The Sad Life Of Pet Turtles
May 12, 2017
Austin Aquarium Red-eared-slider-main

By Briana Schmidt

Imagine starting your first days of life living in a small swimming pool. Cloudy water fills your pool and you are surrounded by your flapping brothers and sisters day every second of every day. You wake up with the sun, and it’s your favorite thing in existence. The light and the warmth energize you, make you feel strong. When it retreats, you sleep on a pile of your siblings on a strategically placed cinder block in the middle of the pool. You’re barely six days old when you’re packed in a bucket and taken on a dark journey that lasts for what seems like forever, only to be removed from your dark transport and placed into another tiny plastic pool in a place full of loud noises and strange smells.

You’re at a summer festival. The man running your booth sets up a sign next to some tiny plastic “lagoons” that says “FREE BABY TURTLE WITH PURCHASE,” and immediately a crowd begins to grow. One by one, you watch your siblings disappear. Happy children with enthusiastic sparkles in their eyes grasp eagerly at plastic containers with their new friends inside as they bound away from the booth.

Hours pass until it is finally your turn to go to your new home. You are placed in your little transport container with one of your sisters and jostled around by your new seven-year-old owner as he excitedly runs you to the family car. Another long car ride goes by and before you know what’s going on, you’ve already met the neighborhood kids, been swatted at by the cat, and experienced the cold breeze of the home’s AC unit as you settle into your new home—a shallow plastic container with a small ramp that leads up to a fake palm tree. It’s cold, and the water is stagnant, already clouded from the handfuls of pellets tossed at you in hopes that you will chow down for everyone to see. Your sister sits in the corner, hardly moving. Night comes, and you are exhausted, so all you can do for the time being is sleep. Surely the sun will return with its welcoming lights and gentle warmth tomorrow.

Days turn into weeks and weeks give way into months. The heat has never returned, and despite being cold all the time, you find enough hunger in you to eat something once in a while. Your sister is gone—her eyes inflamed and her lethargy got worse with time. She never really perked up since moving in, and one day the water was exceptionally foul and dark colored. She was gone.

Over time, you are often forgotten. The child who cares for you has moved on to other focuses in life and sometimes the food is tossed to you, sometimes it isn’t. More often than not, you are forgotten long enough for the water to completely disappear from your tiny home. Despite the absence of sun, you are growing, but you can tell that you will outgrow your home soon. You can feel your bones becoming soft, your eyesight is wavering—your home is too small to move around in very much and even so, your energy is waning. You live another year and a half, dreaming of the sun every day until you eventually drift away into an eternal sleep.

Turtles are one of the most commonly and impulsively bought pet reptile, sold in mass quantities every year to people who may be misinformed about the level of care they need. Often times, the misinformation is brought about by someone trying to make a sale on the small souls they are there to unload.

“They are miniature.”

“They grow to the size of their enclosure.”

“All they need is water and food.”

“Super easy to keep!”

These are all false. Turtles get BIG, and the most common species sold in this way is the red-eared slider—an animal that can grow to be a foot long. Perhaps 12 inches doesn’t sound very large at first, but when you remember that this is an animal that lives inside of a hard shell and needs a semi-aquatic habitat to survive, the cost and space requirements of a proper enclosure suddenly skyrocket.

“Growing to the size of its enclosure” is also a myth, and a general one at that—thought to apply to any strange and misunderstood animal, this is not true for anything—not turtles, not fish, not tigers. Placing an animal into a smaller enclosure to ensure that they do not grow is abuse, it is willingly depriving that creature of what it needs to live a full and healthy life. Many animals are smarter than us humans give them credit for—they will recognize that they are about to outgrow their habitat and their body will stunt their growth until they find a proper home to expand in. When in captivity, they are completely reliant on their human keepers to provide them a larger enclosure and when that need is not met in a timely manner, their body systems will fail and they will die. You may have a small turtle, but a small turtle that could have lived well into its 30s is now dead at a year and a half.

Turtles are a diurnal animal, this means that they are awake during the day and they sleep at night. Diurnal animals thrive on the sun to stay alive and healthy. They are awake with the sun for a reason—and turtles are definitely no exception. When being kept indoors, they need proper lighting (that can be quite expensive) in place and maintained to ensure that their bones do not go soft. Without UVB rays—whether natural or artificial—to soak up, the animal’s internal health suffers. There’s a disease that reptiles can get called Metabolic Bone Disease or MBD for short. They start to look like they are melting form the inside out and if it is caught early enough it can be stopped, but the skeletal deformities from it cannot be reversed.

Reptiles are also cold-blooded, which means that they do not produce their own heat. Even if you have the UVB situation all figured out, many of these bulbs do not produce heat as well. External and artificial heat is very important for your animal to be able to move around and digest their food. Without heat, their metabolism slows and it makes proper digestion a challenge.

Lastly, these are aquatic animals. They need a way to submerge themselves in the water, as well as a basking area to get completely out of it. The water portion of their enclosure is their water source but also their toilet. As turtles grow—so does their waste. Without proper filtration and regular water changes, the bacteria in the water can cause upper respiratory issues, eye infections, and death.

Research is always key to obtaining and owning any pet. A little bit of digging into seemingly “common” household pets will yield a lot of new information that may even deter you from having something at home. New pets are a commitment—maybe not for the duration of your life, but often times for the duration of that animal’s life. Reading up on keeping a new little life is never a bad thing, and education is always key to humans and animals living in harmony.

This piece was originally published in SA Amigo Magazine.

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