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August 14, 2014

Turtle Diaries, Tortoise Travails

In true Hollywood style, the success of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie has produced plenty of hype about turtles and tortoises. But unlike the reptilian heroes Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo and Donatello, real-life turtles and tortoises move at a slower pace and are less aggressive. While these wild creatures do not have to face antagonists like Shredder, they do face enormous challenges, including real-life enemies who intentionally drive over them on roadways or, out-of-site-out-of-mind, bury them under development projects.

snapping turtle
A snapping turtle hit by a car, being cared for at our Cape Wildlife Center in Barnstable, Massachusetts.
Photo: Heather Fone

Among the many threats faced by turtles and tortoises in America’s ponds, rivers, oceans, beaches, deserts and other habitats today are:

  • An unsustainable and inhumane American “turtle farm” industry that captures wild turtles and breeds them to supply pet stores and Internet sales. Millions of water turtles are confined and their hatchlings are “sanitized” and shipped in boxes containing several hundred babies piled on top of each other.

  • Pet turtles are often forced to live in dimly lit and deficient and tiny tanks and denied adequate nutrition. This treatment results in malformed shells, salmonella-laced sludge, and vitamin/mineral deficiencies. Pet turtles are often released into public waterways or abandoned at zoos and wildlife centers when people get tired of them. Many, unable to adjust to local temperatures and find food, die slow, miserable deaths. When they survive, they can carry pathogens into the ecosystems in which they were released. 

  • Rapid habitat loss due to development, road projects, drought, pollution, global warming and disease (e.g., Ranavirus) threaten the viability of turtle populations. Turtles also face threats from fishing nets and hooks that drown them. In 1987, the United States became the only country to require the shrimp industry to use Turtle Excluder Devices that allow sea turtles to escape when caught in nets. But enforcement has been lacking on this mandate and another requirement, passed in 1989, that all shrimp imported to the United States should be caught in nets equipped with these devices.

  • Sea turtles are killed across the globe to make trinkets for tourists, and are farmed for tourism and meat in the Cayman Islands.

  • It is still legal in most U.S. states to capture and eat an unlimited number of snapping, soft-shelled and other freshwater turtle species. Millions of North American turtles are also raised for food and shipped live internationally.

  • There are still snapping turtle capture and killing contests in the United States offering prizes for the most turtles and the largest turtle. Events often end with turtle soup.

Here at The HSUS, we work every day to save turtles and tortoises, and to face the challenges enumerated above. Until recently, Florida allowed gopher tortoises to be killed -- often buried alive – for construction projects. Now we assist with rescue and relocation of tortoises, like this recent dig in Apopka, Florida. Our wildlife centers also often assist in the rescue and rehabilitation of turtles. And at the Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, we have one resident alligator snapping turtle, three sulcata tortoises and one African leopard tortoise (all ex-pets), and hundreds of native red-eared sliders in ponds.

Just last week, we received the good news that Montana now prohibits the import, sale and ownership of red-eared sliders.

With the closing of the federal Desert Tortoise Convention Center in Nevada because of federal budget cuts, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked us to help rehome special-needs tortoises who cannot be released back into the wild. The HSUS is helping to find homes for 400 such tortoises that need a safe place to live for the remaining 10 to 80 years of their captive lives.

Turtles are alluring creatures, but it is important to remember that they belong in the wild. We hope that the success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles will not result in a mass movement to acquire turtles as novelty pets. Instead, the film should inspire more Americans to become aware of turtles’ needs. We must all safeguard the habitats for these creatures that move at their own pace and whose protective shell is no match for the array of threats humans throw at them.

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