Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Plight of Red Eared Sliders

Dinky, admiring his own reflection.  Isn't he pretty?

In honor of World Turtle Day, I want to focus on the problems associated with the breed of turtle that I own: the Red Eared Slider (Latin name: Trachemys scripta elegans, but commonly abbreviated as RES). These turtles, the size of a small coin as hatchlings, are widely sold by street vendors, flea markets, Chinatown tourist shops, carnivals and fairs. Buyers are rarely aware RES live 70+ years and grow as big as 12-inch dinner plates. Those who buy the cute little green turtles receive no information -- or wrong information -- about their care, even though raising a healthy turtle requires very specific elements and becomes more expensive as the turtle gets bigger and bigger.

I got my two RES in October 2003 in at a Chinatown gift shop in New York City.  The picture below shows my two turtles in April of 2004. Less than a year old, they could sit comfortably together in a 20-gallon tank on a brick eight inches long.

Nine years later, Dinky is 6 inches long and lives in a 55 gallon aquarium.

Across the room, Doofus measures a whopping 7.5 inches in length and lives in a 90-gallon aquarium.  (yes, that's right... I have two large aquariums in my living room.)

To give you an idea of the cost and the work involved, let me briefly describe the aquarium setup.  Overall, I spent at least $500 on the initial setup of each tank.  Each aquarium is fitted with two Magnum 350 Deluxe Canister Filters; each filter processes 350 gallons per hour.  Fish hobbyists will recognize that the combined filtration rate is quadruple what would be used for fish in the same size tank!  The filters run 24 hours a day and require periodic cleaning. It takes me about 3 hours per tank every 8 weeks or so to clean the filters and change the filter media, clean the tubes, and remove any algae and debris from the tank. Each aquarium also is equipped with a UVB basking lamp, necessary for maintaining the health of the turtle's shell. Online, I can get the UVB bulbs for about $50 each while my local pet store in Manhattan sells them for $98. (Needless to say, I try to keep at least one spare bulb on hand.) Each bulb lasts about 6 months. The lamps are on timers so that they stay on for at least 10 hours each day.

Turtles who are not so lucky as mine suffer a variety of unfortunate fates. Most baby RES die. Mass produced, they are usually not healthy and, once purchased, they generally receive improper care. If they live, owners sometimes dump them in the nearest pond or river when they get too big and too smelly (which happens if the water is not filtered). Besides the fact that dumping a turtle is illegal, the dumping solution upsets the balance of the local ecosystem.  RES are aggressive eaters and rob native species of the food they relied on before the arrival of the slider. 

Even the most responsible and caring turtle keeper can encounter any number of legitimate reasons for needing to find another home for their large and no-longer-cute turtle. Rescue organizations are overwhelmed with RES, and some have stopped accepting sliders altogether. Eventually, if you own a red eared slider, you come face to face with the realization that your turtle's future is anything but secure.

What can be done about these problems created by an over-abundance of red eared sliders?

Do not buy baby turtles, especially RES. Adopt from a rescue organization. (see the links below)
The rescue organization will insure the turtle is healthy and can instruct you about proper care, whether you keep your turtle indoors or outdoors in a landscaped pond. (If your turtles live outdoors, make sure to install protection against predators.)

Report the illegal sale of turtles.  
Actually, the sale or distribution of turtles under four inches long has been illegal throughout the US since 1975 (Title 21 CFR 1240.62). The ban was created by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Many states also have their own laws about the sale of hatchling turtles and/or red-eared sliders because they carry Salmonella.  The reasoning behind the laws is that young children are less likely to play with larger turtles, and older children and adults can remember to wash their hands after handling a turtle.

If you see baby turtles on sale, lodge a consumer complaint with the FDA.  Click HERE for state-by-state FDA telephone numbers.  You should also contact your state or county health department, state wildlife agency, and/or local animal control or humane society.

New Yorkers:  New York State has a 24-hour Tip Hotline for reporting anything related to wildlife that you think is illegal.  This includes sale of any reptile or amphibian species native to New York State for any purpose  -- food, pets, whatever -- as well as sale of turtles under four inches.  That number is 1-800-847-7332.  Put it in your cell phone!

Make plans in case your turtle outlives you.  
Do not rely on your spouse or relatives to know what to do with your RES after you're gone.  If possible, get an informed commitment from someone who will care for your turtle if something happens to you.  Leave instructions in your will or in a document kept with your will.  Whatever you do, please don't release a RES into the wild.  As mentioned above, this is a very bad idea for the turtle as well as the environment.

Do not take a turtle from the wild unless it needs medical attention.  
RES are not native to the Eastern United States, but they are indigenous to certain parts of the Southern US.  Respect the fact that turtles are wildlife.  They belong in nature - do not kidnap them for your own enjoyment.  If a wild turtle is injured or in trouble, that's different.  Take it to a wildlife rehabilitator who will administer medical care and then return it to the wild.

Where can you learn more about Red Eared Sliders?

Information on RES Care
Melissa Kaplan's Red Eared Slider Care Sheet 
Austin's Turtle Pages - Red Eared Slider
The Turtle Puddle's Health Pages 
Red Eared Slider

Turtle Rescue and Rehabilitation
New York State Wildlife Rehabilitators list on NYS Wildlife Rehabilitation Council website
Wildlife Rehabbers by State
Wildlife Rehabilitators in Suffolk County NY 
Wildlife Rehabilitators in Nassau County NY
Wildlife Rehabilitators by County in New Jersey
or just google "wildlife rehabilitator" and the name of your state or county and state

Other Informative Links
New York Turtle and Tortoise Society (NYTTS)
California Turtle and Tortoise Club (CTTC)
World Chelonian Trust
American Tortoise Rescue (founders of World Turtle Day)
Turtles on Wikipedia
World Turtle Day (my 2008 blog post)

Blog posts about my own Red Eared Sliders (in chronological order)
What's in a Name?
Lucky Larry
Turtle Troubles

Doofus, the bruiser.  He's got ATTITUDE.

© 2012, Linda Mason Hood
Truffles, Turtles & Tunes Copyright Statement


Anonymous said...

Linda: This is a wonderful post. I have 5 red ears and 1 yellow belly slider. One female is 12 inches long and about 50 years old.
I have two 120 gallon tanks with 2 Magnum 350 filters.
I run my filters 11 hours a day, No gravel is needed in your tanks - turtles could care less, and I use a Python hose for cleaning
feel free to write:

deedee said...

I loved your pictures and all of the information you have given to us. I have 1 Red Eared Slider and 2 Cooters ! Red belly and 1 Yellow Belly and I love them all. But I do have to say my Red eared Slider seems to have the largest personality. He seems to always be able to get my attention even if he has to splash me from his aquarium. He's the biggest begger for food and will always try to get out of his aquarium to roam around my family room..they are wonderful companions!

Linda said...

Thanks for your comments. You both have so MANY aquatic turtles. I admire your ability to tend to them all.

As for the gravel mentioned in the first comment, yes, I know it isn't needed. The stones are large enough that the turtles don't eat them, and I like the look. Also, I was modeling my setup on the one described by Mary Hopson on her Turtle Puddle website. One effective setup for aquatic turtles in small tanks

I have great respect for Mary's practical as well as scientific knowledge about turtles. As a moderator on two Yahoo groups, she has taught me a lot. Here are the groups:

Red Eared Sliders and WCT_Online_Turtle_and_Tortoise_Care