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Turtles: They're cute, but even little ones need space
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July 24, 2007

By LINDA LOMBARDI

For THE Press

Some reptiles have all the luck. We think of most of them as cold, scaly and maybe even creepy. But not turtles. With their round bodies and short faces, almost everyone agrees that turtles and tortoises are cute.

But cute sometimes equals impulse purchase, as Holli Friedland well knows. She is program director for the Mid-Atlantic Reptile Show (MARS) and MARS Reptile & Amphibian Rescue.

She recommends that you do your research before you buy. Start with the size.

'The number one reason people surrender animals to us is that they outgrew their cage,' she says. 'The littler they are, the faster they grow.'

Size requirements mean that turtles and tortoises that live on land are an easier choice than aquatic species. A large tank lined with a dry substrate is far simpler to maintain than a tank of water -- especially since turtles are messier than fish and will require more cleaning and filtration.

But be aware that some fairly small land turtles need more space than you might think, such as the popular box turtles, which are generally about 6 inches long as adults.

'Box turtles need a pretty big space for the size that they are,' says Friedland. Plan on giving it at least a few square feet to roam around in daily.

In fact, historic house restorer Caroline Sly of Ashfield, Mass., gives her box turtles Johann Sebastian Box and Hildegard von Bingen their own fenced in garden and free run of the house.

'They have heat lights and a towel to crawl under. They don't get into any trouble as long as they can't get stuck under any furniture,' she says.

Sly says it's not hard to keep up with cleaning up after them. In particular, they are soaked in water every day, which tends to make them defecate, so they don't do it around the house.

Friedland says that parents often want to adopt box turtles for their children, but she cautions against this. They don't like to be handled. She also warns, 'Box turtles can close their shell completely - if a little kid is holding it and it closes their shell on their finger, it can hurt.'

Smaller species of tortoise, such as Russians, which are roughly 8 inches long, may be easier to care for. One advantage is that tortoises are mostly vegetarian -- you don't need to worry about the messy foods like earthworms that box turtles may enjoy.

('Turtle' is the general term; most turtles that live on land are called 'tortoises,' with some exceptions like the box turtle. )

Even those who love them may concede and turtles and tortoises are not the most intelligent pets. As Sly puts it, 'They're kind of like animated flowers. They're very pretty, but they don't do much.'

But as Friedland says, 'Tortoises, especially the bigger ones, seem to have a personality, whereas a lot of reptiles don't seem to have much personality.'
Greg Lipps of the Delhi Pet Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, agrees. Their African spur-thigh tortoise 'Puddles' walks around the store greeting customers -- and she will bang on the side of her pen until he lets her out to roam.

Lipps' store sells baby tortoises, and says that modern commercial diets have made them easier to take care of, but he's also careful to caution people about what they are getting into.

'Our adult is 10 years old, so we can show people how big it's going to get,' he says, noting that Puddles is 16 inches long and over 30 pounds and she's not yet full grown.

Whatever species you're interested in, be aware of your local laws. Different states have different regulations about what species are legal to own; your state's environmental or natural resources office can usually tell you. And make sure the animals are captive bred, so they're less likely to have a heavy load of parasites. (In any case, always wash your hands after handling a reptile.)

And be prepared to be in it for the long haul. 'A lot of times, turtles outlive their owners,' says Friedland, who has a friend who's in his 50s who's had his box turtle since he was 10.

Still, if you can meet all their requirements, these are animals that can help you appreciate the simple pleasures.

One of Sly's turtles 'seems to know the word 'worm', and you can get her attention by using her name, which is pretty amazing,' she says. 'You expect so little from a turtle that when you get some response, it's a lot.'

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