now no chance that individual can reproduce and keep the population stable. Turtles also reach sexual maturity much later than other species, again similar to humans. For a Blanding’s turtle, that can be anywhere from 14 to 20 years old! And they will continue to reproduce throughout their lifetime, so that could be 40, 60, 100 years more of replenishment to the population, since they are so long lived. The pet trade is a large reason why turtle populations are disappearing globally, and adds to the long list of threats they already experience.

Reason #2: Baby turtles are independent and capable

Turtles know what they're doing. They have been around for over 200 million years -- a lot longer than humans! Their instincts and needs are very different from us, making it easy to misunderstand when a turtle requires help. Did you know that turtles do not need nor receive any parental care? Mom lays her eggs and then immediately returns to her home while the eggs incubate and hatch on their own some months later. When a hatchling emerges from the nest, it's already equipped with everything it needs to seek out its preferred habitat. The truth of the matter is that not all of these hatchlings are going to make it, but don't despair! Mother nature knows what she is doing, and it is best to just let nature take care of itself. Sometimes, we can do more harm than good even with the best intentions at heart.

So, when you find hatchling turtles, their instincts are helping to guide them towards the body of water they will call home (assuming it's an aquatic turtle). They are very tied to their local environments and the furthest they should ever be moved is across the street in the same direction they are heading. If in doubt about a turtle's health or the situation, call a wildlife rehabber who works with turtles -- we are here 24/7 to help.

See the Turtle Rescue League's Turtle Hatchlings – Not Always Cute and Probably Not Dying blog post for more great context.

Reason #3: Turtles are intimately tied to their local environments

Snapping turtle during release

Snapping turtle during release

Did you know that a turtle might spend its entire life in an area the size of a football field? Each species of turtle has adaptations to help them thrive in their chosen habitats, which can be miniscule compared to other animals. Even different populations of the same turtle species can exhibit specializations that help that localized group flourish in their particular environment.

A wild turtle knows its habitat intimately, and understands how to utilize the available resources in order to survive. This includes a hibernaculum that is used year after year to take shelter during the winters, the best spots to find a partner during mating season, and, for females, a good location to lay eggs during the nesting season. They would know how to navigate between bodies of water to find different foods, or to find a good place to estivate during hot summer days so they don’t overheat.

Hatchlings spend their youth mapping their environment and learning the critical aspects of surviving on their own, and it is crucial that they be allowed to develop their instincts naturally. A kidnapped hatchling might never have the option to be released back into the wild because it was denied the opportunity to develop its essential wild intuitions.

Taking a turtle from the wild means ripping it away from everything it has ever known and forcing them to live in a confined, foreign, and unfamiliar place. How would you feel if a giant came and picked you up against your own will and dropped you into a small room halfway across the world to live out the rest of your life? A turtle that is taken from its home and kept in captivity will always be at a severe disadvantage when it comes to rerelease. We can avoid this dilemma altogether by keeping wild turtles wild!

Reason #4: Wild turtles need their natural immunities

Wood turtle basking in the wild

Wild wood turtle basking in the sun

Staying healthy takes a combination of a varied diet, regular exercise, and maintaining a strong immune system. One of the ways our immune system adapts to new threats is through exposure to the various pathogens in our environment, which allows the immune system to develop and remember a defense strategy to protect against future encounters more effectively.

A turtle's immune system functions in much the same way. Beginning from the very day a turtle hatches, it is building up immunological resistances to the many diseases present in its natural environment. Being able to continuously improve the immune system in moderation over time is what helps to make this strategy so effective, and one of the main reasons why a turtle that is taken from the wild may not be able to survive being released back into the natural environment later on.

When a kidnapped turtle has not been allowed to develop its immune system in its natural environment, being released back into the wild involves a sudden onslaught of pathogens that it has never been exposed to before. While a turtle's immune system may be able to successfully combat one disease on its own, the threat of multiple diseases all at once may be enough to overwhelm that turtle's natural defenses and cause it to become gravely ill and ultimately perish. This is especially true of a wild turtle that has been kept in captivity under less-than-ideal conditions; it will be weaker and much more susceptible to illness than one allowed to live its life naturally in the way it sees fit. Stress has been proven to greatly weaken the immune system as well, and there are few things more stressful to a wild turtle than being kept captive and being released back into an unfamiliar environment.

The best way to avoid this predicament and ensure the best chances for a turtle's long-term survival is to leave it alone and let that wild turtle stay wild. If you think a wild turtle needs assistance or rescuing, please don't hesitate to give us a call - we're here to help! (603) 417-4944

Reason #5: Turtles kept in captivity can spread disease to wild populations

Painted turtle swimming away during a patient release

Painted turtle swimming away during a patient release

This section is all about ☣️ Biosecurity ☣️. For those not familiar with the term, it means maintaining protocols that help to keep diseases from entering into or spreading amongst wild populations. It’s a critical aspect of wildlife rehabilitation, because a lapse in proper biosecurity can have dire consequences for the animals we are trying to protect.

At times it is visually apparent that an animal is sick from disease, but sometimes it can be difficult or impossible to determine. When faced with a predator (like a human), their survival instincts kick in to hide any signs of weakness. Animals can also be asymptomatic carriers of diseases, which means they can spread a disease while not experiencing any symptoms from it. These are two of the big reasons why we can’t assume that an animal is healthy just because they don’t look ill.

An injured wild turtle that is brought directly to us is likely to have only encountered pathogens naturally occurring in their environment, and would therefore pose a relatively low risk of spreading a deadly disease when re-released after healing. A turtle who has been kept by humans for any amount of time, however, is likely to have had unnatural exposure to diseases, and is of the highest risk to other patients or to wild populations.

Human activities can be the source of deadly diseases which get passed to a wild population and result in mass mortalities. Importing infected animals for food, the pet trade, or traditional medicine markets can cause a disease to be spread rapidly to new areas. There are many different ways exposure to these pathogens can occur in captivity, such as being housed with other pets, the introduction of infected food, and other types of incidental exposure. It’s easier than you might think.

We often receive calls from members of the public who want to surrender a turtle originally picked up in the wild but that has been kept as a pet, so that it can be rehabilitated and released. Even after extensive resources to mitigate risk, releasing one of these turtles always risks native populations. Testing is extremely expensive, but more importantly, we cannot test for all diseases. In addition, there are always new diseases being discovered, such as the very deadly Fraservirus recently identified in Florida in 2022.

Reptiles and amphibians are in worldwide decline. In NH, 4 out of 7 of our native turtle species are listed by the state as being threatened or endangered. It would be devastating if we lost one of our native species due to a disease that entered a population from a stay in captivity. The best way to avoid this predicament is by keeping wild turtles wild.

Reason #6: Turtle care is not easy

An ambassador box turtle with metabolic bone disease from prior poor husbandry

An ambassador box turtle with metabolic bone disease from prior poor husbandry

So far in this series we’ve discussed impacts to turtles and the ecosystem. This section is about the challenges associated with keeping turtles, and reasons why there are far more pet turtles needing homes than homes for them.

Taking a wild turtle and turning them into a pet is a disservice to all the orphaned pet turtles who need rescuing. Turtles have extremely long lifespans and can easily outlive us depending on the species, so eventually that turtle is likely to need a new home. If you’re committed to having a turtle companion, work with a rescue to rehome an unwanted pet; it can make a profound impact on a turtle’s life and helps reduce the problems facing turtles in general.

Turtles are ectotherms, meaning they rely on external sources to maintain their body temperature. Their digestion, metabolism, mobility, immune system, and more all rely on their ability to regulate their body temperatures (called thermoregulation). In captivity, careful attention has to be paid to the provided thermal gradient for air, substrate, and water simultaneously.

You likely have seen turtles basking in the sun’s rays if you’ve visited a pond or stream on a warm day. Basking allows turtles to properly thermoregulate and absorb UV-B rays from the sun, which produces Vitamin D3 – a necessary component for calcium absorption. In captivity, they require specialized UV-B lighting, with bulbs requiring replacement typically every 6 months or less regardless of visible brightness. UV-B cannot penetrate window glass, so an indoor enclosure placed next to a window with natural lighting is not sufficient.

These are only a couple of the important considerations involved with turtle care. Health issues are extremely common in captivity due to inadequate husbandry. Turtles need a considerable amount of space, and are adapted to their local environments, so understanding their natural history means everything for their long-term health, even if that turtle came from a pet store. Providing a suitable habitat is no easy task, but if you feel prepared, we can always refer you to rescues that we work with. Whatever you do, avoid adding to the problem and Keep Wild Turtles Wild.

Reason #7: Female turtles with eggs are on the move

A Blandings turtle on the move

A Blandings turtle on the move

During nesting season (May-July) gravid turtles, or turtles carrying eggs, are on the move to lay their eggs. Female turtles will travel far to find a suitable spot to lay, and are very particular about where they choose to nest.

A majority of the patients we receive during nesting season are female, typically injured while crossing roads or after entering yards with dogs, among other reasons. Every female that enters our facility requires radiographs (x-ray images), and if we determine that a female is gravid, our top priority becomes working with her to lay her eggs as quickly as possible. If she retains her eggs and does not lay them, the eggs will rot inside of her, which will be fatal. It is therefore imperative that she lay all of her eggs, which we verify through repeated radiographs, if needed.

Sometimes a turtle will be picked up by a human while they are nesting, before that turtle has been able to lay all of her eggs. In captivity, she will likely be too stressed to lay the remainder of her eggs. When she starts showing signs of illness, it’s likely too late to do anything, because the eggs have already rotted inside of her. It’s a heartbreaking situation for everyone involved, and can be avoided easily by never taking wild turtles that you find. Turtles often visit the same nesting location year after year, so by allowing her the freedom to lay her eggs and move on, you’re likely to have a friend who visits annually, allowing you a glimpse into their amazing life history for years to come.