by Whit Gibbons

November 3, 2013

What to do with an unwanted pet is a perplexing dilemma. When that unwanted pet is a baby turtle that has grown up, what to do with it is a pervasive problem that can have environmental consequences. Even professionals who work with animals don't have a satisfactory answer for how to handle the situation.

Red-eared slider turtles are the most common species of pet turtle in the world. Millions continue to be sold as hatchlings in the pet trade even though federal law states that "live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches shall not be sold, held for sale, or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution."

Yet you can easily find hatchling turtles for sale, sometimes with the disingenuous disclaimer "for educational purposes only." When baby turtles become adults, some pet owners want to get rid of them.

Disposing of pet turtles humanely has been a U.S. dilemma for decades, resulting in the inappropriate release of red-eared sliders in habitats far outside their range.

A federal agent told me recently that "red-ears are being released in every state in the country at this time, as well as around the world." Mexico, Japan, and France are but a few of the countries to which red-ears are shipped as pets and subsequently released into the wild.

I checked with some colleagues regarding the conundrum of what to do with a red-eared slider turtle when someone no longer wants it as a pet.

They are well aware of the problem of excess sliders and they all agreed that releasing them into natural habitats outside of their natural geographic range is not the solution. It's bad for the turtle and for the environment.

"We have no state regulations regarding the release of non-native reptiles and amphibians," said one state wildlife official. "I tell people that release is not an appropriate solution and go through the reasons."

Transmission of diseases to wild reptiles, competition with native turtles, and unnatural hybridization with closely related species are all potential problems. "I suggest they give the turtle to someone else who wants a pet, inquire about making it a classroom pet, or check with local nature centers to see if they will take it."

A state herpetologist said, "I tell them that if they're unable to find someone else to take it, then the responsible thing to do is euthanize it. That advice probably results in unauthorized releases."

Yet another state wildlife official said, "I don't think we're ever going to be able to stop releases into the wild until sliders are unavailable in the pet trade."

A federal wildlife agent suggested that "one solution would be to pass a law that Louisiana, Mississippi, and other states that are permitted to have red-eared turtle farms that sell hatchlings be required to have a program to take them back."

Unfortunately, the question of what to do with a red-eared slider turtle that is no longer wanted as a pet may be one of those environmental puzzles with no immediate solution.

State and federal wildlife officials do not have sufficient resources to enforce the law and stop the sale of undersize turtles. Elected officials fight a powerful lobby and an uphill battle trying to impose controls on the pet trade.

And most people do not have a clue about how to humanely euthanize a turtle, even if they wanted to. So, getting rid of red-eared sliders will continue to be done on a case by case basis.

If you have a turtle you no longer want, keep trying to find it a home or find a way to "put it to sleep," as we say euphemistically with dogs and cats.

Whatever you do, do not release a pet red-eared slider turtle back into the wild. In fact, don't buy a pet turtle unless you have a plan for what to do with it when you no longer want it.

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