SO YOU FANCY BUYING A TORTOISE, TERRAPIN OR TURTLE?
First of all, let me say that I think tortoises, terrapins and turtles (all hereafter referred to collectively as chelonians) are beautiful creatures. That is why you should consider carefully the following before rushing down to the pet store with your money:
Do you have any idea which of the above chelonians you would like to buy?
If the answer to the above is no, a good idea would be to get a book out of the library. When my wife first fell in love with a pair of leopard geckos, that's what I did. Apart from hooking me on lizard keeping, the books I borrowed showed what was available, and at what level of cost and difficulty. Most such books are also well endowed with pictures, and as many chelonians are display animals more than companion pets, you can see what takes your fancy.
When thinking about the sort of chelonian you want to purchase, you will need to consider the next lot of questions:
- Can I afford it? There is no getting around it: captive-bred tortoises are expensive, although turtles and terrapins are somewhat cheaper. This is because they are harder to keep than lizards or snakes, therefore less numerous in captivity and less bred. Breeding itself is harder than among snakes or lizards. Typically you will pay between a minimum of £100, more likely nearer £200. You will probably also pay as much for the initial outlay for the necessary equipment: the tortoise's habitat (its tank or vivarium, or a heated outdoor shed) plus the heating and lighting accessories, all of which are absolutely essential. You should reckon on spending up to £200-300 on setting up your tortoise.
While semi-aquatic and particularly aquatic species (turtles and terrapins) are usually less expensive, the saving in the cost of the animal is usually offset by the need for a properly set up aquarium (aquatic species), or enclosure with pool (semi-aquatic). Furthermore, most aquatic setups will need a filter as well to prevent the water from becoming dirty too quickly. Large creatures such as snapping turtles often demand an outdoor pond to themselves, which may not be expensive but will certainly demand a lot of time, at least to set it up.
- Can I afford to keep it?The good news is that tortoises are mainly if not entirely vegetarian and will eat mostly items available from the supermarket. Like most vegetarian reptiles, however, they usually need a meal a day. One reptile expert reckons that large tortoises eat like pigs. Throwing a few bits of lettuce at them each day isn't good enough: a varied bag of ingredients from the grocer's or fresh food counter alone will suffice. What may cost you more, should your pet need attention at some point in its long life, are vets' bills. A visit to a vet who knows a reasonable amount about reptile care will normally cost at least £10 and normally £20-£30, depending on what care is needed. Veterinary surgery on any chelonian tends to be more expensive because of the complication of the shell. If you anticipate getting large veterinary bills, the sensible course is to take out veterinary insurance on your pets. To put it into context, I know a family who spent about £1,000 on medical care for their sick dog.
Semi-aquatic and aquatic species tend to be more omnivorous or carnivorous, particularly the aquatic species which will normally need at least some items from a pet shop (eg small feeder fish such as goldfish or minnows, or insects). Some will eat food from the garden such as earthworms (caution: beware of insecticides having been used on the place where you collect such prey), while box turtles will eat some commercial diets plus berries and mushrooms.
- Can I make the time for it?Many tortoises do seem to like some human interaction, and if you want to encourage your tortoise to develop its personality, you will need to spend time with it. More importantly they do need to be fed normally every day, and do need their habitats cleaning when dirty. In particular some tortoises need their water changing regularly because they defecate in it. If keeping tortoises outdoors you will also need to check up on them regularly for their safety and environment.
Semi-aquatic and aquatic species may be more demanding in other ways. Although they do not seek human interaction (and some, such as soft shells or snapping turtles, will actively discourage it!), the requirements of keeping the water clean should keep their keeper busy enough. If two or more are kept in a tank, they will need to be monitored to make sure that they are coexisting harmoniously.
- Can I practically keep it?There are other prime considerations when contemplating the purchase of a tortoise: space and the reaction of "significant others". To deal with the second issue first, most people like tortoises, even those who find other reptiles repellent. Nevertheless there are some who dislike them, and you must find out how those close or important to you (spouse, parents, family, landlord, etc) will react. The biggest factor, though, is space. Tortoises are surprisingly active animals and need enough room to explore and stimulate their curiousity. Add to this the growth of the tortoise to about a foot, or twice as much in some non-Testudo species, and it becomes clear that either a separate room or garden is needed, or at least the run of the house.
The situation is at least easier in this respect with such creatures as turtles and terrapins, who normally only need as much space as their tank takes up. However, since such a tank usually needs more space than a goldfish aquarium, there may some constraints with these species as well.
And, most importantly…..
- Do I have the commitment to it?Even in comparison with other reptiles, tortoises have extremely long lives when properly cared for (see the introduction). A pet tortoise truly does become a family pet, in fact something more akin to the old family retainer who kept his post for life. They often outlive their owners. While people's circumstances do inevitably change, be aware that the commitment you are making to a pet tortoise is even greater than if you were buying a puppy. True, unlike some unwanted pet reptiles (giant snakes, monitors and iguanas), tortoises can be sold on quite easily. Nevertheless, the pressure on tortoises in the wild from encroaching human activity, plus the well-meaning but increasingly restrictive laws being placed on reptile ownership in some places, makes it vital that anyone who purchases a tortoise keeps it as well as possible and if possible breeds it for future generations. As Philippe de Vosjoli has said, tortoise ownership at this point in time is a privilege, and one that may not last very long.
Other chelonians normally have shorter lives, but you should be aware that even these can live up to 20 years. Furthermore, following the problems of the Ninja Turtle Craze (people going in for the fad of buying terrapins and then finding themselves unable to keep them), terrapins are harder to get rid of. Beaver Water World now has several tanks and enclosures containing rescued terrapins which were dumped, surely a cautionary lesson to anyone wishing to purchase one.
If the answer to all of the above is yes, then it is still a good idea to trot down to the library and do a bit of research. Alternatively there are often books available from pet shops on the tortoise you are interested in.
Having listed all the potential pitfalls, I should also list the advantages of chelonians over some over pets: Significantly, however, there are not many practical advantages to owning a chelonian, unlike snakes and lizards. Compare the advantages of snakes and lizards and compare the position of the chelonian:
The Pros and Cons of Squamata vs Chelonia
|LIZARDS AND SNAKES
||TORTOISES, TURTLES AND TERRAPINS
|They don't take up a lot of room, in most cases
||They do take up a lot of room, in most cases
| They don't normally scratch or gnaw the furniture (apart from free-roaming igs or monitors)
||They will probably scratch and climb up things if you keep them indoors. They are actually better at climbing than most people imagine. If you keep them in the garden without an enclosure, be aware that (a) they eat plants (b) they are good at burrowing
|They don't smell (if you clean them out, especially the ones that leave big droppings)
||They don't smell themselves, but like big reptiles, they may need frequently cleaning after them. Herbivorous creatures tend to leave larger droppings. Aquatic species can be surprisingly messy and may need their water changing at least once a week.
|They don't eat a vast amount of food
|| Tortoises do eat daily - not three times a week or once a week, but seven times a week. Turtles and terrapins vary, but at least one species benefits from having feeder fish in the tank at all times.
|Lizards (apart from the fierce demonstrative ones) don't frighten people into thinking they're going to be bitten to death or eaten. Snakes admittedly can do
|| One up for the tortoises here. Most people find the tortoise an innocent and endearing creature, even those who know little about them. Just make sure that you don't get your finger caught in their beak-like jaws, which can be painful. On the other hand, some aquatic species can be quite vicious, notably the snapping turtles and the softshells.
|They don't need to be taken for a walk each day
|| They don't need to be taken for a walk each day. Just make sure that they don't take themselves for a walk outside of your supervision.
|They can be left for weekends
|| Even if you only go away for the weekend, you will need to get someone in to feed them each day and possibly change the water.
|They don't make a lot of noise or disturb the neighbours
||True enough. However, security is another you need to consider. Unfortunately, the escalating cost of tortoises - from pet shop expendable to specialist item - has meant an increase in theft of these animals. While you can't keep them under lock and key like a piece of jewellry, micro-chipping should certainly be done at the earliest age that is safe, and insurance may also be worthwhile.
In the following section I would like to consider some chelonians that are commonly seen for sale, and give my opinion on the level of difficulty of keeping them. Those which I have direct experience of will be marked. All the others I have either read up on to a good degree or spoken to some of their owners.
Back to HomePage