Tortoises and Raccoons

Jim McKenney
Mon, 19 Mar 2007 08:27:30 PDT
I hate to be a kill joy here, but someone needs to mention several
inconvenient things about turtles and tortoises in captivity:

1) The Mediterranean tortoises (there are several species, generally much
confused) are not a good choice for someone looking for a garden tortoise in
most of North America or Europe. Sentimental efforts to imitate Gilbert
White's account of Timothy (which was in fact a girl tortoise, not a boy
tortoise) have condemned who knows how many hundreds of thousands of these
creatures to a sad existence and early death in captivity in unsuitable
climates. Some countries control the importation of these animals, usually
with the same efficiency they have in controlling the importation of drugs.
There are interesting parallels between the centuries-old trade in tortoises
and the centuries-old trade in collected bulbs (and drugs).
2) Box turtles themselves, although native to much of North American in one
form or another, are not all that easy to keep in captivity. If kept as
house pets, they don't do well in the long run. They do better if penned
outside. If allowed to roam, roam they will, eventually out onto a road
where they meet their doom. They are surprisingly agile, and most people
greatly underestimate their ability to climb fences and other barriers.
Should you be lucky enough to get one to thrive, it faces other dangers:
captive box turtles are typically too fat to withdraw into their shells.
These turtles, when attacked by raccoons or other predators, are likely to
have their legs gnawed off. 
3) If you feel yourself weakening and are about to acquire a box turtle or a
Mediterranean tortoise, please first take the time to contact someone who
has some expertise in keeping these creatures. Because they take a long time
to die, people are under the illusion that they are easily kept in
captivity. They are not. They have peculiar dietary, dormancy and biorhythm
requirements which are at odds with our human life styles. Wild collected
animals typically have a significant parasite fauna which is likely to cause
complications sooner or later. 

When I was a kid, box turtles were so common that on a weekend hike it was
not unusual to encounter one after another. Now, it's unusual to find even
one. Most of them have been crushed or smashed by cars or collected for the
pet trade. Here in Maryland, it's legal to keep one box turtle (or so I've
been told. I guess the authorities don't want them breeding in captivity).
The domestic trade in box turtles is now a thing of the past in many states.
But they are still collected for export to Europe where there is a long
tradition of keeping box turtles; and as with all of our turtles, unknown
numbers are annually exported to the soup bowls of Asia. 

If you want to help our turtles, support those organizations which set aside
large tracts of land for wildlife conservation.  And agitate for stricter
enforcement of laws meant to curb the illegal international trade of

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, USDA zone 7, where every couple of years
or so a box turtle will wander into the garden.

My Virtual Maryland Garden
Webmaster Potomac Valley Chapter, NARGS 
Editor PVC Bulletin 
Webmaster Potomac Lily Society

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