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Let's Talk Turtles: All About Turtle and Tortoise Habitat and Diet

Faye DesPres
March 6, 2008

Educate yourself about turtle and tortoise needs before adopting one.

"There are reptile people and non-reptile people," said Susan Tellem, RN, executive director of American Tortoise Rescue.

Tellem definitely falls into the former category. She has spent 18 years working with and rescuing tortoises that have been abandoned or mistreated. Now she helps to educate the public about these unique creatures, which preceded dinosaurs on earth and have evolved very little over time.

  • What makes turtles and tortoises special
  • "Caring for turtles and tortoises is almost like participating in history and evolution," Tellem said. "It feels like you're helping to preserve animals that were on earth many years ago. And they also have personalities -- they are not rocks with legs. You feed them, they know their names, they are very much aware of their surroundings and of the people who own them. It is just the charming appeal of a turtle."

    In general U.S. usage, the term "turtle" is applied to species that spend most of their time in the water and are carnivores, while "tortoises" are vegetarian land-dwellers. In either case, experts agree that it is important for any individual or family interested in adopting one of these animals to do extensive research before taking that step. Tellem's organization and other turtle rescues have seen too many sad scenarios. Often a family thinks a turtle or tortoise was cute when it was a baby, but realized they were completely unprepared to handle the animal's needs as it grew over time. The average age of a turtle, which varies widely among species, is 25 years -- tortoises can live to be as old as 100.

  • Habitat needs
  • In addition to considering and planning for the longevity of these animals, it is important to understand their individual habitat and dietary needs. Both turtles and tortoises need real, natural sunlight in order to avoid potentially painful and tragic metabolic bone disease, according to Tellem, who advises that the animals should never be kept in a tank. She recommends that turtles be maintained in outdoor ponds if possible, and tortoises given plenty of space to roam.

  • Dietary needs and signs of illness
  • Each species has very specific dietary needs, and it is important to research exactly which vegetables and other foods must be provided for your pet and to have access to an specialized veterinarian who can care for your animal. Tellem recommends watching for signs of illness such as closed eyes, a runny nose or a loss of appetite. Because their metabolisms are slow, turtles and tortoises can be ill for a lengthy period of time before an owner will notice.

  • Disadvantages of having turtles and tortoises as pets
  • The Humane Society of the United States actually recommends that turtles never be kept as pets, both because of the danger to the animals -- which are at risk when they are imported or transported -- and to children, who are susceptible to the Salmonella bacteria carried by virtually all turtles. A 1975 U.S. law prevents the sale of turtles with shells less than four inches long, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends keeping turtles out of homes with children under five, senior citizens, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems. Tellem's organization does not advise a turtle adoption until a child is at least 12 years old, as whoever handles a turtle or tortoise should wash hands afterward.

Despite these very real considerations and cautions, many turtles and tortoises are waiting for homes at overwhelmed rescue organizations -- and some people are sincerely fascinated by them and prepared to care for them properly. If that describes you, Tellem recommends never buying a turtle from a pet store. Instead, consult a rescue organization, and learn all you can about species you can adopt that are indigenous to your area and will be best able to survive -- and thrive -- in your home environment.

Then, you might find yourself adopting a very unique and special friend.

For more information about turtles and tortoises, visit these websites:

Faye Rapoport DesPres writes about pet care issues for Care.com and other publications. She has five cats and a website at ourplacetopaws.com.

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