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Hatchling Turtles - Introduction and Legalities

Last Updated: 12/12/09

In the United States, it is, for the most part, illegal (without special permission) to own, sell, buy, or possess a turtle under 4 inches in length (see the additional information at the bottom of the page for more details) which would thus include all hatchling and young freshwater turtles commonly found native to the USA as well as turtles from other countries normally sold as pets. It is also normally illegal to take a turtle from the wild (eggs, babies, or adults). To have a baby turtle legally, permits are required to breed them if that is what you are doing or to rehabilitate them if they come from the wild. Permits vary state to state and country to country. What is legal in one state may not be in another. There are also permits to "take" (kill for food or put in the pet trade) turtles. The reality is that many people illegally take babies from the wild, end up with babies from their adult pet turtles by accident or on purpose, or find or are given baby turtles found in the wild that are in danger (on roads, construction sites) or injured. [In my case, someone gave me a 1-inch hatchling snapping turtle in late fall that would have died if put into the wild (too small a turtle, too cold, pond frozen, etc.). I have more experience with turtles than the local rehabilitator so I kept him alive until spring to be released. Baby snappers do not bite like the adults so he was really a cutey-pie, and I loved him.] In those cases, even if kept illegally, I think that is it important to at least care for those animals as best as possible. Turtles found in the wild can be given to wildlife rehabilitators or better yet, to turtle experts (who have permits) who better know how to care for turtles. I have gotten so many questions about how to specifically care for hatchlings and babies (under say 4 inches) that instead of continually repeating myself, I will provide that information on my site in detail. For information on taking turtles from the wild and releasing them, see this section.

Hatchling turtle are normally born in summer or early fall, eat some food, find a pond, and hibernate in the bottom before ice forms. If a turtle hatches late in the season, it is supposed to stay in the nest (dirt hole) until spring. If something goes wrong, a turtle such as my Snappy, will come out of the ground too late in the fall to survive. With no time to eat, no time to find water, and no time to get into the water before ice forms, such a turtle would die. The winter of 2002/2003, two other people told me they found hatchlings on roads when it was already below freezing. Nature would "cull" (kill) those babies but some people decide to try to save them as the person who brought me Snappy did. I think that the problem that year (2002) was the drought. Female turtles may have laid eggs later, waiting for rain or perhaps the babies hatched but could not dig out until it started to rain later. When they came out, it was too late in the season. Many hatchlings get lost, cross roads and parking lots, and never find water. They may be near death when found and require the best of care to make it to be released in the spring in a nice pond near where they were born. Never release a turtle into a private pond or lake without permission. Never let a wild baby turtle come into contact with any other turtle unless a bunch are found together (or perhaps even other animals) if you plan to release it as it could pick up something (parasite, etc.). Never take a turtle from the wild that is not in danger. Never keep a turtle taken from the wild unless it is unable to survive on its own (and then give it to someone who has legal permission to keep it). Be aware that your actions may be illegal. As I said, thousands of people break the laws regarding turtles so I figure if they are going to do it anyway, I might as well help them take care of the turtles as best they can. Please do not ever take a turtle from the wild that does not need help. Turtles are being decimated by collectors (mostly illegal), people who want to eat them (mostly exported to Asian countries), and most of all, development/destruction. Please give them a break! If you want a pet turtle, you should get a captive-bred animal that is over 4 inches in length (the legal length). I cannot tell you how many hundreds of people have e-mailed me that they were sold turtles under that length, even in the USA! The buyer was ignorant but the seller was criminal (even if you consider the law stupid. It was put into place because children might put baby turtles in their mouths, and some turtles carry salmonella but really only sick ones). Almost all such baby turtles are stolen from the wild. If you were ignorant (you are not any longer!), please care for the baby well, as per my directions. Thanks for caring for the wee turtles!

Note: I am speaking only about aquatic turtles. If you come across a hatchling box turtle or tortoise in the fall, it should not have a problem finding suitable habitat for the winter as they hibernate among leaves and dirt and not in water. If you find one on a road, etc., move it across the street, in the direction it was headed. Aquatic turtles must hibernate in the water or in their nest so if they are running about when the ponds are already freezing, they do not have much chance (but could perhaps still make it). Caring for hatchling land turtles is different than aquatic turtles as they stay on land and not in water. But, you can try feeding the same types of foods listed under feeding.

It really, really bothers me that people who take in wildlife to help them are often arrested or fined for doing so but killing, maiming, or harassing the same animal in the wild would yield no punishment at all (especially with more common animals like deer, raccoons, etc.). Yes, many of those people who take wildlife have NO idea what they are doing and should not be allowed to have any animals but many others do know what they are doing. A local rehabilitator had some raccoons who "accidently" got into some hanky panky and had babies. The authorities killed all the babies since it is illegal to breed wildlife, and raccoons are all infested with rabies (which is a total lie). Now off my soap box and on to the information.

After putting up this site, I have become surprised that it is one of my most popular pages! I can only assume it is because there is not enough good information on the internet about hatchling turtle care. I have gotten so many e-mails and questions about this! So many people have taken hatchlings from the wild, and many are buying them at local stores, etc. I found out about a certain site I will not mention that sells hatchlings. They claim it is legal since they are put up for "adoption" instead of sale. But since when does adopting cost lots of money? At least two people have said they got hatchlings there that were horribly sick. I was beginning to think the 4" rule must be a fallacy so I looked it up. It is real. Any turtle eggs or turtles under 4" found being sold are to be killed and the person fined. Here is the link for you to read with the actual law.

I finally talked to those in charge of Maryland permits for turtles on 10/21/05. There is no legal way for an individual to get a permit in MD to keep any turtle under 4" long for any reason (rehabilitation, breeding, and education included). Businesses can get such permits though to "harvest" (ship off to grow into breeders or be eaten or just eat directly) baby turtles. What a horrible world we live in when it is perfectly legal (with permits) to kill animals but illegal to help them. I got the impression that the 4" law is basically ignored because so many people break it partly because it does not allow for exceptions.

Here are some links regarding the 4" rule and turtle legalities. I do not agree that every single turtle carries salmonella.

Tortoise.org and 4" rule - the same link as above.
Baby Turtles and Children - HSUS article; I agree with most but not 100% of what they say. It does go over some cases where turtles were being sold and the consequences which were dire for people and/or the poor turtles.
FDA statement - "Pet Turtles Pose Risk of Salmonella Infection for Infants and Small Children"
The actual FDA law

On 12/3/09, Katrina sent me this e-mail regarding baby turtles and legalities.

"Thank you for your website. I just found it, and I intend to read more of it this week to learn more about ponding (as you'll see why shortly). What caught my eye first was the information on baby turtles. I handle adoptions for the Mid-Atlantic Turtle & Tortoise Society, and baby turtles (actually baby red-eared sliders) are one of my biggest problems. I've had to learn a lot of legalities while doing adoptions, so I'd like to offer what has been learned. If you'd like to use this to edit your article, please feel free to do so.

OWNING baby turtles may or may not be legal depending on what state one lives in, and what species one keeps. SELLING a baby turtle AS A PET in connection with A BUSINESS is illegal in the US, period. Selling one as a hobby may or may not be legal depending, again, on from where, to where, and what one is selling.

In Pennsylvania, or example, it's perfectly legal to have a baby red-eared slider, which is not native to PA. In Maryland, until 2008, it was illegal to have any turtle under 4". In 2008, regulations were passed in Maryland (as a result of a law that was pushed by turtle lovers and scientists) to allow the possession of turtles under 4" with a DNR permit. In most states it's OK to breed and/or give away your turtles, no matter the size, so long as what you're breeding and giving away doesn't conflict with state wildlife or health regulations. In NJ, for example, it's illegal to keep a turtle without a permit, and absolutely illegal to sell turtles in NJ. In many states, it's illegal to keep - or to keep without a permit - native turtles, regardless of size or how they were acquired.

Now, as to all the little green red-eared sliders that are sold illegally to tourists in places like Myrtle Beach, SC, NYC's Chinatown, most of the state of Florida, and at far too many flea markets across the country, those are indeed being sold illegally. Most of those babies were hatched at turtle farms in southern states such as Florida, not taken from the wild. I would include Louisiana, but most of the farms there don't sell hatchlings illegally in the US - they usually legally export them to other countries as pets. Some of these farms hatch out over a million baby red-eared sliders each year. The adults are raised in large ponds, and the eggs are collected from the sandy pond shores, incubated in temperature controlled warehouses, and then the babies sold off in "lots" to middlemen or retailers - sometimes in lots of a hundred, sometimes in lots of a thousand!

The worst part about the baby turtle 'scam' is that sellers often lie to the buyers, claiming the turtle doesn't get any bigger, or won't get much bigger. Two or three years later, if the turtle has been cared for properly, you'll have a 5-8" turtle that needs a 75 gallon aquarium, which most people don't want in their living room (or can't afford, these days). Wait 5-10 years, and the slider will have reached it's maximum size of 6-11" and could live another 30 years. If you were unlucky enough to purchase a cooter instead of a slider (they look similar as babies), your turtle could reach FOURTEEN inches!

This all makes red-eared sliders the most abandoned pet turtle in the world - they start out cute, small, and cheap, and grow into large eating and pooping machines. Most of the sliders up for adoption were purchased as illegal hatchlings by unsuspecting (or lied to) tourists or parents wanting an inexpensive pet. The ideal home is - here it comes - a fenced-in backyard, man-made pond of at least 300 gallons. In a good part of the US, this allows the turtle to live outside all year, and a fenced yard (or fenced-in pond) makes sure the slider doesn't escape to local water-ways. Sliders are considered an "invasive" species in many areas where they are not native, because they are so hardy, and could interfere with native wildlife.

Sliders love aquatic plants, so if you have prized water lillies in your pond, a turtle probably isn't for you. They will also occasionally take a fish, especially the first week after release into a new home, but usually the turtle and fish get used to each other and start to ignore each other. That's not to say a sick or dead fish isn't fair game, though."

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