Turtles are great! The Pond Gnome has lots of clients who adore their turtle pets. And just like any pet, turtles need certain conditions to keep them happy, healthy, and safe. We don’t profess to be herpetologists by any stretch, but we can help with some basics for our area of the country, as well as some references for more information.
Most Common Breeds Kept in Arizona
Turtles are well-adapted to our desert climate, and most species will live about 30 years given a proper habitat and diet. The most common turtle species we see in backyard ponds are the Red-Eared Slider. They are native to the southeastern United States and northeastern Mexico.
The second most commonly seen backyard turtle is the Mississippi Map Turtle, which is native to the Mississippi watershed, as the name suggests. These two species likely make up 80% of the pet turtles in Arizona.
Our native species is the Arizona Mud Turtle. There are three species of mud turtles that are found in and near creeks, rivers, lakes, stock tanks, and ciénegas in central and southeastern Arizona. Mud Turtles can be relatively common in their preferred habitats. A hunting license is required to lawfully collect and possess Mud Turtles in Arizona.
Security and Safety for Their Health and our Native Environment
The most important thing to remember about keeping exotic pets like turtles, is to keep them properly contained. Escaped exotic turtles do a lot of damage to our native species. Allowing them to escape into natural rivers and streams is an environmental disaster of sorts.
Proper fencing designed to contain them from both climbing out, and digging out, is crucial. Also keep in mind they are not the top of the food chain. If you live in an area with racoons, you must also keep the racoons out of your turtle habitat, or build you turtle pond large enough for your turtle pets to escape predation.
Turtles are omnivores. They eat whatever they can catch or find, including insects, small fish, frogs, and many aquatic plants, as well as dead fish or frogs. This makes an organic water garden a utopian environment for them! Just make sure it is large and diverse enough to handle their foraging activities, and the biological filters are designed to handle the ammonia production of your turtle pets.
Of course, lots of folks like to hand-feed their turtles various veggies. We know of a few really spoilt turtles whose owners interact with them every single day with treats and attention, and swear that they come when called.
Turtles will spend most of their life in the water. When active, they can hold their breath under water for up to 30 minutes! During the colder months, they can enter a state of torpor and remain under water for months at a time! Still, they should have a sunny rock to bask on in the middle of their pond where they can feel safe while soaking up the warm sunshine. They should also have a space of terrestrial dirt, and maybe event composted mulch and a shrub or two, to hang out under once in a while.
Turtles need a body of water to hang out in to stay hydrated. They cannot survive long without a healthy, organic, body of water. Having a filtered pond big enough to swim in, to hide in, and within which to forage is optimal. If you relegate them to an enclosure with a small water tub, know that the water in the tub will need to be changed frequently as turtles defecate mostly in the water. Thus, a properly built filtration system designed to handle their output is essential if you want to also enjoy that pond aesthetically.
Responsible Turtle Parenting
As with any pet, you should design and build a good habitat for the creature before bringing it home. Many folks get a turtle on a whim, or by gift, and don’t have a good environment in place, causing suffering, and sometimes even death. All the good intentions in the world fall short of proper planning.
Resources for More TURTLE Information
Arizona Game and Fish Department: http://www.gf.state.az.us/
Arizona Herpetological Association: http://www.azreptiles.com
Online field guide to reptiles and amphibians of Arizona: http://www.reptilesofaz.com/
Reptiles of Arizona: http://reptilesofaz.org/turtles.htm