Tony the (Box) Turtle Finds a Hospitable New Home

By Bonnie Brown

A surprisingly endearing non human member of the Wild Bunch family is neither wild nor is he a pet. We do not hold him; we did not raise him; and, sometimes, days will pass between sightings of him. His name is Tony and he is a box turtle. He arrived at Erika Yery’s about 2 years ago and has made her large fenced in backyard his home ever since. (Erika is a longtime wildlife rehabilitator who, while known far and wide for her raccoon rehabilitation work, has always had a special place in her heart for box turtles.) Whenever we encounter Tony, he never fails to make us smile. This is Tony the Turtle’s story. It is also the story of the challenges facing all box turtles.

Tony’s arrival into our lives began with Pat Crusenberry. Pat lives in Erika’s neighborhood and serves on the Board of Directors of Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation, the organization which Erika founded several years ago. She is a real estate agent. Above all, though, Pat is an ardent animal lover and protector.

A couple of years ago, Pat went to the condominium of a young man who wanted to discuss selling his home. I will call the young man “Chuck.” Living at the condo were Chuck, his roommate, and their menagerie, which included 1 big dog, 1 tiny dog, 3 cats, and a 5 foot iguana. But the animal that captured Pat’s attention was a box turtle in a small terrarium. Pat learned that the turtle was sometimes taken out of his tiny enclosure and allowed to roam around the condo. She also learned that when the turtle was out, the large dog liked to carry it around in his mouth.

Chuck told Pat that 2 years earlier, he had come across the turtle in the middle of a road near a large wetland area. Unfortunately, instead of just helping the turtle across the road, Chuck brought it home. Pat believed that Chuck was kind hearted and well intentioned but she felt very sorry for the turtle. She told Chuck her concerns and explained what she felt the turtle needed.

When Pat returned to the condo a month later, she was surprised to discover that Chuck had constructed a huge dirt-filled sandbox, complete with foliage and a water source, on top of his white wall-to-wall dining room carpet for the turtle to live in. While a vast improvement, this was still not an ideal situation for the turtle. And, the condo was going to be put on the market soon. Clearly, having a large “sandbox” in one’s dining room is rarely a big selling point. Pat persuaded Chuck to allow her to give the turtle to a wildlife rehabilitator who could provide it with a more natural life. Because the turtle had been kept in captivity for some time, turning it loose was not a responsible option. And, thus, the turtle was brought to Erika’s.

Erika immediately named the new arrival Tony and put him in an area beside her house that was surrounded by a low fence. This way, she could observe him, provide him with food and water, and gradually acclimate him to a life of increased freedom. Tony, however, had a different schedule in mind. He dug out in short order and released himself to the large backyard which contains the raccoons’ outdoor cages, trees, a patio, terracing, landscaping, and a hillside tomato patch.

Eventually, the escapee was spotted marching around the yard. My first encounter with him occurred one day when I was in the large raccoon cage handing out treats to the raccoons, which were pursuing a variety of activities. Simultaneously, every single raccoon became motionless and intently focused on something. I looked to see what had caused this unusual reaction. They were riveted on a point just beyond the back of their cage near their food area. There is a narrow passageway between the back of the cage and the high fence that separates Erika’s property from that of her neighbor. I discovered that the big attraction was Tony the Turtle eating leftovers that had fallen through the cage wire.

Now, we often encounter Tony by the raccoon cages as we are bringing out dishes of food for the raccoons. When this happens, we give Tony a good sampling of the raccoons’ fruits, vegetables, cat food, dog food, and other culinary delights. It is amusing to watch him chow down with gusto. Sometimes, Erika also shares her tomatoes with Tony; sometimes, he helps himself.

Erika has rescued many box turtles over the years and, therefore, is very familiar with their characteristics and needs. The rest of us, although familiar with the species, have learned a lot about them and their perilous situation as a result of our coming to know Tony. Following is some of what we have learned about box turtles and how best to help them. Later, I will tell you about an interesting new development in Tony’s world.

Some Background on Box Turtles

Box turtles in the U.S. are divided into two species: eastern and western box turtles. Eastern box turtles are found throughout the southeast and north to Michigan and Massachusetts. Western box turtles are found west of the Mississippi to Colorado and New Mexico. Tony is an eastern box turtle, which is one of the most familiar species of land-based turtles. His ancestors existed more than 200 million years ago.

Eastern box turtles are small to medium in size. Adults have a maximum length of about 8 inches and a domed carapace (upper shell). A key characteristic is their hinged plastron (lower shell) which can be almost completely shut to exclude predators. They are highly variable in shell shape, pattern, and coloration. The domed shell can be tan, brown, black, or olive. Older turtles’ shells are often smooth, while juveniles’ shells may have concentric growth rings.

It can be difficult for someone unfamiliar with box turtles to determine their sex. Two features that are used to sex box turtles are upper shell shape and tail length. Males generally have longer and wider tails than females and slightly flatter carapaces. Two other features useful in sexing box turtles are eye color and plastron concavity. Typically, males have very orange or bright red irises and a slightly concave plastron while females have yellowish brown or dark red irises and a flat plastron.

Preferred Habitats

The eastern box turtle’s habitat varies but it prefers open woodlands, meadows, and wetland areas with good cover. Most develop a permanent home range that may be no larger than a football field. Box turtles forage during the day. At dusk, they dig a shallow bed in loose soil or leaf material. Because its body is intolerant of high temperatures, it looks for shady places to burrow in during the mid day heat. In cold climates, they hibernate through the winter in loose soil at a depth of about 2 feet.

Preferred Foods

Box turtles eat almost anything, plant or animal, that they can fit into their mouth. Younger ones are more carnivorous. As they grow older, their diet shifts to more plant material. Favorite foods include insects, worms, slugs, fruits and berries, mushrooms, and even carrion.

Life Cycle

Box turtles are among the longest lived and slowest reproducing species in the world. New hatchlings are little more than 1 inch long. Young turtles often stay hidden until they are at least 5 years old. By that age, their once soft shells have hardened and they are less vulnerable to predators. They grow slowly, reaching sexual maturity at around 7 years of age. Females are capable of storing sperm from one mating for up to 4 years, thereby allowing them to lay eggs for several seasons without mating again. Mature females will lay 3 to 6 eggs in a shallow nest. Incubation takes place over 75 – 90 days depending on climate conditions.

If they can survive their early years, the box turtle has few natural predators. Its lifespan in the wild is between 25 and 40 years of age. Some have been estimated to be more than 100 years old.

Conservation Concerns

Although box turtles are still fairly common over much of their range, their future is far from certain. They are slow to mature and have few young. The biggest threats to adult box turtles are human-related. Many are hit by cars. Many are killed by lawn mowers, tractors, and other farm equipment. New development destroys their habitat and bulldozers crush them or bury them alive.

Another concern is their capture for the pet trade or, as was the case with Tony, their being picked up and taken home by a misguided human. Such activities can have a devastating impact on the individual turtles as well as on the overall wild population. Although a female will lay hundreds of eggs over her lifetime, only 2 or 3 will hatch and survive to adulthood. As box turtles are killed or taken as pets, there are fewer adults to breed, fewer offspring, and a resulting overall population decline. An additional problem is that relocated box turtles have an instinct that impels them to try to return to their home area, a journey fraught with many perils.

  1. Do not take box turtles from the wild to be pets. It is not good for the turtle and it throws off the delicate balance of the wild population.
  2. Never release a pet box turtle into the wild unless you know precisely where it came from. They will likely not survive their search for their home area and may introduce diseases to the wild turtles they encounter.
  3. f you see a box turtle crossing the road and it is safe for you to do so, take it to the other side of the road in the direction it was heading.
  4. Help protect the box turtles’ habitats. This not only aids box turtles but also the other species that share their space.

How Scientists Are Trying to Help

Several studies are underway to try to help box turtles survive. For example, this spring, the Virginia Commonwealth University began tracking box turtles to learn when and where they travel in their home area. Later in the study, box turtles from other areas will be put in an outdoor pen, held several months, and then released. The thinking is that these turtles may decide to stay put rather than try to return home. The idea is that if this hold and release method works, it could show conservationists how to move box turtles from development sites before the deadly bulldozers move in.

Tessa Joins Tony’s Backyard World

A few weeks ago, an adult female eastern box turtle was turned in to an area animal shelter. It was not appropriate for her to be returned to the wild so she came to Erika’s. Erika named her Tessa and “released” her in Tony’s backyard territory. Tony continues to show up by the raccoon cages looking for handouts and leftovers. Both Tony and Tessa visit the tomato patch regularly. So far, the two rescued box turtles have usually been seen separately around the yard. Just recently, however, Erika saw them mating. We haven’t yet spotted Tessa burying any eggs, but we have our fingers crossed. Clearly, we have become very fond and protective of these gentle, fascinating creatures.