Nova Scotia

Non-native turtles bought at pet stores and abandoned putting N.S. species at risk

The Department of Lands and Forestry says invasive turtles bought at pet stores and then abandoned in the wild have become a big problem in Nova Scotia.

'Please don't release your pet turtles into the wild, and please don't take wild turtles as pets'

Rhonda Fox took in Mr. T (the T stands for temporary) because she was worried he would end up abandoned in the wild. He's now become a permanent member of her family. (Rhonda Fox)

Mr. T was supposed to be a temporary guest at Rhonda Fox's home, but instead the turtle has become a permanent member of the family who's even made it into her will.

Fox took in the red-eared slider, which is an invasive species in Nova Scotia, after he was rescued and in the care of a friend. She worried he would be released back into the wild, which she said can be a death sentence once an animal is domesticated.

It's also bad news for other turtles who call Nova Scotia home.

The Department of Lands and Forestry said non-native turtles bought at pet stores and then abandoned in the wild have become a big problem in Nova Scotia, and threaten native turtle species that are already at risk.

"Please don't release your pet turtles into the wild, and please don't take wild turtles as pets," Fox, who lives in Greenwood, N.S., told CBC Radio's Information Morning this week. 

It's turtle nesting season right now! With all four of our native species at risk, we find out what you should do if you have a turtle encounter, including with pet turtles released in the wild. 8:04

Owning a turtle is not for the faint of heart, she said. The reptiles can live up to 20 years in captivity, and Fox estimates Mr. T's indoor habitat has cost more than $1,000.

"It's expensive to set them up with tanks and filters and the proper lighting to mimic the outdoors," she said.

It's also illegal to own a pet turtle in Nova Scotia and requires a special permit from the province. Fox said she's sent away her paperwork and is in the process of getting one.

Invasive species compete for food, shelter

Bronwynne Conrad-Martin, an education co-ordinator with the wildlife division at Lands and Forestry, said red-eared sliders and yellow-bellied sliders often end up abandoned in Nova Scotia.

People will bring them here when they move to the province, not realizing they're illegal. Sometimes, pet turtles are released into a body of water to fend for themselves.

"It will compete for food, shelter and space," Conrad-Martin said. "A turtle, from being captive, could have different diseases and funguses and parasites … then you're putting our species at great risk."

All four native turtle species in Nova Scotia are at risk to varying degrees, in part due to loss of habitat. Blanding's turtles are endangered, wood turtles are threatened, snapping turtles are vulnerable, and the eastern painted turtle was just listed as a species of concern under the federal Species at Risk Act.

Snapping turtles, which can be found in Nova Scotia, emerge from a nest. (Turtle Patrol/Facebook)

In addition to people abandoning their pet turtles in the wild, there's also the opposite problem, said Conrad-Martin.

"A lot of times people will just take a turtle home not knowing that it's actually illegal to do so," she said.

"A small turtle that's a hatchling that's about the size of a toonie, they're adorable … but there's so many more factors that go into this, and there's not a lot of strong education around it."

Fox has willed her turtle to the North Mountain Animal Sanctuary, where she volunteers.

The non-profit organization in the Annapolis Valley was founded 10 years ago as a haven for farm animals, but is now taking in more abandoned pets like rabbits, hedgehogs and guinea pigs.

Co-founder Amanda Dainow said while they've agreed to care for Mr. T, "it's an exceptional circumstance."

"We are unfortunately very full, so it's not that we normally recommend people leave animals to us in their will. But we know [Fox] and we have some turtles ourselves and have some experience caring for them," she said.

What to do if you have a turtle or find one

Even though the sanctuary is at full capacity, Dainow encourages people to reach out if they don't know what to do with their pet turtles. She said they can work with other local organizations to try and find them a home.

Conrad-Martin, meanwhile, advises people who already own an exotic species of turtle to contact the provincial government at wildlife@novascotia.ca to find out their options and how to get a permit. 

She also said anyone who comes across a turtle in the wild should let scientists know using the iNaturalist app so they can track how many are left and how they're doing.

Amanda Dainow, co-founder and president of the North Mountain Animal Sanctuary, talks about the animals they take in. Plus hear from a woman who has willed her pet turtle to the sanctuary. 8:17

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning and Phlis McGregor

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