With the Grain
Box Turtle Habitat
Land stewards, pet lovers, and even casual hikers can do unintended harm. Good intentions don't help a dead turtle. Enforce a few simples rules, including all your grade school lessons: be careful, be clean, be cautious...

For more box turtle stewardship guidelines, see Habitat from Humanity.

I need protection from people--all kinds.

Be careful with power tools.
If you mow grassy areas, take care. In Lawnmower vs. Terrapene, the turtle dies. (Read the manual: you should walk the area first to move potential flying objects out of your path. Turtles are potential flying objects.) The animal will not magically be thrown clear. You will either mangle the animal, or chip out large chunks of its shell.

Assuming you don't puree the owner, you can sometimes find the missing shell fragments. A veteran veterinarian can sometimes reassemble larger fragments. That patched-up animal can sometimes survive the summer. However, if you miss on any count, death in the wild is hideous.

The horror is the same as injury under the wheels of a passing car. Every parasitic insect is free to lay eggs inside the fractured shell. The turtle is helpless to shoo or remove them. For many days maggots consume the animal, organ by organ. The only merciful hope is that a roving raccoon will reach in and literally tear the turtle's heart out.

You'd rather avoid being the cause? Winter mowing is preferred over summer, and may help other flora and fauna. If you must cut wild areas during warmer months, use a sickle bar mower (side-to-side motion) to reduce risk. If you must use a rotary mower, use a small one that is easy to control. (Also, a conventional lawn is worse than a desert, biologically, but still tempting for turtles to tour. So, avoid all pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.)

If you mow, no matter how carefully, some turtles may be injured. To reduce the risk, pick a strategy and stay with it. Either 1) cut the grass often to keep turf short (this permits you to see and avoid at least adult turtles), or 2) set your mower at least four inches high, five if possible (they'll try to duck!). Always walk the area first. Watch ahead of you, or have a lookout walk well ahead. Cut on a dry day, at midday, to avoid turtle activity.

Overall, if you take a heavy, rotary tractor into sunny, tall grass on a warm, dewey morning--and cut everything short--you're going to kill someone. Note that this describes official policy for your county road commission (as if roadways alone weren't bad enough). Pay attention to their roadside mowing schedule, or listen for them, then get out a few minutes ahead of those big rigs. They're deadly.

Wash your hands.
Box turtles get colds and other viruses. Yes, herps get herpes. They suffer from bacterial infections, particularly of the respiratory tract and ears. They contract pneumonia. However, there seem to have been no study to determine whether humans are susceptible to the same rhinovirus, pneumococcal or other bacteria. Therefore, you should wash your hands after you handle a turtle, right? Well... half right. What about the bugs you give to turtle? Who's at greater risk? First, imagine you pick up a box turtle. (Why are you handling a wild animal? Would you pick up a a raccoon? Why not leave the turtle alone?) This little, gentle animal doesn't pick its nose, fight with others, or even scratch its bottom. The organisms on that turtle's shell were probably on the tree you just leaned against, the rock you threw, or the flower you picked. In any case, those bugs are probably common to your home and your body--and your immune system. As a human, if you do get sick, would relatives, doctors or others notice, and care for you until you get well?

Now imagine you're the box turtle, and you get picked up. (Why are you subjected to this? Why would a human assault you? Haven't you left everyone else alone?) This big, hairy animal blows its nose on its fingers, shakes hands with total strangers, and touches its rear end after defecating. The organisms on that human's hands may have flown in yesterday from Tokyo with a business associate, or erupted from the nursery school diaper pail this morning. In any case, those bugs are probably new to your home and your body--and your immune system. As a turtle, if you do get sick, would relatives, doctors and others notice, and care for you until you get well?

Who's at greater risk? Give the turtles a chance: wash your hands.

Be wary of strangers.
We all understand the appeal of keeping a box turtle as a pet, even briefly. The turtle does not understand it. For each thing you find curious about them, they find something terrorizing about you.

OK, perhaps you're beyond such temptation. Any other person wandering for one day in decent habitat can carry away half the population. Kids typically will not return the turtle when they're bored with it. Decades of that turtle's intimate knowledge of home range food and cover is useless in another setting. Unless a turtle's life is in immediate danger, you must not permit turtles to be removed from their home ranges.

Believe it or not, there are box turtle poachers. Don't confuse them with animal lovers. They collect wild turtles, and sell them for a few dollars each. Most of the unfortunate animals end up in pet stores, many overseas. Such abuse is a crime, literally and figuratively. State and Federal enforcement agencies report that the conditions for poached animals are often deadly and horrific.

Box turtles--remarkable, gentle creatures, who may live unaided for decades longer than your lifetime--can survive almost anything. That makes them an ideal commodity for cheap transport. A century and a half ago, we treated other humans this way. Enlightenment still escapes us.

During shipping, severe dehydration is common, and some containers cause asphyxiation. For turtles, extreme heat or cold--and living in one another's filth for days on end--may be lethal. Since it may take months to collect enough animals for a profitable shipment, some turtles will already be diseased or partially starved upon departure. Box turtles, wiser than many who persecute them, linger for days, stacked like cordwood in their own feces. (Here's hoping Satan will apply equivalent justice to the poachers!)

Beyond this insane cruelty, poaching is illegal under state, Federal, and even international law. If you see anyone removing a turtle from the wild, or frequenting good habitat with the right size container, take action! Keep calm: the person might be an experienced criminal... or a game warden.

If you suspect poaching, write down a license plate number and other data, and call law enforcement authorities. (In Michigan, a DNR Conservation Officer may respond.) If you have your machete or 12-gauge along, consider all options! Seriously, don't approach anyone unless you have them outnumbered, or are skilled enough to bluff your way through anything. Mere trespassers can be defensive and hostile. Poachers who have been arrested previously may be much worse.

When you approach a stranger in a turtle preserve, be calm. Don't talk about turtles. If you're addressing a poacher, you may unwittingly confirm the local gossip that attracted them. Or, you may trigger more secrecy on their part. At first, they will have no idea that you care about turtles, or even that you are aware of turtles' presence. (For all they know, you're their competition for the export market in snakes.) If they don't look or feel right, immediately contact authorities who can verify what's happening.

For more box turtle stewardship guidelines, see Habitat from Humanity.
With the Grain - - Box 517 - - Mattawan, Michigan - - 49017-0517 - - wtg@wtgrain.org

...head home now!
Reason to Plan Preservation Spoken Softly Waiting to Die