Help! I Found a Turtle"Help! I found a baby turtle in my yard. It is so adorable. I had to pick it up and take it inside. I want to keep it, but people tell me I should release it. Is it against the law to keep it? I don't know what to do."This is a common email we receive. Perhaps more so than any other wild animal encountered by people, turtles are frequently picked up and become pets. Many of these encounters are by people who never had a turtle as a pet before. Some of these people search the internet, find TurtleTails.com, and ask us for help. We always respond. So this is a good subject to address in a tour.
CAUTION!!! While we try to avoid stating our opinions on TurtleTails.com, we have to express our opinions to address this subject. Please keep this in mind as you read on. Most of what you hear from others are opinions not facts. Even points of law you hear from others are mostly repeated second hand misinformation. We strongly recommend you consider all opinions carefully and decide for yourselves. Our views will most likely differ from what you read elsewhere. And keep in mind that TurtleTails.com is mostly about enjoying turtles and keeping turtles as pets.
Let us begin by dividing this subject into two general categories - being a good samaritan who relocates a turtle and keeping a turtle for a pet, especially a baby turtle. Yes, the good samaritan often becomes a pet owner. This even happens to us. Case in point - Emily.
| pic 1 | pic 2 | pic 3 |
Emily is a large Florida red-bellied turtle. She is pictured on the Turtle Pictures page. She was found at someone's door in Pennsylvania and turned over to a wildlife rescue organization by a good samaritan. We were contacted to help identify her. They knew she was a red-bellied turtle but were unsure of the species. There is a native red-bellied turtle in southeastern Pennsylvania which is designated as a "threatened" species. By law the rescue organization must return native species to the wild and may not release non occurring species in the state.
We identified her and asked for permission to photograph her. The response was "Will you take her?". This was a departure for us because we had only been keeping turtles that could hibernate. The Florida red-bellied turtle is only found in Florida and limited parts of Georgia where it may be active all year. Of course we did not hesitate to accept her and we also accepted two small red-eared sliders. We knew we could find homes for the sliders and thought about finding a ride to Florida for Emily. The folks at the rescue organization named her Emily. She is 11" long and weighs seven pounds.
It was late summer when Emily joined us and it was clear from the start that she was very comfortable in captivity. It was also clear that she is a domesticated pet not a wild turtle. Releasing her in Florida was not the answer. From the start she loved sitting by our small turtle pond with other turtles and followed me around demanding attention. And it was time to prepare for winter. In October she came inside with our other water turtles and was placed in the hibernation quarters temporarily (See Tour 11). This was only a temporary solution because we were not prepared to subject her to a long winter hibernation.
After several weeks we prepared a 30 gallon breeder aquarium for her and brought her out of hibernation. After several weeks we established a workable routine for feeding and running the house. This is also described in Tour 11. So our intention to be a good samaritan resulted in a new member of the family and there are no regrets. We would do it again.
The point we wish to make is that simply relocating a turtle to a place you think is a better place for it may be a death sentence. Emily most likely would not have survived a Pennsylvania winter if she had been dropped into a local lake. It's better to identify the species of turtle first before relocating it. We are happy to help the many viewers seeking to identify turtles. It's part of the reason this site was created. It is certainly a good thing to help a turtle cross a road safely and it is not against the law to do so.
A Turtle in your Yard
There is something about how people react to finding a turtle that we wish to make you think about. We read and hear about the destruction of turtle habitat all the time. We are conditioned to think that turtles must be out "in the wild" somewhere, that they can not survive well in our yards, that a turtle in our yard must surely be lost. People who find turtles in their yards or in their neighborhoods immediately think they must relocate the poor turtle. Why can't the turtle live a good life in your yard? Rabbits surely do. After all the wild places are full of animals that eat turtles. Most carnivorous animals in the wild will eat a turtle or part of it if given the chance. Your yard may be a much safer place even with dogs and cats about.
It is common for people living in urban areas who have fenced in yards to have turtles roaming freely in their yards. They may or may not feed them. People in suburban neighborhoods may find turtles inhabiting their yards too. Their neighborhoods may have been part of the home ranges of the turtles before the houses were constructed. It has been proven that turtles have some ability to return to their home ranges when displaced. Displacing one of these turtles may result in the turtle seeking to find its way back.
Female turtles frequently travel long distances to find the right nesting sites. This is often someone's yard. This leads to more encounters with people as babies hatch and emerge from their nests. Mother turtles may slip in and out of the yards undetected, but the babies will not travel far. Who can encounter a baby turtle in their yard and not pick it up. And nesting in your yard means that your yard is not just acceptable turtle habitat. It is turtle habitat!
Baby turtles can grab your heart. They are so very adorable and so very defenseless. Everything is out to eat them so they must hide constantly. So when baby turtles are encountered, there is a natural tendency to pick them up for their safety. They are much harder to put down. People who never thought of having a pet turtle often fall in love with baby turtles. We have no issues with people keeping baby turtles and we try to help by showing how we care for our baby turtles via these tours. The same goes for larger turtles.
And why is it that frogs, toads, salamanders, lizards, and snakes do not spark the same reactions from people as turtles. When you fret over the turtle you have recently acquired, consider how you would be reacting if it were only a toad or salamander.
Turtles and the Law
We would never advise anyone to break the laws of their state pertaining to turtles. However, most people do not fully understand their state laws and make statements that are incorrect. This often causes anxiety for people who just found a turtle and are thinking about keeping it. If you are one of these people who found a turtle, properly identify the species before worrying about anything else.
We can make some broad statements that apply to most states. First it is commonly against state laws to disturb nesting turtles and to disturb nests of eggs in the wild. This does not apply to captive turtles. Secondly it it generally against state laws to release non-native species into the wild including recently captured non-native turtles. It is also against many state laws to release long captive or pet turtles into the wild for fear of introducing diseases into wild populations. Statements similar to these are common even when the laws do not exist.
Here in Pennsylvania we have a Game Commission and a Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC). In many states these functions are performed by one commission. Laws pertaining to reptiles and amphibians are under the authority of the PFBC and govern the harvest and consumption of reptiles and amphibians. These laws do not recognize the keeping of reptiles and amphibians as pets.
Pennsylvania law states:"§ 77.6. Season and daily possession limits.The possession limit for most species of turtles is two and the season for most species is open year round. Therefore, you can legally capture and possess two eastern painted turtles and keep them as pets. If you keep them for twenty years, you could only take two in the twenty years. If you capture, kill, and dispose of two daily, you could legally take 730 per year and 14,600 eastern painted turtles in the twenty years. If your two turtles produce babies in captivity, the babies are not taken from the wild and are not subject to the possession limit. However, it would be hard but not impossible to prove where they came from.
(a) Except as otherwise provided in subsections (b) and (c), it is unlawful for a person to take, catch or kill more than the daily limit specified in subsection (d) in 1 calendar day or to have in possession more than the possession limit, dead or alive, specified in subsection (d); or to take, catch or kill reptiles or amphibians during the closed season. An amphibian or reptile will not be considered to be in possession of a person if, after it is taken or caught, it is immediately returned unharmed to the area from which it was taken."
Also note that the law does not consider a turtle in possession if it is immediately released in the same location (not relocated). The PFBC web site elaborates on this by giving the example of helping a turtle safely cross a road. It also covers fishermen who may capture turtles on their fishing lines who need to remove them from the lines and release them.
No where in the Pennsylvania Code (laws) is there a mention of keeping turtles or other reptiles and amphibians as pets. These laws are only intended to regulate the rates of consumption (eating or using as bait) of reptiles and amphibians.
We find that among friends who are avid amateur herpetologists and keepers of reptiles and amphibians in Pennsylvania there is considerable misinterpretation of the laws. Conversations with PFBC officers concerning these laws also leads us to believe they are just as confused. We recommend strict observance of the possession limits when out in the field or transporting turtles from the wild.
Some states are more restrictive than Pennsylvania. We have often been told that photographing turtles in some states is considered "harassing wildlife". Does that make sense? We recommend that you weigh other peoples' opinions carefully and check out your state laws for yourself. And don't panic if you pick up a turtle and retain it while you ponder keeping it. Identify it correctly and then decide what you want to do with it.
Okay! You have a turtle for some days or weeks or months and you decide you will not be keeping it as a pet. Now what? Many people relocate them "to the wild". Water turtles are easy to place in a body of water. Land turtles are easy to place in a woods or field. We say why not consider placing the turtle in your yard if that is where you found it providing it is a native species capable of surviving your winter conditions. If it is not a native species, it is better to find a home for it. Placing an ad in a local newspaper is probably the fastest way to find a home for a turtle.
Let's complicate this issue further. As newly weds we picked up a baby snapping turtle and took it back to our college apartment. After several years we got a house and a dog and then had two children. The snapping turtle grew to a large adult in eight years. It got along well with our dog and very seldom ever climbed out of its 125 gallon aquarium. It was our only turtle. But it was also an eating machine and was very aggressive if it thought someone had food for it. After our second child was walking, I realized that eight years of good memories could have a sad ending if it got a hold of one of our children. There was no stopping the turtle from climbing out of the aquarium at will. I decided that we would release it in the Susquehanna River near our home. The river is a mile wide snapping turtle heaven.
The day came to release it. It was evening and rain was coming. Our children who had never handled the turtle were sobbing. Our dog was with us. I figured that the turtle would taste the river water, begin to explore it, and slip away in doing so. Boy was I wrong. I placed the turtle (named Turtle) into the muddy river near shore. It sat there looking at us and did not move. It did not taste the water or show any interest in the river even though it had enjoyed eating many fish that had come from the river. It just sat there and looked at us, it's family. Rain drops began to fall. Not wanting to leave Turtle sitting so close to the bank, I pushed him out beyond reach. He still sat there and looked at us. We finally left "abandoning our beloved Turtle. This was not a release; it was a pet abandonment. It still troubles me to think about it.
The fact is that our adult snapping turtle had no desire to be released. He did nothing to leave us even when placed it prime snapping turtle habitat. He didn't understand. I didn't understand! I am sure Turtle buried himself in the mud for an extended period of time and then thrived in the excellent habitat. But was he happy or better off? It was another decade before we had another turtle in the family. Now we have many.
So what should you do with your newly acquired turtle? You should do what you want to do and not what someone else tells you. Sure you need to learn how to care for it. TurtleTails.com is a good place to learn that and we will answer your questions if we can. Remember that turtles are capable of bonding with you. They make great pets. And like any pet, you can find them a new home later if your situation changes. We will help with that too if you need help.
Most baby and young turtles adapt well to life in captivity. Many adult turtles will adapt well to captivity over time. Some adult turtles are very uncomfortable in captivity and will show it from the start. Turtles not native to the area they are found in may have been pets before and may do very well in a new home. We have a western painted turtle wild caught in Pennsylvania where it is not native. She is my buddy.
So if you pick up a turtle you find and you take it home, don't fret over it. Start by identifying the species of turtle correctly and go from there. And remember that a turtle is no different than any other animal you could adopt as a pet (even thought we think they are superb animals and pets).
One last thing about baby turtles. Baby turtles have a very small chance of surviving in the wild. Many eggs are destroyed by animals such as raccoons. Many that manage to hatch are eaten. Raising a baby turtle for a year to help it along is call "head starting". This helps a turtle survive and grow so it is more able to make it on it's own. We find that baby turtles do not bond much with us their first year. So if you do find a baby turtle and you take it in to try it as a pet, you will be greatly improving it's chances of survival. If you later release a healthy young turtle, you have given it a head start in life. If you continue to keep it as a pet, your home will be it's home.
Return to Raising Baby Turtles