FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
Help - I think my turtle is sick or injured!
What should I do if I can no longer keep my turtle?
Where can I get a turtle? Or more specifically, where should I get a turtle?
What type of turtle is best for me?
It depends on what you want and the environment you are able to provide. Box turtles (Terrapene spp.) are very popular in the Albuquerque area due to their relatively low cost and widespread availability along with their ability to thrive with a little help in a well-watered backyard. Russian Tortoises (Testudo horsfieldii) are another popular choice - these tortoises are strictly vegetarian and are adapted to living in somewhat drier conditions than box turtles. Other species are larger and may not hibernate and require more care as a result.
By far the most popular water turtle is the red-eared slider, which baby boomers may remember as those ubiquitous dime store turtles of their childhoods. They are hardy, widely available, and ridiculously inexpensive to purchase; however, those cute little hatchlings and juveniles grow up fast and require a large tank or pond with good filtration to live in.
The most important thing to keep in mind when considering getting a turtle as a pet is that every species has different habitat and dietary requirements, and may be far more difficult to care for properly than what some pet store clerk or roadside vendor may try to tell you.
Do your research before getting any new pet, paying particular attention to any special requirements, adult size, and life span.
Should I adopt a male or female turtle?
We recommend males, particularly for new owners. Males of many species tend to be more colorful and more outgoing than the females. Among aquatic turtles, there is often a large difference in size between the males and females, with the males staying smaller and more manageable. Male red-eared sliders, for example, max out at about 8" while the females can grow nearly a foot long! Females also need extra care to ensure they are getting a proper diet with enough calcium, can escape the over-amorous attentions of any males, and have sufficient areas to nest. Egg-binding, an often fatal condition where the females fail to pass eggs, is very common among captive turtles. And of course, eggs usually mean babies, so if you have females, you need to be prepared to care for any resulting hatchlings.
Should I get a hatchling, juvenile, or adult as my pet?
Hatchlings are very delicate and have a high mortality rate - at least 90% in the wild die from predation, starvation, dehydration, and other causes. Even with optimal care, a significant number of captive-bred hatchlings also will not survive their first year. With less-than-optimal care, the hatchlings that don't die will very likely become sickly or deformed. It is also a violation of federal law to sell any turtle with a shell length of less than four inches. The hardier, older, legal-sized juveniles (those with a shell length of four inches or more), and adults are a much better choice.
I found a turtle. How can I tell if it's wild or a lost or abandoned pet?
First, where did you find it? If you come across an aquatic turtle in the Bosque, it is probably native. If, however, you find any turtle wandering in the Foothills, a Wal-Mart parking lot, out on the West Mesa, or way up in Taos, it's a pretty safe guess that it doesn't belong there. There are ten species of turtles that are considered native to New Mexico, of which only two - the western box turtle (with two subspecies, the desert box turtle/Terrapene ornata luteola and the ornate box turtle/Terrapene ornata ornata) and the red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) - are commonly kept as pets. Red-eared sliders, which appear to be native to limited areas of the Pecos and Canadian River drainage, have become established in the Rio Grande and elsewhere from people illegally releasing their pets. The NM Wildlife article, “Turtle Trouble," includes an excellent color guide to the turtle species of New Mexico. If in doubt, contact the RGTTC or the NM Department of Game and Fish for advice.
Are turtles good pets for children?
No. All species of turtles are exotic animals that require specialized care. They do not enjoy being picked up or handled, and they live a very long time, 40-100+ years, depending on the species. That's a lot longer than most children will remain interested in a pet...and a lot longer than they'll even be children! Finally, like all reptiles and birds, turtles can carry and transmit salmonella, a bacterial illness that can be fatal in susceptible individuals, which includes the elderly, people with immune problems, and children under the age of 5. This is not to say that turtles can't make great family pets, as long as there are adults committed to their proper care, and closely supervising all interactions with young children.
What's the difference between a turtle and a tortoise?
Technically speaking, a turtle is aquatic; i.e. lives in or spends most of its time in water, while a tortoise lives on land. However, most Americans use the term "turtle" to describe both turtles and tortoises, and we embrace this common usage here since it is a lot easier and less awkward than always saying "turtle or tortoise." "Terrapin" is another term used to describe either brackish water turtles, e.g., diamondback terrapins, or, in Britain and elsewhere, semi-aquatic freshwater turtles (as opposed to sea turtles) such as red-eared sliders. Sometimes we'll also use the term "chelonian", which refers to the scientific order of reptiles that includes turtles, tortoises, and terrapins.
Does my turtle need company . . . or a mate?
Not at all. Turtles are solitary animals by nature, and in the wild may go for months or even years without encountering another one of their kind. It can be extremely stressful for turtles to be forced to live in close proximity to one another, and to compete for food, water, and nesting and burrowing sites, and problems from people keeping too many turtles are very common. If you choose to keep multiple turtles, make sure that you provide proportionately more space, food, and hiding spots, and be prepared to possibly pay exponentially higher vet bills for injuries from fights, shared illnesses, and egg-bound females. And that brings up another issue: males plus females equal babies, so unless you are prepared to properly care for and place any resulting hatchlings, please stick with just one turtle, or a few of the same sex.