Tempted to Get a Pet Turtle or Tortoise? Read This First

A close-up shot of Wasabi the turtle
Lisa Chicarella
When Lisa Chicarella got Wasabi seven years ago, she was 12 pounds. Now the tortoise tips the scales at 40 pounds.

"Turtles and tortoises can be wonderful companion animals," says Daddario, who works with rescue and adoption for the society. "But you have to do your research and understand that reptiles have very different needs. You have to provide for their needs as if you’re creating a simulation of the outdoor environment."

Reptiles generally can't survive in the same home environment that we live in, the way a dog or cat can. They need to be kept at the proper temperature and exposed to the right kind of UV lighting; otherwise, they can suffer from a wide range of illnesses.

You'll also need a veterinarian who's specifically experienced with the animals. And then, not all turtles and tortoises are the same: You need to understand the specific environmental and dietary needs of the species you select.

And be prepared for a long-term commitment. "I want people to know that they can be a wonderful part of life, but these animals are not disposable," Daddariosays. "They're very long-lived, which can be a bonus or can be a problem. They can go through three generations of a family, which is an amazing and wonderful thing, to be able to pass down an animal that Grampa had as a child."

The pets present an additional concern for owners.Like most reptiles, turtles and tortoises carry the bacteria salmonella,which can cause serious illness in people — especially young children and the elderly. Owners can reduce their risk by washing their hands thoroughly with soap and water after handling the animals or anything that touches them.

Finding the Right Turtle

So where to get the right turtle? First, Daddario says, "Don't take wild turtles home as pets! Don't move them from where they are."

Wild turtles need to be left where they are to maintain the population, and chances are it's illegal to collect them. And while you may think that taking in a wild turtle means you can just let it go if you don't want to keep it any longer, it's generally also illegal to release them without a permit, and the average person doesn't have the expertise to do it correctly. Daddario's organization often has to rescue turtles released in inappropriate locations or in the wrong season, often with terrible injuries. "These are very sad cases for the rest of their lives," she says. "The lucky ones are probably the ones who die quickly."

Instead, go to a rescue run by experts who can match you with the right species and educate you about its needs.

"We give you education; we help you create the proper environment. We're here as a support group," Daddario says. "I want to make sure this is the right turtle for the right person, that you're going to be happy, the turtle is going to do well, and you're going to feel good about taking this animal in and giving it a life that it wouldn't have had otherwise."

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