Handling Pet Turtles
We had an interesting question emailed to us that received a long response and started us thinking about sharing our response with you via this tour. The question was simply about how often to handle pet turtles. The person asking the question was told to handle their turtles once a day by a pet store employee. We say handle them as much or as little as you like. Handling them will not hurt them.
What makes this question so interesting to us is that we get to talk about our turtles. Here is our long winded answer. Now where to begin.
Like mentioned in other tours, as I start this tour I am being watched by one of two young box turtles just one year old named Dick and Cheney. They spent most of their first year next to my computer and some of the summer outdoors in the "summer box". They were brought back into the house because of some very hot dry weather. To date they have been handled very little. However, Dick is beginning to bond with me.
Typically we do not handle these small box turtles often because they are in a vivarium. They are usually dirty and wet. They must be washed and dried first. This is not a problem except when working on the computer. We do communicate frequently. If they climb at the glass towards me enough I will pick them up. This then becomes a learned behavior that gets them handled at their request. Isn't that interesting. Handled at their request.
You probably were not expecting to learn that pet turtles ask to be handled. It should not surprise you after you think about it. That leads to the question of whether turtles really like people. Some really do.
Reptiles and amphibians do not have high intelligence to be sure. And I would not go so far as to say turtles have the capacity to love. But turtles do have enough intelligence to know and like the people they live with. A turtle may like one person much more than others while knowing numerous people and liking some of them. The perfect example of this is Emily.
Emily is the large Florida red-bellied turtle featured on numerous pages of TurtleTails.com. She came to us via Lehigh Wildcare, a wildlife rescue organization. Emily is a real crowd pleaser and makes several public appearances each year with Lehigh Wildcare. She is picked up by one of three women and I am sure she recognizes all three. However, she does not like being placed in a plastic tub for transport. On one occasion I noticed how Emily settled down quickly in the tub while I talked with the woman picking her up. She was definitely reacting positively to the voice of the woman she knew and would spend the day with.
At home Emily dominates the turtle pond without any effort on her part. She is intelligent, inquisitive, very outgoing, and the biggest turtle in the pond. She gets along very well with all the other turtles. When I approach, she always watches me and usually comes to me. If I am busy and not paying attention to her such as doing the daily "turtle chores", she often charges after me. She will not be ignored. And she never hides when we have visitors.
And would you believe, Emily comes to me when I call her. I am not talking about coming within an arms reach. Emily comes right to me. When we show this behavior to visitors, I can not resist asking the visitors if their turtles come to them when called. But does Emily like to be handled? No! Emily does not like to be handled. But we are working on it. She will touch me.
Before we give more examples, lets discuss how we handle turtles and pick them up. I like to hold a turtle with it's plastron (bottom shell) resting on my open hand with it's feet touching my hand. Turtles seldom, if ever on their own, leave the ground. They do not sail through the air like flying squirrels with outstretched legs. So why do so many people pick up turtles by their carapaces (top shells) or at their sides so that their legs dangle in the air. I find that my turtles are much more comfortable being handled if their plastrons rest on my hand.
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When a turtle is handled matters too. Cold turtles are not as aware of what is happening to them as warm active turtles. A cold turtle usually withdraws with a hiss of air when picked up. It is not personal. A cold turtle may look at you but not recognize you. Likewise a turtle will be inactive or less active during parts of seasons, parts of days, and at night. They will usually not react favorably when handled at these times. Sometimes they are sleepy and don't wish to be bothered. We all know what that is like.
Davenport is our female western painted turtle. She really likes me. I like to say we are buddies. I remarked to my daughter one day that Davenport really likes us. She replied "No dad; she really likes you!" Davenport was wild caught in Pennsylvania and must have been someone's pet before. Western painted turtles are not native to Pennsylvania and are sold legally in pet stores.
Davenport has many moods and behaviors. When in the pond she will come to me. If she is sitting by the pond, she usually will not enter the water when I approach. She also likes to take walks around the large pen that contains the pond. This worries her boy friend Sofa, a male western painted turtle, who tries to follow her. And some days she climbs at the fence trying to go in the direction of another turtle pen she has been allowed to visit. This behavior results in Davenport being placed in the other pen for several days.
Now Davenport has another mood you will be interested in. Some days she likes when I pick her up and carry her around. She rests on my open hand totally relaxed and does not try to leave my hand. When she is in this mood I may carry her around the yard for thirty minutes or more. Usually I decide to put her down so I can do other things. So Davenport is picked up more than our other turtles. If she is not in the mood to be handled, she makes it known and I put her down.
Ribbit is our yellow-bellied slider. She was purchased at a reptile show when just a baby. Ribbit is another turtle that comes swimming over when someone approaches the pond. She is always ready for something to eat. However, she does not like being handled. When picked up she hisses as she pulls in her head and opens her mouth gesturing that she will bit. She has not bitten anyone or even tried, but she must be handled as though she will bit until she settles down.
Then there is Tiny our large snapping turtle. Tiny was adopted when only a few weeks old. After two years of good behavior in an aquarium, Tiny was placed in the pond. We were not sure if Tiny would "go wild". Tiny really likes to spend most days buried somewhere in the pen and I do mean buried. Tiny moves to the pond when hungry. Tiny usually moves about unseen. However, Tiny has a very deliberate behavior to get fed. Tiny will sit in front of the pond and look in our sliding glass door. If someone makes eye contact with Tiny, Tiny moves into the water and waits to be fed. This behavior is always rewarded with food.
Tiny also comes right up to me and will come out of the water if encouraged to do so. Once I was on may hands and knees recovering eggs from beside the pond when Tiny came out and looked me in the eye literally just inches from my face. It was a very interesting encounter. What is really interesting is that Tiny can be handled easily and has never snapped at anyone or threatened to snap.
As I walk around looking at our turtles, I always talk to them calling each one by name. I also give them a big wave of my hand when they see me to acknowledge that I see them looking at me. If I pick up a turtle like a box turtle and it withdraws into it's shell, I run my fingernails back and forth over it's shell so it knows its me. I often do the same when I do not pick them up. At other times I may not touch a turtle, but I will talk to it. If a turtle initiates the contact, it is rewarded with attention.
When I place food out for the turtles, I usually round up those turtles moving about and take them to the food. This is so they get some food before other animals get it (like our dog). They can find their way to the food without help, but I like to do it. It is also a good time to check them out for health problems.
Wrinkles is an eastern box turtle with "special needs". She has metabolic bone disease. We adopted her when she was young. We had hoped that she would improve with age which is not happening. Wrinkles has the most pleasing personality and is very trusting of us. She loves looking for bugs and worms. She also appreciates our help. We can take her anywhere, place her on the ground, and dig for bugs and worms. She always follows our hands and usually finds something to eat. She does not attempt to move away or appear to care where we put her. While she is not much to look at, she always looks into the camera with those big beautiful eyes like she knows what we are doing. If she hadn't been named Wrinkles, she would have been named ET.
Have you ever dug a hole in a garden only to have your dog lay in it. In Tour 12: Many Uses for Concrete, we show how to make a stepping stone in a turtle pen. Zeppe an eastern box turtle was with me every step of the way. The only time I actually touched Zeppe was when I moved him out of the hole so I could place the concrete in the hole. Zeppe was taking advantage of the opportunity to find some bugs and worms and, I believe, spend time with me. Yes I could have moved Zeppe to a safer location, but it would not have been as much fun. Zeppe also likes being handled.
There is a behavior on the part of pet turtles that is very rewarding and almost profound when it first happens. Like other animals, pet turtles may keep a "safe" distance from people so they are just out of reach. Other pet turtles may not hesitate to walk past a person passing within the "safe" distance. And sometimes a turtle will come to a person and initiate physical contact like partially resting on one's foot or climbing onto the person. This is not casual behavior. We believe a turtle only does this when it truly likes the person and wants to be handled.
Emily did this to me while I was mixing pine needles with leaves in the hibernation pit. I was also searching for water turtles in the leaves that I would take inside for the winter. I was on my knees deep in the leaves. Emily climbed on me like a dog wanting attention. Each time I placed her aside to continue my task, she climbed back on me. This happened about six times. She really wanted my attention and was giving me permission to handle her.
So how much you handle a turtle is not really the issue. Pet turtles react to attention, eye contact, visual and vocal communication, and being handled or not handled. We avoid using food or feeding them by hand to gain acceptance. They know who feeds them and how to communicate that they want food. It is much more rewarding to know we are liked by our turtles for more than a food reward.
After this tour was started and I was working on the pictures, Emily was brumating in the house on the floor for the winter. She had insisted on not being left in the aquarium she had used the previous two winters. She also stopped eating which means she could be allowed on the floor with little expectation of soiling the floor. This means she has the run of the house and she prefers the closet in the master bedroom on or near my shoes. She is also upset if she is confined to one room by a closed door.
Two days before Christmas my wife was home and cleaning the house. Emily decided to follow her around and get in her way repeatedly. This had happened to me before but not my wife. The following day family arrived for a stay including another dog. Emily joined everyone in the living room. At one point when we were busy outside, Emily wanted outside. My daughter opened the door and left her out. It was about 50 degrees and about half the ground was covered with snow. Emily walked everywhere including over the snow.
Later back in the living room, Emily sat by the sliding glass door where she could look out at her empty pond. Before this time she was never interested in that door. She turned and looked at me. I called her to come to me and also waved my hands like I would do with our dog. She came to me and rested on my foot. I picked her up and placed her on my lap facing forward. She sat for about ten minutes and then wanted down. Once on the floor she returned to the door. Then it was back and forth, up and down for some time as the family talked. She accepted me touching her plastron and legs and stroking her under her chin. She did not want her carapace touched.
Christmas morning she was waiting in the living room. I had to fold her on my lap many times. What a change in behavior and what an amazing turtle. She was only picked up if she came to me and placed her foot on mine. She made the contact; she asked to be picked up. And she asked to be put down. Repeatedly!
The day after christmas there was some of the same and Emily settled down as family departed. It was several days before Emily did not come out to be handled.
There have been times when I am writing tours that I think some of my turtles read my mind and decide to correct me. Like the time I was writing about using concrete and Gulf dug thought some to lay her eggs. That was the only time she did it. Did Emily decide to change this tour knowing what I had written. I mean a eight pound lap turtle who seeks being held. This does read like a stretch of the imagination.
Now not every turtle wants contact. Tinytwo our smaller snapping turtle was placed in the pond at age two only to be totally driven out by Tiny. Tinytwo is the only turtle I have ever seen Tiny not get along with. Tinytwo was placed in another turtle pen with only a small wading pool. Tinytwo buries in the dirt most of the time and was not seen for nine months one time spending the winter outside. Tinytwo does not like even being seen which makes it hard to feed him. Not wanting to leave Tinytwo outside another winter, I decided to dig him out from under a stump covered with ivy. I could feel him but not see him as I dug with my fingers. That's like feeling for a mouse trap in the dark.
I was really considering setting Tinytwo free. When I managed to dig Tinytwo out, I began taking pictures. Boy was that turtle unhappy with me. He charged me snapping as he came. Since he is small I was amused and took many great pictures. I had to handle Tinytwo from behind holding onto his tail while his back feet rested on my hand. I was so amused with Tinytwo I decided I will try to win him over.
I do not simply hold snapping turtles suspended by their tails. I always tough them from behind before trying to pick them up. I then pick them up from behind holding on to their tails. Where I go from there depends on the snapping turtle. I never move quickly in front of a snapping turtle because they have a instinctive reaction to snap at movement in front of them that must be respected and never challenged. Isn't Tinytwo adorable.
In Tour 18 we show how we handle baby painted turtles, very tiny baby turtles. Remember? We spoon train them. They are so small it can be hard to hold them tightly enough without holding them too tight. They really do sit on a spoon just long enough to place them outside the pan. This one was sleeping on the spoon.
Then there are turtles who will not take no for an answer. That is W pictured at the top of this page. You can read this story in the opinion Domesticated Turtles. Here are more pictures.
In Tour 22: How Much Space for Pet Turtles we describe being handled as an activity area or space your turtles get to use. We are referring to pet turtles that spend most of their time in an aquarium or vivarium. If you accept this idea, you will definitely want to handle your turtles on a regular basis.
If you have turtles in aquariums and you feed them in a separate container of water like we describe in Tour 2: Baby Water Turtles, your turtles probably come swimming up to you when it is time to eat. Even if they are not comfortable being handled, they consent to it. We find that even very small water turtles will come to be picked up at meal time.
Lastly we will describe an experiment you can try with your turtles that we have conveyed by email to many readers. Even new arrivals who were pet turtles in another home may surprise you. If you have turtles like red-eared sliders housed in an aquarium, block a doorway of a small room with a piece of cardboard or similar barrier that is just enough to stop the turtles from leaving the room. The room the aquarium is in would be ideal. Place the turtles on the floor after they have been fed for some unsupervised time on the floor. You may look in on them and talk to them. Repeat this over a period of time so that the novelty wears off and the turtles know the space. A closed door is not the same as a blocked door.
Repeat the routine but this time sit on the floor. Do not reach for a turtle. You can speak to them and wave to them. You are now in their space and they may be curious as to why you are there. If they walk by you, do not reach for them. Wait for them to give you permission by making physical contact with you. They may even climb up on you. If you do handle them, do not constrain them. Let them make the decisions to be handled or put down. Let your turtles train you! You just might be very pleasantly surprised by your turtles.
In conclusion I have learned that if I give a turtle time and space as well as attention, it may learn to like me. It may seek attention. It may even initiate physical contact with me. So give your turtles some space and time and attention especially when they indicate they are ready for attention. You may be totally surprised how your turtles relate to you. And it may or may not include being handled.
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