Box Turtles Meant to Stay Wild

by Amanda Newsom

 Eastern Box Turtle. Photo: Kevin Stohlgren

Eastern Box Turtle. Photo: Kevin Stohlgren

I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen Eastern Box Turtles crossing a road, trail or driveway in Athens—I even saw one laying her eggs at a park last year! Many people aren’t sure what to do when they see a turtle in the road or their yard, and some even think it’s a good opportunity to take one home to keep as a pet. That’s why we want to share some tips to let you know how you can be a best friend to turtles in our area:

Helping Turtles Cross the Road

Why did the turtle cross the road? To get to the other side, of course. If you see a turtle in the road, your safety should always be your first priority. If safely possible, pick up the turtle with both hands securely around its shell and place it on the side of the road in the same direction it was traveling. (This goes for any turtle, but be especially careful with snapping turtles!)

Taking a Wild Box Turtle Home is Illegal

While bringing a wild box turtle home might seem like an opportunity for a cute new pet, it’s actually illegal to do so. According to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR), “By Georgia Law, most native species of wildlife cannot be held without permits or licenses. These licenses are not issued for the purpose of holding native wildlife as pets. These restrictions apply to the various species of animal, regardless of the origin or morphology.” Eastern Box Turtles are included in this law.

It’s Not a Happy Life for the Turtle

Box turtles have a close connection to their home range and rarely roam very far from where they were born. Because of their connection to the range (and the fact that most people don’t care for them adequately), bringing one home to keep in an aquarium on your shelf is depriving it of living a happy, healthy life that it deserves. Box turtles can live upwards of 50 years in the wild, but in captivity, many do not live very long.

Turtles Play an Important Role in their Ecosystem

Turtles are a sign that a habitat is healthy, and they play a vital role in our world. Matt Elliott, GADNR Assistant Chief of Nongame Conservation, says of their importance, “Box turtles are one of the classic reptile species of mesic forest types throughout Georgia. They are the only terrestrial turtle species that is found statewide. While not what I would call a keystone species like Gopher Tortoises, I imagine they play an important role in terms of herbivory and seed dispersal.”

Taking One Turtle Affects the Entire Population

When you take one turtle from the wild, you are affecting its entire population. Turtles are long-lived animals that don’t reproduce until they are around 10 years old. So when you take one turtle, you are taking away its ability to reproduce and keep the local population thriving. 

According to GADNR Herpetologist John Jensen, Eastern Box Turtles have been documented in 144 of the 159 counties in Georgia, and they’re most certainly found in others. He explains, “Turtles have a life history that puts a premium on adult survivorship (they have few natural predators), and removing them mimics that unnatural level of predation. Removal of just a few adults from a population can truly impact it. Turtles often out-live the novelty pet interest of most that collect and keep them. They then often get released back into the wild where they may no longer be fit to survive, and they may introduce pathogens or parasites picked up in captivity to wild populations.”

Matt Elliott says, “Declines in numbers for the species have been pretty well-documented in other parts of their range. In Georgia they seem to be doing okay, and we would like to keep it that way. Certainly they already have enough to contend with from being run over by vehicles, harassed by loose dogs and direct loss of habitat from development.” 

Elliott says that it’s common to hear of people attempting to keep box turtles as pets, and GADNR has repatriated a number of them. And a recent poll at just one local pet store in Athens showed that at least 45 people have asked for advice on keeping a found box turtle so far this year. Most of those people have the misconception that “it’s just one turtle,” but when you consider all of the other people that say the same thing, it really adds up and causes populations to be negatively impacted.

Enjoy Them from Afar

Instead of trying to illegally capture a box turtle, make your yard turtle-friendly to enjoy them from afar! You can leave large areas of natural leaf litter under trees as well as an isolated clearing nearby to provide a nice habitat for them. You can also walk your yard to check for turtles (and other wildlife) before mowing your grass, and mowing during the middle of a dry day will mean they’re less likely to be out, as well. Last, you can plant native plants and brambles that produce fallen fruit for them to snack on.