Box Turtles and People

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Published on: Jul. 2, 2006

Last revision: Nov. 29, 2010

Three-Toed Box Turtle

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visiting the countryside—both out-of-state visitors and residents—find and pick up a box turtle and take it home as a souvenir of their trip.

This is a problem on several levels. First, it is not legal for out-of-state visitors to capture, keep and transport wildlife across the state line without a permit. Second, box turtles are not very prolific, and their population can suffer from such a harvest of specimens. Third, box turtles do not do well in captivity, and the majority may be dead in less than a year. And fourth, some of the people who take a box turtle from Missouri decide to let it go in their area (Michigan, Ohio, South Dakota, etc.) where no three-toed box turtles are found. Obviously, this isn’t good for the hapless turtle, which will likely have a difficult time surviving. Please think twice about capturing our box turtles as souvenirs. A better idea is to take a photo and let them go where they were found.

Turtles in captivity.

Box turtles are small, colorful, make no noise and eat very little compared to other, more traditional pets. But reptiles in general, and box turtles in particular, have requirements that can be difficult to meet in captivity.

Without sunlight (especially ultraviolet light), a balanced, natural diet and a preferred temperature range, box turtles do poorly in captivity. Without proper care, the result is a dead turtle, or one with a deformed shell, upper beak and claws, and excessively low body weight. The animal may live in a constant state of near-starvation.

I’ve met many box turtle owners who maintain that their turtles are thriving, eat the same diet every day and have survived happily for over 20 years. All that’s needed to dispel this myth about contentedly captive box turtles is to compare a wild-caught, healthy box turtle of the same age and size to a long-term captive.

To be healthy in captivity, box turtles must eat a wide variety of foods that duplicate what they consume in the wild. This means foods high in vitamins and minerals with specific amounts of plant and animal proteins, a proper temperature so their food can be digested, and the correct amount of ultraviolet light to stimulate their skin to produce Vitamin D. The Missouri Department of Conservation asks that wild animals—including box turtles—be left in the wild where their needs are met and where they belong.

Turtles and traffic.

Many hundreds of box

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