Releasing Wildlife

Turtles and Tortoises as Pets

Items to consider before taking on a turtle or a tortoise as a pet

Before taking on a turtle or a tortoise as a pet,  there are many issues that you should consider.  These considerations will reduce the likelihood that you will end up needing to find a new home for the animal at a later date. 

  1. By virtue of their diets, many reptiles are susceptible to various strains of Salmonella, which can be passed on to humans when sufficient hygiene practices are not followed.  For this reason, turtles and tortoises are inappropriate pets for small children.
  2. Along the lines of disease, it’s important to regularly observe the behavior of your turtle or tortoise, particularly feeding behavior.  An animal that stops eating or has runny eyes and/or a runny nose warrants a visit to the vet for a health check.
  3. Some small turtles and tortoises grow to be very large and need a LOT of space to thrive and be healthy.  Determine how much room you have for a turtle or tortoise and shop accordingly, so that you are not faced with a heart-wrenching decision in later years as your “pet” outgrows the space you have available for it in your home.  As an example, the Spur-thighed tortoise, which is under two inches in length as a hatchling grows up to be huge, weighing between 50 to 200 pounds as adults.  These animals require significant space, like the size of a bedroom or more, and require significant “cage” maintenance and cleaning as they eliminate large quantities of waste and urine.
  4. Some turtles need an aquatic tank and access to dry land or a basking area out of the water, others need only dry land.  In many cases, both dry land and water are required.  Determine how much room and how much money you have available to spend to make your pet turtle or tortoise comfortable in its new home.  Again, knowing the growth potential of the species is important to know BEFORE you acquire a specimen.
  5. Because turtles are ectothermic (cold-blooded), your pet will need a place to bask in the sun or under a heat lamp.  In addition to purchasing a heat lamp, you’ll need to invest in a basking rock or platform, substrate for the dry land portion of your pet’s space, and in many cases, a tank to accommodate the animal.  Setting up a turtle or tortoise for captivity can easily run into hundreds of dollars.  Consider beforehand whether your budget can afford the expense of the set up.
  6. Turtles live a relatively long time.  For example, Ornate Box Turtles live 40-60 years in the wild.  Blanding’s Turtles are known to live much longer, up to about 80 years in the wild.  Before purchasing a turtle as a pet, find out the expected lifespan of the animal.  Are you prepared to take care of this animal for the next several decades?
  7. Contrary to popular belief, turtles do not thrive on a diet of iceberg lettuce.  Like humans, turtles have specific nutritional requirements. Fortunately, some veterinarians have become specialized in turtles and other reptiles and can provide you with dietary recommendations for turtles.  There are many commercial turtle diets available for purchase.  In many cases, live crickets, worms, and/or fish can be used as “treats”.  If you do not receive nutritional recommendations from the breeder, consult a reputable pet store or veterinarian for this information.  There are also many good resources for this information on the web or in books. In many cases you can search for the specific diet of the species you are considering.

Why animals should not be collected from the wild

Turtles have become extremely popular as pets, with an estimated 1% of households in the USA having at least one for a pet.  Many people collect turtles from the wild as pets.  In some instances, the turtle is kept for a rather short period of time and then released back into the wild.  In other cases, the turtle is kept captive for the rest of its life.  Every turtle that is taken from a wild population is a turtle that will not have the opportunity to contribute to the population’s stability and genetic make-up of future generations.  

Like other animals that are long-lived and that take many years to reach maturity, turtles can withstand few losses of adults in the population.  Just a few adult animals annually removed from a population by death or collection can lead to the decline of that population.

There is no longer a need to collect turtles from the wild.  Due to their popularity as pets, there are many who end up at reptile rescue centers in need of adoption.  The adoption of a turtle from a reptile rescue center or humane society does not contribute to the decline of wild populations.  In addition, a reptile rescue center will provide you with information on how to keep your pet healthy and thriving.

An animal that is collected from the wild is a wild card.  About the only thing you’ll know about the animal is the location of its capture.  And reptiles that are bought either from a pet store or from breeders usually come from unknown origins (they or the adult who produced them may have been collected from the wild).

Why pets should not be released into the wild

Pet turtles and other non-domestic animals should NEVER be released into the wild if ANY of the following apply:

  1. You do not know the exact origin of the animal you are considering releasing.
  2. The animal is not native to the county and state where you live (i.e. the exact animal you are considering releasing did not originate from the wild in the county and state where you live).
  3. It is illegal to release the specimen (animal) you have in the state where you live.
  4. The animal has been held captive with other turtles of similar or different species from another population, whether instate or out-of-state.
  5. The animal has symptoms that indicate less than optimum health, such as being underweight, feeding poorly, or sluggish behavior not caused by a cool environment.  Never release sick animals into the wild!  

Pets released into the wild may pose threats to others of their kind and to other species in the wild.  A non-native captive animal may have unique behaviors and genetics that could harm the recipient population.  For example, a Painted Turtle from middle Illinois that is released in southern Wisconsin likely has developed unique survival adaptations and genetic characteristics over many hundreds or thousands of years.  If that turtle is transferred to a new population that has also developed its own unique behaviors and genetics, the introduction of different behaviors and genetics could literally weaken the survival of the native population.  This has been demonstrated with game bird populations introduced into Wisconsin populations from middle U.S. states.  Disease organisms, which may not be evident (i.e. asymptomatic) can readily be transferred to new populations. This situation may seem unlikely to you, but there have been several instances in which it is believed that released captive animals have introduced disease into wild populations with devastating results.  For example, a federally threatened species, the Desert Tortoise, has been collected from its native habitat for decades.  In the 1970s, upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) was discovered in desert tortoises on Beaver Dam Slope in Utah, an area in which many captive desert tortoises were released.  Since then several other instances of URTD outbreaks have coincided with releases of large numbers of captive animals.  The latest and worst example of this has been recently demonstrated in newts, a type of salamander from China and India, that were shipped to many countries around the world as part of the burgeoning pet trade.  Some of these newts have been released into foreign countries (e.g. England) and are having a significant impact on native populations through the spread of Bsal, a deadly fungus, where these releases have occurred.  This has spawned a potentially worldwide epidemic in wild newt populations–all because pet newts have been released into the wild.   

If you find yourself in a situation in which you need or want to re-home a pet turtle, there are organizations that can help:

  • Your local herpetological society may have an adoption program.  You can find a listing of herpetological societies on the Center for North American Herpetology website (
  • Your county or municipal animal shelter can help.
  • You may have a reptile rescue organization in your community.  You can find a listing of reptile rescue organizations on the Bearded Dragon website (


Literature Sources

  1. American Veterinary Medical Association. 2007. U.S. Pet Ownership & Demographics Sourcebook. Membership & Field Services, American Veterinary Medical Association, Schaumburg, Illinois.
  2. Jacobson, E. 1994. The desert tortoise and upper respiratory tract disease. Bulletin of the Association of Reptile and Amphibian Veterinarians 4(1): 6-7.
  3. Jacobson, E., et al. 2014. Mycoplasmosis and upper respiratory tract disease of tortoises: A review and update. The Veterinary Journal 201: 257-264.
  4. Spitzen-van der Sluijs, etal. 2016. Expanding distribution of lethal amphibian fungus Batrachochytrium salamandrivorans in Europe. Emerging Infectious Diseases 22:1286- 1288.