Throughout North America, it has become quite common to find people that keep different turtle species as pets. They have been around for quite some time, and perhaps twenty years ago was the primary reptile people purchased, and they are still very popular today. The popularity of turtles is quite strange because on the whole, they are more difficult to take care of, but I’m sure the reason they were popular in the 80’s and 90’s is because of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And yes, I loved the show as a child in the 80’s and yes, I did own turtles because of that show. Perhaps the only difference in modern times is that there are a significantly larger array of species to choose from, and on that list is the still quite expensive Tortoise. Although reptiles for the most part has not received the same negative stigma as snakes, the biggest question that is asked to people that keep reptiles as pets is “why?”. Of course the purpose of this article is to answer that very question, but the short and painless answer is that they are almost direct descendants of dinosaurs and they tell us a great deal of things in regards to the evolution of all animals. In other words, they are utterly fascinating.
But if they are so unique and fascinating, why is it that their popularity is now just becoming mainstream? The answer is that there has always been, and perhaps always will be, an unknown or mysterious stigma associated with reptiles and that a majority of people just aren’t interested in anything but the mainstream cats and dogs. But the main reason there is such an influx of reptiles right now is because there are so many breeders producing a variety of reptiles that have never been available without being caught in the wild. And for those who have strong allergies to pets, reptiles are considered hypoallergenic because they have no hair or dander that most people suffer allergic attacks too. The fact is that reptiles make fantastic pets, and once you have one, you will definitely be hooked in the hobby for the rest of your life.
Types of Turtles
After hundreds of thousands of years of evolution, I have found it in my power to break down all turtles into two main categories based on their natural habitats. The two types of turtles that are found in the world today are turtles and tortoises. Yes, yes I know what you are thinking already. Tortoises are related to turtles, but they technically are not turtles as they’re needs are much more similar to lizards. Perhaps the hardest part about being part of this fascinating hobby is replicating the natural habitats of specific reptiles. Thankfully after decades of research, it is now possible to purchase nearly anything you could think of for nearly all reptile species from your home town pet store. Can’t find what you need at your pet store? Everything else that is too specific, or for things you pet store simply doesn’t carry, a quick search through the internet will get you anything you could think of for your pet. The best part about purchasing from the internet is that it is typically reptile hobbyists that are selling the products so that you can get help from people inside the hobby at any given time.
The main difference between the two is that turtles spend a considerable time in water whereas Tortoises are generally land based animals. Tortoises, or land turtles are land-dwelling reptiles of the family of Testudinidae, order Testudines. Like their marine cousins, the sea turtles, tortoises are shielded from predators by a shell. The top part of the shell is the carapace, the underside is the plastron, and the two are connected by the bridge. The tortoise has both an endoskeleton and an exoskeleton. Tortoises can vary in size from a few centimeters to two meters. Tortoises are usually diurnal animals with tendencies to be crepuscular depending on the ambient temperatures. They are generally reclusive animals. It is also interesting to note that there are a few species of tortoises that are in fact from deserts like the Desert Tortoise that is from the Mojave desert and Sonoran desert of the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.
Many small reptiles such as snakes and lizards which live on the ground or in the water are vulnerable to being preyed on by all kinds of carnivorous animals. Thus avoidance is the most common form of defense in reptiles. At the first sign of danger, most snakes and lizards crawl away into the undergrowth, and turtles and crocodiles will plunge into water and sink out of sight. Reptiles may also avoid confrontation through camouflage. Using a variety of grays, greens, and browns, these animals can blend remarkably well into the background of their natural environment.
Unlike snakes that boast a large number of venomous species, there are actually only two types of reptiles that are actually venomous. And firstly, no, it is not the Komodo Dragon. Sure they are the largest reptiles in the world, aggressive towards humans, and a bite will act as if there is venom present, the truthful answer is that their mouths are full of harmful bacteria that acts like a venom if bitten. The only two reptiles that are venomous are actually cousins; The Gilas Monster and Beaded Lizard. Both have venom that can easily kill a human, but they are excessively violent and act more like a cross between a snake and a monitor lizard.
Purchasing Your First Turtle/Tortoise
The first rule about purchasing your first turtle is to buy a species that is interesting to you. Never be persuaded to purchase an animal that you don’t want because you are told it is an easier animal meant for a beginner. If it is a turtle that you don’t really want, then it is a turtle that you will grow tired of in the future. Regardless of what type it is that you want, you have to ensure you do all the research about it prior to purchasing it so that you take proper care of the turtle or tortoise from day one. There is simply no sense in getting an animal that will grow to be 4 feet around and requires a room and full lake to live in if you are living in an apartment. The idea that any animal will grow to the size of its enclosure is a myth, and the fact is that if they live in an enclosure too small their growth will be stunted and they will suffer from health issues.
One of the most debated issues in all of herpetology is whether to purchase from a private breeder or from a pet store. Here is an argument that is based on a few too many bad apples spoiling it for the bunch. Without pet stores, there simply would not be reptiles, snake, and amphibians in captivity as pets because it was various pet stores that sparked the interest in reptiles in the first place. But over the past twenty years, there have been numerous cases of reptiles being sold by people thinking only of profit as their reptiles suffered from neglect. Thankfully, there has been numerous reptile enthusiasts stepping forward to challenge pet stores to live up to the standards that reptile require, and there have also been numerous pet stores in North America that have been promoting proper reptile care. The downside to purchasing from a pet store is that you will be paying higher prices because the pet store purchases from breeders and then mark up the prices to make a profit. Sometimes you will find unique snakes in pet stores, but for the most time, they are usually the run of the mill whereas, if you purchase from a breeder, you may be able to get a more unique morph that most people have never seen before.
As a general rule of thumb, always try to purchase the healthiest specimen available. This is easily done by purchasing the largest animal in a group, in which most turtles and reptiles are kept, that has bright eyes and is active. Larger animals typically mean that they are being well fed and cared for. If a reptile is skinny and not active, then it is best to leave it be. One of the most common reasons for buying a small sickly animal from either a breeder or pet store is because you want to save it and nurse it back to health. Although noble your intentions might be, a life time of health issues will not make you love your new pet any more, and health issues in reptiles are incredibly difficult to treat especially if it is young and has yet to build up a resistance to illnesses. A healthy turtle can live many years, and if you put in the time that is necessary, you will be rewarded in the long run. In fact, a healthy well cared for tortoise can out live you three times over if we take Adwaita, a male Aldabra giant tortoise in the Alipore Zoological Gardens of Kolkata, India, for example because he just dies in 2006 at the reported age of 250, which was disputed until his shell was carbon dated and said to be approximately 255 years old.
All turtles and tortoises regardless of species require three main things to ensure that they not only survive, but thrive in their new home. The first thing that all reptiles require is an enclosure that is big enough for them to easily move about in, but also large enough to mimic a part of their natural ecosystem. In the case of turtles, they actually require a large aquarium with approximately one half water and one half substrate. For tortoises that are land dwelling, they require small aquariums that need to be enlarged as they grow. Full sandboxes are often used to hold tortoises. Depending on the type of turtle or tortoise, there are numerous types of substrate available for your specific pet ranging from different types of sand for desert tortoises to various types wood mulches for subtropical pets. You just have to remember to always avoid oak and cedar because they have oils that are toxic to most snake species. Unlike all other reptile species, turtles and tortoises are generally terrible climbers, so tight fitting lids over the enclosures are not requires. Should your tortoise jump out, call me, because I would love to see it happen.
The second thing to remember about turtles and tortoises is that they are all cold blooded, so they require an external heat source to keep their bodies warm. A heat range of 75 to 80 Fahrenheit will suffice for a majority of reptiles, but certain desert species will require significantly higher temperatures in the 120’s to maintain their metabolism. This heat for turtles and tortoises are generally from an external reptile heat bulb to heat the cage from above because they really love to bask for a majority of the day. It is also important to heat only one half of the cage give the reptile a chance to regulate its body temperature by being able to move from one side of the cage to another.
The last thing you have to remember is that turtles and tortoises like to have a safe and secure place to retreat to should they desire. They do this by crawling underneath things that they can push up against and feel safe. The easiest way to do this is to purchase reptile hides from a pet store that look like big hollow rocks that your snake can climb under. These are the easiest to use, most effective, and the safest. Some people choose to use real rocks, which are alright, but you have to ensure they cannot be pushed over because they could injure small sized turtles.
Although reptiles are one of the most misunderstood pet on the market today, for some reason or another, people have always made a strong connection to turtles and tortoises. They are simply unlike any other pet you could ever think of, and they are perhaps one of the last links to the dinosaurs that used to roam the world. The moment a turtle is in your house, the hobby envelops you in a way you would never expect. Half the fun is recreating a natural habitat for your pet whether it is a species of turtle or tortoise. I can probably state as a fact that all private breeders at one time or another were just like you or me, and picked up their first pet turtle just because of their uniqueness, and maybe because of a famous cartoon show, but the interest quickly turns into a passion. The simple fact that they make fantastic pets for people of all ages and both sexes. Just when you think they have no personality, they will find a way to surprise you and make you rethink the way you look at these animals forever. And there is no time like the present to get into the hobby because due to the large number of breeders throughout North America, the general price of turtles have gone down significantly , but over the last twenty years there has been a strong emergence of tortoises in the pet industry. The fantastic thing about tortoises is that different species come in a variety of sizes and colors that will make you fall in love. You just always have to do your research to ensure that you pet is getting the perfect habitat, perfect diet, and perfect lighting/heating. Plus you have to check your local municipality, state/province, and federal legislation to ensure there are no laws restricting these fantastic little guys.