I have written this article in response to a letter in the April 1993 issue of the Tortuga Gazette. In the letter, Scott Solar assures a previous correspondent that commercially collected Gulf Coast box turtles which had puncture-like injuries were the likely victims of botfly infestation, and were not collected by "hooking". I do not dispute this contention. However, Mr. Solar goes on to say that "any collecting method that injures an animal and thereby compromises its survivability would not be acceptable to the collector, the end user at the pet store, or anybody in between." I believe that anyone familiar with the trade in wild-caught turtles would have a serious problem with this statement. Most collectors probably would not purposefully injure the turtles, but the simple act of removing them from their habitats and transporting them is inevitably stressful and inherently harmful. Some collectors and wholesalers may actually care about the welfare of the animals, but this is far from universal, and the expediency to make a profit appears frequently to override the best of intentions.
I have personally witnessed numerous commercial shipments of turtles, observed holding pens, and visited pet wholesalers and retail dealers. In addition, I have spoken to many people involved in, or with direct knowledge, of the reptile trade.
Turtles collected from the wild are typically piled into boxes, burlap sacks, or wooden crates, and transported in car trunks or vans to holding areas. There they may be held in crowded pens or livestock tanks, often without access to clean water. Shipment to wholesalers and retailers often involve another trip packed into boxes and crates. As many CTTC members already know, when the turtles finally arrive at the pet shop they may again be crowded into small tanks, fed a minimal diet, and basically kept under inadequate conditions.
When a normally solitary, sun-loving creature is suddenly removed from the habitat it has perhaps occupied for decades, is crammed into a box with other turtles, exposed to extremes of heat or cold, and kept under generally unsanitary conditions for days or weeks, it is obviously under extreme stress. Disease is often the result. A former reptile dealer told me that he believed the mortality rate for wild-caught box turtles was, at times, as high as 50% between their collection and arrival at the retailer, and was rarely less than 20%. Of those that arrived alive, many were dehydrated and suffering from pneumonia, eye infections, and nutritional deficiencies.
Few people buying turtles in pet shops are aware that the animals are already stressed, diseased and probably doomed. In my position as a herpetologist at a university museum, I am often consulted by people who have recently bought pet turtles and discovered that the creatures were already sick when purchased. They are rarely informed of proper husbandry methods by dealers. By the time I see them, the turtles are often beyond hope, or are salvageable only by aggressive (and expensive) veterinary intervention. I have heard estimates that perhaps as few as one in a hundred wild-caught box turtles that enters the pet trade is alive after two years. Nothing I have seen would cause me to think that this figure is an exaggeration. Is this any way to treat an animal that could live fifty, eighty, or even an hundred years if left in its habitat? (And if you believe that collectors only take turtles from threatened habitats, or the middle of highways, I can probably make you a great deal on a bridge in Brooklyn!)