In Celebration of World Turtle Day:
March 23, 2011
written by Neva
I had the amazing honor last spring of observing baby yellow slider turtles emerging from the ground as they hatched and immediately headed toward the nearby creek. They were so tiny, but perfect and beautiful and they knew exactly where they needed to go. Watching this I felt so connected to the ancient and powerful rhythms and cycles of the Earth.
Turtles have existed on this planet longer than humans, lizards, or most other species of animals alive today. Turtles are also exceptionally long-lived, with many living more than 100 years, including the common box turtle.
Another close encounter of the tortoise kind came when I got home from work and found a neighborhood child waiting on my front step with two baby red eared slider turtles in a filthy small tank. It was the middle of winter and the child’s mother had told him to dump the turtles in a nearby pond, but he knew they couldn’t survive there in the cold after having been inside all of their lives.
My husband and I cared for these turtles all winter until the spring when they could be relocated to a pond at a sanctuary. If red eared slider turtles are with others of their kind, young enough when introduced to the pond, and allowed to live through all the spring and summer they will learn to hibernate through winter at the bottom of the pond. We went back to visit them many times to check on their progress, though by the end of the season they had grown so much we could no longer tell them apart from their many red eared slider neighbors.
Red eared sliders are sold as pets when they are tiny babies and many die from improper care as they need special lamps to help their shells grow properly, an adequate diet, and powerful filters in their tanks to prevent infections. If the turtles do survive they are often dumped outside to perish or find their way as they get quite large as adults and can no longer live in ordinary fish tanks.
These tiny, vulnerable turtles also present a risk to people, since they are so frequently given to children who pet the turtles and then put their hands into their mouths; they are a source of salmonella bacteria.
Many cities are passing laws to prevent the sale of these turtles since so many are wild turtles captured from their native habitats, they so frequently cannot survive as pets, and because of the risk to humans. Even turtles that meet local ordinances for sale can be wild-captured, or the off-spring of wild-captured turtles. The pet trade depletes the population of turtles living in the wild at the very time that environmental pressures and pollution are threatening populations of amphibians around the world.
Turtles like many animals face threats from loss of habitat and predators. Sea turtles in particular have always lived in a delicate balance with their environment. Increased pressures, such as injuries from boats and fishing nets, combined with pollution, the danger of accidentally ingesting trash, and loss of their instinctual beach nesting grounds all have decreased their numbers dramatically. Land turtles face similar pressures as their habitats are developed for houses and stores. They face danger from traffic and even from well-meaning people who might take baby turtles home but not feed or care for them properly.
Drive slowly and carefully in areas where you know turtles are active. If you stop to help a turtle cross the road, don’t move them to the side they came from, they will just attempt to cross again later. Keep in mind that some types of turtles are dangerous, such as snapping turtles and you should not attempt to move them.
I once stopped to help a large box turtle across a road. Everything seemed to be going well, as the turtle moved her head inside her shell when I lifted her, so I was completely unprepared for the powerful kick she delivered to my stomach, which knocked me backwards and caused me to drop her. Luckily neither one of us was hurt and I did manage to move her to safety on the other side of the road, but it’s just a reminder to always take care when handling wildlife.