The question of whether a turtle
from your local pond or one from a vendor is best often comes up on turtle
forums, a point of controversy & contention. I originally took this topic to the
Turtle Forum’s Advanced Hobbyist section to discuss the issues in preparation
for this article, and got good feedback. Special thanks to those who
participated in that discussion (Chris H., Chris D., Icex19, William), & Tom C.
for composition assistance (catching my errors…).
What’s the best source for your
was growing up in the 80’s, the Internet didn’t exist & I’d never seen or heard
of a ‘Herp. Expo.’ Turtles in pet stores all had carapaces over 4” and the only
source of baby turtles was Nature. These were almost all baby RES & common
snappers; on rare occasion a Mississippi mud turtle, & some map turtles were
given to me once.
At the turn of the century, wide-spread commercial availability
(reputable online sellers & herp. expo.s) & selection by species, size & source
(wild-caught vs. captive bred) have given new venues for obtaining pets. If you
want a sub-adult male Texas map turtle, hey, no problem! Was that a midland or a
Southern painted you wanted? We’ve also come to realize the very multi-decade
challenges of keeping a turtle; it matters whether you get a male
Southern painted vs. a large female RES.
In the turtle hobby today many hobbyists strongly advocate
acquisition of pet turtles only from commercial sources, and then only
captive-bred turtles (ideally from long-term captive parents, although some
producers catch gravid wild females & hold them until they lay, keep the eggs &
release the mother). A number of factors from health & docility to ecological
conservation have been cited. If you get on a turtle forum & make it known you
caught & plan to keep a wild turtle there are people who will attack you! Yet
many people continue to obtain pets from the wild & there are arguments favoring
take a look at the pro.s & con.s of Commercial (hopefully captive-bred) vs.
Wild-Caught pet turtles and how decisions are made.
Commercial (Hopefully Captive-Bred) Turtles.
1.) Choice - You pick exactly the species & size you want; sometimes
even the gender.
2.) Range - You aren’t limited to local species.
3.) Preparedness – you can research the turtle, make the best choice, &
prepare an elaborate enclosure in advance (right down to having the filter
4.) Parasites - You hope the turtle does not have parasites (tape
worms, lung flukes, etc…) that wild turtles are exposed to. Commercially sold
exotics very well may…
5.) Acclimation - The turtle may be somewhat accustomed to humans.
6.) Feeding - The turtle is probably already eating in captivity.
7.) Conservation - You are not directly depleting a wild population.
8.) Setting an Example - You are modeling environmental conservation &
supporting those who produced your specimen.
9.) Innocence - In theory, the turtle is ignorant of the ‘great outdoors’
& the fact its aquarium is an ‘inferior’ home (so some would say). Whether a
turtle in a swamp is ‘happier’ than one in a 125 gallon aquarium is unclear. The
captive has fewer temperature gradient & natural sunlight basking options but
wild turtles have much higher predation risk & often no option to remain active
all year (hibernation). I think this argument is more of a guilt-reduction issue
for the ‘Born Free’ crowd. Turtles show some capacity for learning but reptiles
generally are highly instinct-driven (hence no maternal teaching; they ‘just
know’ what they need to).
1.) Survivability - Few discuss the fact it’s not uncommon for baby
turtles shipped overnight to sicken & die within a few days to a couple of
weeks. I’ve lost 1 Southern painted, 2 Mississippi map, 1 stinkpot & 1 3-striped
mud this way. When I was a kid, I had several wild-caught baby turtle species &
it was almost unheard of for one to sicken & die in that time-frame, although
turtle care was much poorer back then (no filtration, over-crowding, etc…).
2.) Lack of Relatedness - It probably didn’t descend from your area;
lacks the ‘home boy’ appeal of a local specimen. More noticeable if your local
specimens have regional variations (browner stinkpots up North, blacker in
3.) Foreign Sub-Population - If ever released into the wild (ill-advised
regardless for reasons I won’t go into here), it did not descend from your local
colonies & could in theory be less well-adapted to the area (say, a RES from the
South dumped into the Northern part of its range, where natural selection favors
better hibernation capability). Your turtle may be less likely to survive, & may
breed & introduce more unfit genes to the local population.
4.) Foreign Species - If it is ever released into the wild outside
its native range, it may well be poorly adapted to survive & if it does may have
hardship or disrupt the local ecology. Should it find other released captives &
breed successfully, it may become an invasive species & displace others.
5.) Bad Conditions - Since commercially-produced turtles are often kept
in crowded conditions, they may have considerable disease exposure. The
assumption they are parasite free is highly dubious. What’s more, if the
producer or reseller keeps a number of different species, these turtles may have
been exposed to exotic parasites (maybe your baby RES picked a tape worm from
that New Guinea Red-bellied short-neck turtle…).
6.) Availability - Commercial can still be wild-caught. Some
turtles (many foreign species) aren’t available as captive-bred, only
commercially sold wild-caught. Especially true of many exotic species (some are
rarely if ever bred in captivity) & more expensive natives (i.e.: the spotted
turtle). (I.E.: If you have a Fly River Turtle, it’s either wild-caught
or the egg wild-harvested. They’ve bred once in captivity, at a Zoo,
7.) Disease Treatment Needs - Commercial wild-caught Exotic Turtles may
need antibiotic treatment to purge them of parasites, given that they’ve been
through a debilitating ordeal getting to you. These animals may be malnourished
dehydrated tropical species subjected to chills & crowded, disease-favoring
conditions between capture & purchase.
8.) Shallow Gene Pool - In theory, a captive-bred line that has been
propagated by humans for a few generations has missed the culling effect of
Natural Selection & may be less fit than wild-caught specimens. Captive breeding
groups simply don’t provide the high number of individuals subjected to strong
natural selection pressures that Nature does.
9.) Cost – even cheap turtles tend to add ~ $25 overnight shipping to the
base price. Herp. Expo.s may be a way around this. On the other hand, the
purchase price is a very small fraction of the long-term cost of ownership, even
with expensive species.
10.) Legality – While there is an exception for hobbyists unloading the
progeny of their pets rather than a true business enterprise, many sales of
turtles with carapaces under 4” are technically illegal & while the practice is
rampant & in theory the liability carried by the seller, this is a bit of a gray
Learn more about the 4” Law.
11.) Support of the Live Pet Industry – some people distrust commercial
breeders & may not want to provide profit to them.
1.) Local – you may feel more of a bond with a local specimen. If
your local population are a regional variant, yours may represent that.
2.) Immediate Gratification – It’s in your tank within an hour of
3.) Survivability – I’ve had nowhere near the deaths the first few days
to 2 weeks with wild-caught I’ve faced with mail order.
4.) Area Native – if this specimen were someday released locally
(politically incorrect regardless; a topic for another day), it would be in its
native range & derived from the local population (which may be a regional
genetic subgroup within the wider population range). If you must release a pet
RES in Northern KY, one from that area is a better choice than one from Southern
5.) Trophy – there’s just something more impressive about one you caught
than one you bought. It feels more like ‘yours’ and there’s an additional fond
memory involved (for you, anyway).
6.) Low Stress – If you
catch a hatchling, it may have a less stressful life than a commercial turtle
born on a turtle farm, shipped to a pet store or reseller & then shipped
overnight to you. This factor diminishes rapidly as the turtle grows & develops
the instinctive wariness of the wild animal.
1.) Availability – you’re limited to the size, species & gender you
can catch, when you can catch it. This leads to ‘settling’ for the wrong species
(RES when you wanted a Southern Painted), size (yearling when you wanted a
hatchling) & gender (the only spiny softshell you ever caught was a female, so
now Big Bertha lives in a pond in the back yard…).
2.) Preparedness - You can’t plan ahead & set up the enclosure in
advance; you’re stuck with the turtle in a plastic tub while you scramble to put
3.) Disease Risk - It may carry disease & parasites from the wild.
4.) Legality - Native species may not be legal in your area (Georgia has
a notorious list of what’s illegal to own there, such as some map turtles).
5.) Conservation - You’re depleting native populations – while a
non-issue with common snappers, RES, painteds & stinkpots, this is a dire peril
for spotted turtles, Blandings turtles & other species. Only the most common,
wide-spread species are good candidates for wild-harvesting.
6.) Unknown Personality - The turtle has no prior experience in
captivity; no one can advise in advance whether it will be paranoid, eat, etc…
7.) Guilt – some people can’t bear the thought of removing a ‘free’ wild
animal from Nature. The odds are overwhelming the hatching would’ve been killed
by a predator within 2 years, & a well-cared for captive in a spacious enclosure
leads a life of luxury by comparison, but that’s how some view it.
8.) Criticism – some fellow hobbyists will lay into you on the forums
when you admit that you have a wild-caught turtle. Some have legitimate points
to share; others cop a holier-than-thou-art antagonistic attitude that will
precipitate a flame war when you snap back.
Special Note #1:
While survivability varies by species & environmental factors, it’s known egg &
thereafter hatchling mortality are high amongst turtles. On the other hand, a
breeding-size adult may be an important part of the local population. Removing
an adult, particularly a female, from the wild may handicap the local
population’s ability to maintain itself. This is most dangerous with threatened
Special Note #2:
William pointed out there’s a difference
between turtle farm mass production & caring production & cultivation by
dedicated hobbyists raising a few of their pets’ progeny.
Special Note #3:
Exceptions are made for rescues. Taking in a wild turtle for treatment of grave
injuries for an extended time, particularly if it has had exposure to other pets
in captivity, may justify keeping a wild-caught as a permanent pet of any size.
Desert Tortoise populations took a heavy hit when captives were wild-released
(turns out they had a contagious respiratory infection).
Special Note #4:
I personally do not consider it unethical to remove an invasive species from the
environment for a pet. You could argue this one (an adult RES caught in
Summary: For most people, commercial-purchased captive-bred
turtles are far & away the preferred choice in pets over wild-caught. You
research in advance, pick just the right species, size & (if you’ll settle for a
yearling) gender, set up your enclosure & other supplies in advance, have it
shipped to you when you’re ready to receive it, and it usually settles in and
does fine. You should be dedicated to avoiding wild-release of your turtle
regardless of origin, & you’re less likely to throw out the turtle you chose
than the one you settled for. None-the-less, wild-caught sources remain viable &
ethical for collecting small numbers of wide-spread common species with high
the original thread discussion,
click on this link. Or join us in the
Advanced Hobbyist Forum for more discussions like this one.