Releasing My Turtle Back into the Wild: The Controversy
It all started a year and a half ago in late October when my brother and his friend went to our local lake and witnessed newborn turtles popping up from the ground, heading for the lake's shore. My brother and his friend also took witness to the babies getting eaten by large bass waiting for them in the water. My brother's friend caught one before it could reach the shore, saving its life and thinking it would make an excellent pet. For his first week of life, my turtle was kept in a one gallon milk jug in shallow water. My brother's friend kept throwing odd foods (like bread of all things) into the water, but my turtle did not eat a thing; I wonder why? Thinking it was probably going to die (the man didn't even own a tank), he decided to pass it along to his friend's sister (me) because I am an animal nut.
I had no clue about this animal when it was handed off to me. It was a unique turtle and I had planned to keep it for only a week before placing him back to his natural habitat. Well, during that time, the temperature outside dropped significantly and winter showed up. So releasing him into icy waters was not an option for me. Deciding to keep him through the winter and release him in the spring, I did my research, made lots of errors, learned my mistakes, and created the perfect habitat for my baby softshell turtle with all of his necessities. I knew everything I needed to know about him.
So why did I not release him once spring came? The little guy barely grew, and I figured it was my fault for the mistakes I had made, and justified keeping him until midsummer so he wouldn't be such an easy appetizer for those merciless bass. And he did grow a little bit more, but not as large as I had hoped. Even though I did not plan to keep him for another winter, I just couldn't let him go, thinking he was still too small and easy prey.
Now that he has reached four inches in width and summer is officially here, I plan to release my turtle back to his natural habitat for good.
But wait! There is apparently something controversial about my plan. Apparently, a lot of people think it is cruel to release a turtle back to the wild after being kept as a pet for so long. I'm pretty amazed that so many people feel this way, although I wonder how many people who make these claims actually know a great deal about reptiles. The majority of these objections come from forums like Yahoo Answers, YouTube comments, opinions I would not trust when it comes to scientific/veterinarian questions.
Let's get one thing out of the way. I completely agree that a store-bought turtle or a non-native turtle should not be released into the wild, even if the environment simulates his natural environment. Pet store turtles most likely carry a disease and can affect native turtles and the entire ecosystem. Never release a turtle if it is not from the area; there is no exception to this.
But my turtle is native and he's still very young, yet I hear objections about people in the same situation as I am. So I am going to address the opposition's claims and give my two cents about them.
Your turtle will give other turtles diseases it normally would not have contracted in the wild.
This would make sense if we were talking about a store-bought turtle or a turtle that was kept in really poor living conditions. Why did I include store-bought turtles? Because there is a risk of a pet turtle getting a disease from another pet turtle, but this can only happen if my turtle has come in contact with others, and it has not. It has lived a solitary life so far and has been kept in a clean habitat. This leads me to the next dilemma.
Your turtle's immune system is down, because it has not been exposed to common bacteria found in the wild. He is prone to get sick and possibly die.
I agree with this, well to a degree. In order to have low immune system, my turtle would have to be unhealthy and I can safely say that is not the case. My turtle should have a very good immune system according to his behavior, his physical appearance, and the nutrition I have been giving him. But I do understand what this claim is saying. I clean my aquarium frequently and so my turtle is not exposed to much bacteria as a wild turtle. There's still bacteria in aquarium water, but not near at the same level as lake or pond water.
My solution to this problem?
I am slowly exposing my turtle to this lake water every four days. Visiting his birthplace and getting scoop-fulls of water, I am gradually subtracting his regular water and adding the water of his future home simultaneously. I will keep adding until it is nothing but lake water, while observing his behavior closely for any changes. It's already well over half of his water and there have been no changes in his behavior at all. I'm sure I'm going through all this trouble for nothing and if I had just taken him from the aquarium water to lake water, he would have been okay. But I would rather play it safe and get him used to the water beforehand.
You have a domestic turtle now and he won't last long in the wild. He won't know how to evade predators, search for other means of food, and survive the winter because he has spent his life in a glass box.
I completely disagree with this claim. Turtles (and reptiles for that matter) are not like owls, bears, and cats. Turtles are not taught to hunt or evade. Their mothers are long gone before they bust out of their eggs and they are all on their own. That is the neat thing about reptiles, their survival is based solely on inborn instincts.
The phrase "domestic turtle" sounds funny to me because I've never felt that way about owned turtles, but this all depends on a person's definition of the word "domestic" (and yes, there are different definitions, or different ideas of what this word means for animals). Sure, a turtle can beg for food, can even follow people on land for food, but does that make it domesticated? It lives in a human-controlled environment, but is that going to take away a turtle's instincts? As far as I'm concerned, all turtles are wild and while most get to live in their natural environment, some are placed in a simulated environment (if lucky) and they simply recognize when food is available. Adult turtle brains are not that different than baby turtle brains, except as adults they become predators while babies are usually prey. So babies need to be able to bury themselves instantly (for softshells), and I'm happy to say my turtle is an expert on that.
My turtle does not fear me when he's in his aquarium or outdoor pool, but when I go to grab him, he acts like I'm about to eat him. Unless I have food, he stays away from me and that's the way it should be. Turtles don't know what the human being is; all they know is if this recognizable giant shows up in front of the glass, half the time these pellets magically appear. And this is only in his aquarium; I can't get him to trust me at any other location with pellets.
For two weeks now I have stopped feeding him pellets, preparing him (if it's really necessary) for the wild. He has guppies and ghost shrimp as prey. If he's hungry enough, he will catch them and eat them. For the sake of a varied diet, I will occasionally throw in a bug, an algae chip (which is good because the lake has plenty of algae to eat) and frozen dead blood worms that thaw out by the time he gets to them. I was concerned to find out the lake does not have guppies, but I'm sure there are tons of other little aquatic animals he'd be able to catch between rocks and under the dirt/sand. I imagine most of his food will be from scavenging for dead things rather than catching live prey--they do a lot of that when they get older, and it's evident those turtles are surviving on something out there, so I'm not worried.
I don't think people give turtles much credit. I find it amazing any of them survive at all after birth. Once the lucky few reach a certain size, they become the predators and they can live very long lives (much longer than a captive turtle, lifespan-wise).
I am very confident my turtle will do well in the wild. His arms have slimmed down a little since I've ended his pellet diet, but that's because he's been more active in his aquarium now, searching for food rather than waiting for me to appear. He's still eating and acting healthy, and on his last day I plan to give him some pellets just to hold him out for a while in the wild.
I love my turtle and I know this is the right thing to do for him. It's really hard because I have put so much effort into ensuring his safety and health. But I can't keep him forever; I hadn't planned to. And there will always be a what-if to his whereabouts and if I did do the right thing. What comforts me is knowing that without my brother's friend, he would have lived to be 10 seconds old like the rest of his siblings. And if it wasn't for me, he would have died three to four months later in that milk jug. Most turtles don't get to be one and a half years old; most of them don't make it past their first winter. I've done everything I can and now it's time to say goodbye.
Remember, never release a turtle in the wild if it's from somewhere far away or it was bought. But if it is native, prepare it for the wild and let him or her go back to where they belong.