Monday, June 30, 2008

Turtle Sighting in Lower Manhattan

Photograph by Michael Natale, used with permission.

Earlier this month Michael Natale photographed this turtle outside the Battery Maritime Building located between Battery Park and the Battery Park City apartment complex in Lower Manhattan. (see his 6/4/08 blog post) Based on the color around the edges of the shell, both top and bottom, it might be a very dirty slider or cooter, or even a western painted turtle.** All are fresh water turtles, so what was this guy doing in the brackish waters of New York Harbor?

Theory #1: He could be a pet that got dumped. Because of their plentiful numbers, red-eared sliders are the most commonly sold turtle. You can buy them in NYC’s Chinatown novelty stores and in every pet store that carries turtles. Sometimes they are given away as prizes at events like state and county fairs. Regardless of where you get them, it’s unlikely that you would receive any information about their care or about the habitat they require. If kept in a tank, you need a strong filtering system and lighting that gives off UVB rays. Acquiring a baby turtle may cost only a few dollars, but a proper habitat will cost at least $200. The cost will continue as the turtle grows and needs a bigger tank. Red-eared sliders can live 40 years and grow to 12 inches in diameter. Adult sliders need plentiful swimming space. Installing a pond in your yard is a good idea, as a 200+ gallon tank is impractical for most people. You can see why red-eared sliders get dumped when they get too big. People often don't know what else to do. But releasing them into a natural setting isn't good either. Being voracious eaters, they can upset the ecosystem, causing other species to suffer or die.

Theory #2: He could be a escapee from Chinatown markets. New York's Chinatown markets, like San Francisco and other Chinese settlements around the world, sell live turtles for food. Turtles are considered a delicacy. Chinese believe that eating turtle meat will bring wisdom, health, and long life. In an article entitled “Turtle Tragedy: Demand in Asia May Be Wiping Out Turtle Populations Worldwide(1),” Wendy Williams speculates that as China’s economic status rises, more and more Chinese people are able to afford turtle, which fuels the import trade. While some of the imported turtles are bred for export in the southern United States, large numbers of exported turtles are wild caught. Turtles are collected from all over the world, without regard for the impact on the species. Despite agreements at the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, Williams’ article reports the sale of endangered species from all over the world. Even non-endangered turtles like red-eared sliders suffer because of lack of shipping regulations. Shipping conditions are far from humane, and enforcement is next to impossible because of the massive numbers being exported. Domestic Chinese turtles are commercially extinct, so the need to import turtles is great. One US shipper has a standing order for a ton of turtles per week for shipment to China. In his article entitled “Declared Turtle Trade From the United States(2),” Darrell Senneke reports 31,783,380 turtles were declared for export in over a 3-year period.

Theory #3: More likely this guy was purchased by a Buddhist in Chinatown and released in the East River. On August 7, 2007, The New York Sun reported on this ancient practice called fangsheng, or release of life. Practitioners believe that "setting turtles or other animals free increases a Buddhist's merit, which is believed to translate into a better rebirth." The New York Sun article told of a couple who rescue as many as turtles as possible (mainly red-eared sliders) from the East River and place them in the Central Park Turtle Pond. This practice is discouraged by Central Park gardening staff, however, because there are already too many non-native turtles in the pond. If you are inclined to rescue a red eared slider, Turtle Homes provides advice:

Speculating on how the turtle pictured above ended up on a Battery Park shore introduced me to a whole host of turtle issues. All pretty depressing stuff. As I learn more about the laws regarding turtle exports from the US, shipping conditions, I'll post that information here. Perhaps there are ways we can have a positive impact and improve the sad plight of turtles. I surely hope so. For now, I can take comfort in the safe, privileged life that I provide my two red-eared sliders. They bring beauty and joy into my living room, and they have much to teach me about the world in which I live.

(1) Wendy Williams, “Turtle Tragedy: Demand in Asia May Be Wiping Out Turtle Populations Worldwide,” Originally printed in Scientific American, June 1999. Reprinted by permission (New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, As viewed online at online at on June 10, 2008.

(2) Darrell Senneke, "Declared Turtle Trade From the United States," World Chelonia Trust,, 2006. As viewed online (at starting with the introductory page) at, June 10, 2008.

** After this post was published, Tony Simmons from the Red-Eared Slider Yahoo group and Yvonne from the World Chelonian Trust Yahoo group agreed that this turtle is a melanistic male red-eared slider. Tony says he sees them all the time in Houston where he lives. Here's another photo of a melanistic slider for comparison purposes.

© 2008, Linda Mason Hood
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