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Domesticated Turtles

     It is my opinion that many pet turtles become domesticated; they become at home and at ease in captivity. We are all familiar with the concept of domesticated animals like dogs and cats. We do not hear this term applied to pet turtles. Maybe it is time to think of and describe our pet turtles as domesticated animals rather than as captive wild animals. Let me explain my thinking.

     Many pet turtles start life in captivity and never live as wild animals. That alone does not make them domesticated. Being a turtle does not make them a wild animal either. But life in captivity especially in close contact with caring people can domesticate them. Some will not develop into domesticated animals.

     I believe that turtles have enough intelligence to like people. A turtle may like one person, people living with the turtle, and people not living with the turtle. They also have the ability to dislike people. They may like or at least accept other family pets like dogs and cats and loose fear of them. Other turtles may simply accept their lives in captivity.

    I do not believe that turtles understand that they are captive or intentionally confined. I do not believe that they really reason that they should escape from captivity. They may wish to move away from people and in a sense return to the wild. Domesticated pet turtles will easily wander away and become lost to their owners. Most turtles in captivity get urges to head off in a given direction and are not easily deterred from moving in the direction they choose. I do not believe this has anything to do with an intent to escape.

     I am privileged to have had and presently have some turtles that I know like me and like being with me. It is really rewarding when this happens, but it is not unusual. Other turtles I have since incubating their eggs, do not seek my attention or display outward signs of wanting to be with me. Some really do not like me and show it. So some turtles are captive and not wild but can not be called domesticated.

     Let me give some examples of what I mean by domesticated turtles starting with Emily, my Florida red-bellied turtle. Emily was found at someone's doorstep and turned over to a wildlife rescue organization. I was contacted by email to help identify her. If she was a red-bellied turtle native to Pennsylvania, she would have to be released. If she was not native to Pennsylvania, release was not permitted. When I identified her as a Florida red-bellied turtle, I also asked for permission to photograph her for In the reply I was asked if I would take her which I did with some reservations.

     Prior to accepting Emily I had only kept North American turtles that could hibernate. Emily is not only a warm climate turtle, she is also big; the biggest turtle I have ever had. My thoughts were to get her to Florida. From the very start Emily demonstrated that she is domesticated. She accepted me from the start and followed me around wanting to see everything I was doing. I never had such a domesticated turtle before. It was clear to me that if she was moved to Florida she would end up at someone's door again.

     So now Emily spends the summers outside and the winters having the run of our house. She is capable of some truly social behavior and continues to teach me more about turtles. She is truly domesticated and a pleasure to have in our home.

     We had a snapping turtle named Turtle for eight years. He was an eating machine and was aggressive when it came to food. I was concerned that he might snap one of my young children. He could climb out of his 125 gallon aquarium at will which he almost never did. I thought it would be better to have good memories of him rather than to remember him holding on to one of my kid's fingers. The day came to release him in the Susquehanna River near our home. I figured he would slip away when placed in the water. I was wrong! He sat there and looked at us. He never moved. It was clear he was unsure as to why he was there and he had no desire to leave us. We had to abandon him as he watched us leave. He was domesticated! I am sure he buried himself in the mud for a long time and then thrived in the great snapping turtle habitat. But he did not choose to be separated from us.

    You have met two snapping turtles on, Tiny and Tinytwo. Both were raised from hatchlings several years apart in the same aquariums and outdoor pens. Tiny is a very nice turtle who never snapped or threatened to snap. He was very tolerant of other turtles scrambling over him for food. I often impressed people when I pulled him out of a pile of leaves to show him off. But Tiny climbed out of the pen he was in and left us.

     Tinytwo is just the opposite of Tiny. Tinytwo tries to bit me when I get him out of his mud hole and he will even chase me trying to bit me. He is not comfortable with other turtles in the pond competing for food. He is everything you may expect from a snapping turtle. Tinytwo will have to be released someday. He is still small enough to be amusing and he is great to photograph. He will never be domesticated.

    Wrinkles is another extraordinary turtle I am privileged to have in my life. Wrinkles was adopted at a herpetological society meeting. She was a very poor looking juvenile eastern box turtle that everyone looked at but passed over. So I took her in. She is what I will simply describe as a turtle with special needs. From the start she loved being outside and looking for bugs and slugs and worms. She is very domesticated and trusting. She spends winters in the house because of her needs. One winter she spent with my daughter keeping Zeppe, another eastern box turtle, and my daughter company. When she came home it was like she never left.

     It is risky to apply terms to turtle behavior that we use for human behavior. It may seem far fetched to some people, but I know some of my turtles trust me. Trust must surely be the opposite of wild. The turtles that I believe trust me must be respected and their trust not violated. I know Wrinkles trusts me.

     Zeppe is another example of a domesticated turtle. Zeppe was found when only a baby by my daughter in our turtle pen. Zeppe has lived here and with my daughter in several locations sometimes spending summers here. Zeppe was visiting for the summer when he helped me demonstrate how to make stepping stones out of concrete for one of our tours on When Zeppe visits it is like he never left.

     Why do I make the distinction of calling turtles domesticated? It is because many scientists, regulators, and professionals view all turtles as wild animals and think they know what is best for all turtles. To them turtles are just specimen animals they must protect from the general public. They refuse to accept that some turtles regardless of species or native species status are domesticated pets. They are united in their purpose of keeping turtles from the general public.

     Only I know what is best for my turtles, turtles I care for and cherish! No one else! Yes I am tired of the attacks by professionals and other do gooders making pet turtle owners out to be bad people. My home state of Pennsylvania has recently passed new regulations and goes so far as to suggest by giving permission via the new rules to pet owners to kill their pet turtles. I will not kill my turtles! I believe it is my duty to protect turtles like Wrinkles from harm! Kill my cherished pets because some unidentified bureaucrat in state government says I should. Absolutely not! Nor should you!

      I have received many email questions asking me what to do with turtles. I never tell anyone what to do with their pets. I will make suggestions and give my opinions, but I do not suppose to know what someone should do with their pets. I often tell people to listen to their turtles who can communicate with their owners. Only you should decide what is best for your domesticated pets.

     So I am speaking out. I am giving you my opinions. This is just the first such opinion you will fine on the "In My Hard Shelled Opinion" pages. I want you to know you are not alone if you feel like I do. I want you to form your own opinions and act accordingly. I want you to know that your turtles have enough smarts to bond to you. I want you to know that you are not wrong to feel an obligation to a pet turtle that does bond with you.

     And know this too. Most professionals who would have you not own turtles are paid by your tax dollars or fees or support for public institutions.

     Stay tuned; I am just getting started.

Thomas R. Schucker


P.S. So what can you do to help. Add "domesticated turtles" to your vocabulary and help spread the idea that many turtles are domesticated pets. In the pet trade two terms have become common, captive bred and wild caught. These terms are useful in describing the origins of the turtles available for purchase. They do not describe the current state of pet turtles.

     I receive many many emails describing the finding of turtles in garages, on patios, in gardens, in lawns while mowing, in dirt piles kids are playing in, along curbs and sidewalks, and on and on. Many eggs are discovered while digging gardens and excavating construction sites. Many females are observed laying eggs in the middle of driveways and other risky places in yards and gardens. Many baby turtles are found shortly after hatching and some even before emerging from the ground. Are these wild turtles? And what about eggs found and incubated. They are wild caught or at least the off spring of wild turtles who laid the eggs. But this is not a good description of pet turtles years later.

     So many wild caught turtles never live as wild turtles and many captive bred turtles never live as wild turtles. There are even generations of pet turtles. I think describing these pet turtles as domesticated turtles is more appropriate and useful for our purpose.

     So I would like to start the use of the term "domesticated turtles". Try it. See if it works for you. See if it better describes the state of your pet turtles when discussing them with others. Turtle owners do not need this term to describe their turtles to other pet turtle owners. And elite professionals will know what you mean and not like it. But we need to make it clear to all others that our cherished pets are different than wild turtles. We need our own code words. (There will be more on code words later.) Join me and spread the use of "domesticated turtles".


More examples of domesticated turtles

     What do you call a turtle that comes over to you and climbs up on you repeatedly? Domesticated for sure and a friend too. Let me tell you what happen to me just this morning.

     It is Memorial Day and I was out taking pictures of some of my turtles. We had thunderstorms last night and the day started out cool, wet, and overcast. Many of my turtles were just sitting around warming up and enjoying the day. I wanted to get some good close-up shots and they were cooperating. I basically take the poses they give me.

     I was sitting on a step in a pen wearing old pants I only wear around the yard so I was not worried about getting dirty. After taking many pictures I was trying to coax a box turtle into extending her head more by talking to her. W, our spotted turtle who had been at the other side of the pen, heard me and came over to me. Then he climbed up on the step beside me. As I continued to coax the box turtle, W climbed up on me. Then Wrinkles came to me. So there I sat with a turtle on me, a turtle under me, and turtles nearby I was trying to photograph. I love these digital cameras; I got some great pictures and memories too.

| pic 1 | pic 2 | pic 3 | pic 4 | pic 5 | pic 6 | pic 7 | pic 8 |

     That is not all. I would put W down and he would go to the water hole two feet away. Then he would come back and climb up again. Like I said I was wearing old pants and I was willing to let a wet muddy turtle climb on me. He did this over and over.

| pic 9 | pic 10 | pic 11 | pic 12 | pic 13 | pic 14 |

     W was found by my wife shortly after hatching three feet from where I was sitting. Both W and Wrinkles were never wild turtles and are completely domesticated. All the turtles displayed their trust in me by not moving away while I took picture after picture.

     Know this too. According to the new regulations that went into effect this year, I am required by the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission to kill these turtles. That's right! I am required to kill these loving domesticated pet turtles because some unidentified bureaucrats in the PFBC decided so. Before the regulations went into effect I met with my state senator who is on the PFBC oversight committee and asked him to block the regulations. He said he would get back to me; he never did. And I voted for him.

     I am uneasy telling you this story. I am definitely putting my turtles and myself at risk. The PFBC storm troopers may come and visit us. They have more power than any conventional police in the state. They can kill my turtles and cause me endless grief. My elected representatives will not represent me. So this veteran on this Memorial Day chooses to celebrate this day and my cherished turtles by sharing with you a story about some remarkable domesticated turtles. I know that in back yards all across America other pet turtle owners are having similar experiences too. I want you to know you are not alone if you are one of them.

Memorial Day, 2007