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Urban Turtles

     Urban turtles! That's a new one for you, isn't it. But why are you surprised to hear there are urban turtles. I believe urban turtles are more common than anyone knows and it is time we consider them. By urban I am referring to both cities and surrounding suburbs.

     We are all familiar with animals that live in urban areas. The most familiar of these animals are birds. Birds are everywhere. Every year there is a duck in the news who makes her nest along a busy sidewalk in a big city with thousands of people passing by. Do you think these birds migrate south to wild places or other cities? We often wish nesting birds would give us a little more separation.

     How about squirrels and rabbits. They have adapted so well to urban habitats that there are probably more living in urban areas than in wild environments. If I wanted to find either one of them I would not waist my time looking in the country.

     Reptiles and amphibians are also common in urban areas as well as around rural homes. Most are small like garter snakes, toads, lizards, and salamanders. Bigger snakes including venomous snakes are becoming a problem in some areas where housing projects have overtaken their home ranges. And lets not forget the alligators in Florida. Watch many nature programs on TV and you will see shows about the reptiles and amphibians in our midst.

     What is the common thread that lures so many animals to live among us. Could it simply be that the environments we create for ourselves are also pleasing to many species of animals. We also go out of our way to enhance our yards to attract certain animals like birds and butterflies.

     But you never heard of urban turtles before. You are conditioned to think that turtles you encounter in urban settings are lost pets or lost wild turtles. You are not conditioned to believe that they may actually dwell in urban areas. You think that they can not hide from humans or find mates often enough to thrive in urban areas. You think that way because you are conditioned to think that way.

     I get email all the time from people who find turtles in their yards, in their garages, on their patios, along their streets, on parking lots, in parks, and on their travels around their cities . Many are baby turtles and many are gravid females looking for nest sites. Many people want to know where it would be appropriate to put such a turtle. Many want to know if it is okay to keep the turtle. If you haven't found a turtle in an urban setting, you probably know someone who has. In most cases the places you find turtles are turtle habitats.

     After writing this opinion I heard from a woman who found a turtle in her house. She first thought one of her cats carried it in but there were no marks on the turtle. Her cats were not interested in the turtle in their house. Then she told me she has a cat door for her cats that has been used by numerous wild animals over the years. We concluded that the turtle must have entered her house on its own. That must be the ultimate urban turtle. So now I can say that people also find turtles in their houses.

     So do not be surprised if you find turtles in urban areas. I want you to respond by thinking "urban turtle" the next time you see one. Sure some may be lost pets. Others may have been placed in a fish pond and wondered off. But green neighborhoods are generally good habitats for turtles. Parks and green ways, river and stream corridors, storm water retention basins, large institutional grounds, and undeveloped areas provide natural habitat for populations that may be native populations.

     Still not convinced there are urban turtles. How about Central Park in New York City. It is home to many species of turtles native and introduced. They thrive and amuse thousands of people daily. I have had email asking for help identifying some of them. There are also many turtles living in the skyscrapers in New York City. Some are office pets and some are personal pets. Some have been listed on our Adoptions page. Some find their way to Central Park.

     The next time you come across a turtle in an urban area, if you have a few minutes, observe the turtle before you pick it up. Does it seem to know where it is going. Is it out feeding on worms after a good rain. Is it looking for a place to lay eggs. Is it a domesticated turtle looking to adopt you. Is it moving from one fish pond to another. I am not saying don't pick it up; I am just suggesting you take a minute and observe it. You may become convinced it is an urban turtle perfectly at home where you find it. If you feel the need to move it to a safer place, is there plant cover a short distance away. If it is a baby turtle, watch your step and look around for more babies.

     If you do fine an urban turtle and you decide to run inside quickly to put down your packages before picking it up, don't be surprised if it is gone when you return a minute later. Any turtle owner will tell you that they can disappear in an instant when you turn your back to them. I have run inside to grab my camera many times and returned to find the turtle I wanted to photograph gone. But the same turtle may not move while you are watching it.

     I believe that most turtles encountered in urban areas are urban turtles living where they are found. Sure some are picked up and become pets just like turtles in more natural environments are picked up and become pets. Sure some were pet turtles that wandered off. Most turtles live their lives in a relatively small area about the size of a city block. They are excellent at concealment and go underground with ease. Water turtles can also go many days without returning to water. There is no need to move water turtles to water.

     I do not think turtles choose to live in urban areas nor do I think they choose to leave. I do not think they have that much intelligence. I think they live where they start life if their environment provides their basic needs. If their needs are not met, they move on. Some do like to travel and explore expanding their range. Males will go looking for females. They adapt quickly to new environments and changes in their environments.

     Why do I go on and on about urban turtles. We hear so much about loss of habitat. It is a standard boiler plate excuse used by elite professionals when they tell us not to collect turtles. You are so conditioned to believe it you have probably repeated it yourself. Urban habitat is always overlooked or dismissed. Urban turtles are never included in assessments of turtle populations. After all an urban turtle is only there because someone left it there, right? Wrong!

     The bureaucrats writing the rules that seek to deny us the right to own turtles always skew their arguments to justify their assertions. They never consider all the facts. They would never admit there are populations of urban turtles. They never consider turtles living in captivity. That would mess up everything scientists do to prove all species of turtles are in decline and need their protection. Meanwhile people are finding or observing urban turtles everyday.

     The truth is habitat is not really lost. Habitat changes. We have the ability to radically change habitats quickly and we do, but most natural environments are in constant change too. Stop mowing your grass and you can watch it happen. Turtles are programed to adapt or move on like most animals. They also have the ability to dig in and wait for change; they do this every winter.

     Turtles thrive and reproduce in captivity as pets by adapting. The floor of my house is not natural habitat for Emily my Florida red-bellied turtle but she does quit well. She gets the run of the house in winter and does not go to the window and look out upon her empty pond. She lets us know when she wants water, food, and attention. Of course Emily is domesticated.

     So like the term domesticated turtles, I want you to add "urban turtles" to your vocabulary and mindset. I want you to see your yards and green spaces as possibly being good habitat for turtles as well as other reptiles and amphibians. I want you to wander if there is a turtle nearby. I want you to look around during and just after rain to observe urban turtles. I want you to know when you hear "habitat loss" that it is code used by elite professionals telling you to keep your hands off "their" specimens. I want you to stop relocating urban turtles to strange wild places. If you must move them, move them to nearby plant cover.

     So you heard it here first - urban turtles. I hope I have forever influenced your thinking in a positive why. Like always I do want you to draw upon your own experiences and decide for yourselves. I do not mean to imply that all professionals are feeding you bull, but they have a mindset that serves their own professional interests. And as always I want you to listen to what turtles are telling you.

Thomas R. Schucker

P.S. If you have a story about an urban turtle encounter, I would be pleased to hear your story.

Revised 4/27/2008