When customers think of reptiles, most people tend to think of snakes or lizards, chameleons or geckos. However, despite their continual popularity and their fixture-status among reptile owners, turtles are often an overlooked second-cousin to various other species and varieties of reptiles. However, a knowledgeable store owner can easily translate our proverbial “heroes on the half shell” into a bevy of happy customers and an even happier bottom line.
The term “turtles” naturally covers turtles, terrapins, box turtles and tortoises—the 327 reptile species of the order Testudines. Turtles can range in size and scale from tiny aquarium-dwellers to the giant tortoises of the Galapagos Islands. Within the span of our discussion here, however, we’ll focus primarily on freshwater turtles, which are the most prevalent within the pet trade.
Russ Gurley, author of “Turtles in Captivity,” director of the Turtle and Tortoise Preservation Group (TTPG) and a founding member of the American Federation of Herpetoculturists, had much to say about these creatures. He encourages stores to include turtles in their reptile sales, as “turtles make excellent pets, and in recent years, breeders across the United States are not only providing healthy pet turtles, but they are also helping in the worldwide fight to save turtles from extinction.”
He cites water pollution and habitat destruction, in addition to the use of turtles as food and as part of the folk medicine trade within Asia.
“The rewards of keeping a turtle in the home are diverse,” Gurley said. “Watching these ancient reptiles, from since around the days of the dinosaurs, swimming in a beautiful enclosure in your home, is certainly worth the time, work and expense.”
Turtle species within the pet trade cover a wide variety of creatures. The most common turtles found within the pet trade include sliders, African and Indonesian side-necks, and the various forms of American basking turtles such as map turtles, cooters, softshell turtles, and even captive-bred snapping turtles. While any of these species may make for good pets, a savvy store owner must be sure of several things before offering a given species.
Pet store owners must be aware of the laws governing turtle sales within their country and state. On a federal level, the USDA enforces the Public Health Service Act of 1975, which states clearly that turtles must have a carapace length of greater than four inches in order to be sold as pets.
The reasoning behind this law comes primarily from turtles’ propensity to carry the Salmonella bacterium, due to their aquatic nature. Individual states may also have additional statutes which apply to turtle and tortoise sales. Always be sure that your store is not only up to date, but also in compliance with all state and federal regulations.
Note that Gurley’s organization, the TTPG, has formally submitted a petition to amend the Public Health Service Act to better allow for the breeding and preservation of turtles within the pet hobby. The TTPG has taken great pains to lobby for reptile conservation and for the promotion of captive breeding as a conservation tool. Its work can serve as both a template and a great resource if a store owner is facing legislative difficulties.
Another major issue is that of animal growth potential for captive turtles. Certain species can grow to significant sizes. Softshells, for instance, can grow to be larger than a manhole cover. Keeping these turtles in a smaller tank to control their size can prove to be detrimental to their health, so retailers should consider this when stocking their stores.
Adult female red-eared sliders can grow to be up to 16 inches in length, but they are particularly popular due to their docile nature as well as the numbers being produced at turtle farms in the U.S.
In recent years, however, red-eared sliders have become an invasive species as pet owners unable to care for them turn them loose in local ponds or streams. As with all reptiles, be sure that you are able to properly educate your customers on their pet.
Turtles, on the whole, are amphibious creatures, as they live both on land and in water, though they breathe air and are incapable of breathing underwater. Pet turtle enclosures require a good balance of raised land for basking under a heat and UVB-emitting lamp and a deeper watery area for swimming; as such, pet store owners have a unique opportunity to market materials that are necessary for both portions of a turtle’s habitat.
While turtles are not necessarily the most profitable animals in terms of animal feed, they more than make up for this shortcoming in terms of their aquarium habitats.
“Turtles can be expensive to set up properly,” Gurley noted.
A turtle enclosure requires a suitable tank (typically five to six times the turtle’s shell length is ideal), lighting elements, a water filtration system, raised areas for basking, plus any number of decorations. This can provide for unique opportunities for a creative pet retailer, provided that you’re willing to put in a bit of extra effort for a turtle enclosure.
A beautiful aquatic turtle enclosure may take up a bit of floor space, but the excitement and inspiration for your customers will no doubt pay dividends. While many pet owners are content to relegate their turtles to blank, empty tanks, a bit of extra effort and creativity can really show off the plants, wood and rock hides, and other commercially available decorations that can make an enclosure into a thing of beauty.
While often overlooked in the face of bearded dragons and leopard geckos, turtles fill a phenomenal niche that can’t be overstated. Retailers should consider them when planning their next store attraction!