turtle in a dress in a parade

Even people who don’t like reptiles often are attracted to turtles and tortoises. They’re cute and appealing. And they seem like the kind of simple pet that you keep in a nice tank, toss food at once in a while and that’s it.

Even Lisa Chicarella thought that way at one point. "I was under the impression they were like goldfish in shells," she says.

Now Chicarella knows there’s a lot you can get out of owning a tortoise: Her African spur-thigh tortoise, Wasabi, is a therapy animal with Pets on Wheels in Maryland. But she also knows how much work it takes to live with one.

After Chicarella's dog, Chief, died, she talked to the director of the therapy organization. “I said I didn’t have a therapy animal anymore; too bad Wasabi couldn't be one. She said, ‘Why not?’”

Wasabi turned out to be a big success. She’s famous for wearing a dress, which is a great icebreaker, but it started out for practical reasons. Lesson No. 1 in reptile keeping is that these animals don’t produce their own body heat: Wasabi needs to wear thermal wraps to keep her warm when she works in the winter. The dress conceals them, but it was such a hit that now she wears it all the time.

Difficult to Contain

The tortoise got her name because "she’s hot stuff," Chicarella says. "When I first got her, she literally wouldn’t come out of her shell for two weeks. But once she popped out, she never went back in."

However, while owning a dress-wearing therapy tortoise can be pretty cool, it comes at a price. 

Says Chicarella, "My entire existence revolves around Wasabi."

Wasabi’s species is common in the pet trade, but buyers rarely realize what they’re in for. "When you get them, they’re tiny — about the size of an egg," Chicarella says. She got Wasabi as an adolescent weighing about 12 pounds, and now, seven years later, she tips the scales at more than 40 pounds and is very active and strong — with little respect for human property.

"For a tortoise Wasabi’s size, drywall is simply a suggestion," Chicarella says. One of her pet's favorite pastimes is moving the furniture around. "She’s always into something," she says. "She’ll push the ottoman around all day." Wasabi has broken several kitchen chairs, which Chicarella sometimes discovers by sitting on them.

And that's only the start: Wasabi will keep growing till she’s about 100 pounds. But, Chicarella says, "to keep her locked up wouldn’t be fair" because she’s so active and, yes, intelligent. "She’s very much a thinking little being. I can see her trying to figure out things. I tell her 'No,' and she hisses at me."

Along with Wasabi's challenging day-to-day management, Chicarella has to plan for the long term. Wasabi is expected to live 50 to 75 years, so she’s provided for in Chicarella's will.

Buyer Beware

A big problem with turtles and tortoises is that the most common species in the pet trade are not necessarily the most suitable pets. Chicarella says that while for her, Wasabi is worth it, she recommends that no one get an African spur-thigh. "For the record, they’re terrible, terrible pets," she says. "I enjoy her, but it’s an amazing amount of work. They’re not for the faint of heart."

The most common semiaquatic turtle, the popular red-eared slider, also presents a case in which buyers generally don’t know what they’re getting into. While it has been illegal for some time to sell a slider that's less than 4 inches long, the law is not well-enforced, and buyers aren't told that when that little turtle grows up it will be big enough to need a 75-gallon aquarium.

Because turtles are messy eaters and produce a lot of waste, their tanks need more filtration than would be needed for a fish tank of the same size. And no matter how often you see them kept in purely aquatic environments, such setups are not ideal. An aquarium — if you use one — needs to be set up specifically to meet the turtle's needs. "They’re not fish," says Barbara Daddario of the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. "Most still need a place to haul out and get completely dry."

So if you’re interested in a turtle or tortoise, it’s critical to do your research — both about individual species and about the reptiles in general.

A close-up shot of Wasabi the turtle

"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," Daddario says. "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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