Turtles and tortoises have often featured in legends and folklore, as well as being the subject of several superstitions. For example, in Hindu mythology, black, soft-shelled turtles are believed to represent the souls of dead sinners, who have been transformed into reptiles by a 13th century saint. The Thais believe that if you free a turtle, you will find relief from sadness and upset, while the Vietnamese believe that if you see a turtle crossing the street, your plans will be delayed. The Chinese believe patting the shell of a turtle or tortoise will bring you luck and in parts of Angola, it is believed that putting a tortoise shell underneath your door will help you warn off a rival.
Because turtles and tortoises have long age spans, they are often involved in superstitions regarding longevity – for example, keeping a pet tortoise in the home is believed to ensure that the longevity of the family patriarch and tortoise meat is believed to have healing powers, giving long life to you, just like the tortoise.
Folklore and superstition aside, however, there are also many popular myths regarding pet turtles, their natural history and their care. Here are 10 of the most common ones:
1) Turtles are easy pets – actually, turtles like most reptiles are very challenging pets and not really recommended for the beginner or casual pet owner. They can often grow to an impractical size and require special indoor housing, as well as having complicated dietary requirements and habits. Many species will not survive unless care for by a genuine enthusiast with thoroughly knowledge of that particular species and understands its special needs. They are definitely not good pets for children, especially due to the high risk of Salmonella and other infection, and are more suited to being an expensive hobby than an average household pet.
2) Turtles and tortoises only live about 5 years – turtles and tortoises are one of the most long-lived species on the planet. They are an ancient group of animals, many species virtually unchanged from when they first evolved, even before the dinosaurs. Turtles and tortoises in captivity regularly live to 50 years or more so if responsible owners need to plan for their pet tortoises and turtles in their wills.
3) Unlike cats and dogs, turtles and tortoises don’t really need veterinary care – wrong again! In fact, because of their slow metabolism, turtles and tortoises will usually not show signs of being sick until the illness has progressed very far and is quite severe. Therefore, it is crucial that you have a knowledgeable vet who is experienced with reptiles and can help you recognise the danger signs. Symptoms to look out for include swollen or closed eyes, remaining in one place, lack of movement, loss of appetite and discharge from nose or eyes.
4) The best place to buy turtles and tortoise sis from the pet store – this is the worst place to buy them. Even common pets like small rodents should come from reputable breeders or specialist suppliers and this is even more true of ‘exotic’ pets like reptiles. Many animals that pass through pet stores have been illegally trapped from the wild or obtained from unscrupulous “farms” – about 90% will die in transit and the remainder will often be stressed, weak and diseased. Some animal shelters or rescues may have turtles and tortoises looking for a good home or do your research and contact a reptile enthusiasts group to get the contact details of good, ethical suppliers.
5) All turtles will borrow underground to hibernate – this is true for some species, such as box turtles, but other species will have very different habits. Some will burrow deep into a pile of leaves, others even hibernate under water! The most important thing is that the tortoise or turtle is healthy and “heavy” (full of food reserves) before it is allowed to enter hibernation.
6) When turtles get annoyed, they will hiss like snakes – this is not true hissing but rather the sound a turtle or tortoise will make as it pulls its head in quickly when it senses danger. This action forces air out and comes across as a hissing noise.
7) Turtles can eat anything – no, each species of turtle or tortoise will have its own specific dietary requirements, although several species may share similar tastes and nutritional requirements. Most will need to eat live food, like snails, fish and worms and you should avoid feeding them processed human food which would not be found in the wild (e.g.. hot dogs).
8) Those cute tiny water turtles will always remain that size – this is one of the biggest misconceptions, leading many people to buy these turtles which turn out to be very unsuitable pets Actually, those tiny turtles are very young and they will definitely grow much bigger as they mature.
9) To get rid of Salmonella germs on a turtle, just wash it – unfortunately, this does not work. No matter how “clean” you think your pet turtle is (and how often you “wash” it) – it is still very likely to be carrying the deadly Salmonella bacterium. Therefore, it is essential that you always wash your hands after handling the turtle or tortoise and that its equipment/housing is kept out of the kitchen. In fact, many consider turtles and tortoises a danger in homes with children under 6 years old.
10) Turtles only need artificial lighting – turtles need real sunlight to remain healthy, grow normally and maintain healthy, strong bones. Without proper sunlight, they will get metabolic bone disease – a severe condition when the bones become weakened and “disintegrate”. It is important to let turtles and tortoises have time to bask in the sun.