Lots of people are fascinated with exotic creatures. As more and more strange and wonderful creatures are becoming captive-bred, and have become more readily-available through pet stores and breeders, it has become easier than ever to acquire some pretty darn interesting pets these days.
Sadly, while turtles have been a popular kids' first pet for generations, they still are pretty misunderstood.
For instance, many people don't have the faintest idea what makes a turtle a turtle and not a tortoise.
Keeping it simple, while both of these reptiles are vertebrates and breathe air, turtles spend most of their time in water, while tortoises are strictly land animals. Turtles are living dinosaurs - fossil records of sea turtles date back to 250 million years ago. Is it any wonder that so many cultures revere them as a symbol of wisdom and longevity?
So, your son or daughter really, really wants a turtle. Which type should you get?
My vote would be none. I would instead encourage a tortoise, which does not require an aquarium or pond, and, depending on the species, has very little in the way of space requirements. A small species of tortoise (we have a Hermann's Tortoise) is advised. Look at the END size, not the size you get them as hatchlings - for instance, Sulcata tortoises grow to a very large (and destructive) size from a nice, neat little baby size. Do lots of research before you buy (or adopt).
A popular question that always pops up in conversations about turtles: if I get a turtle for my kids, will it give us all Salmonella? Concerns about infectious agents being harbored by pets is certainly justified. But it is important to note that bacteria, and specifically Salmonella, can be present in the stool of many animals, not just turtles. In fact, there also are many parasites that are carried by animals that can be contagious to people - which is the reason veterinarians ask for stool samples so often.
Regarding bacteria, there were many sicknesses earlier this year due to Salmonella spread to people from a bunch of pet hamsters.
This bacteria is typically spread through contact with the feces of the animals, which in rodents is a constant, as they defecate frequently.
Turtles have been known to harbor the bacteria, and because they need to have water for swimming, and they defecate in the water, the turtle can end up swimming in a nice, concentrated Salmonella soup. This is especially true, since a lot of folks don't have a very good system for water quality control set up for their pet turtles.
Contact with the water and the turtle without washing one's hands (or in the case of very small children, putting turtles directly into their mouths) will put people at risk for contracting Salmonella, among other types of infections.
Tortoises eat vegetation, green leafys mostly, along with some grass hays and weeds, making them cheaper and easier to feed than turtles, which are carnivorous at a young age, though do eat more vegetation and less meat-fish as they mature. If you're squeamish about offering live fish, crayfish, snails and various insects as food, you probably don't want to get a turtle.
Tortoises live on land, but need a water bowl big enough to climb in and out of, yet shallow enough not to get stuck in (they can drown). They need a basking lamp and a source of ultra violet light (natural in summer is fine, but winter requires an artificial light). I recommend newspaper on the bottom of the cage, as it is relatively clean, cheap and absorbent. Tortoises are messy, and they need to have their enclosures cleaned almost daily, so this is a consideration. Salmonella always is a concern, especially if those handling the tortoise are not inclined to use good hygiene.
Tortoises are relatively laid-back, quiet, curious and friendly, rarely biting anybody, though some have been known to be nasty to other tortoises, so don't feel compelled to get your new tortoise a "friend."
Be aware that tortoises live a long time - I have met a few that are older than 50 years old, so invest wisely, and be sure your child is prepared to take the little guy off to college and beyond with him, or you might be leaving him to someone in your will.
I have both a tortoise and turtle in my home, and monetarily, I'd say I've invested maybe $300 to $350, into the tortoise and his ongoing care, food included, over the last four years.
The "free" red-eared slider, by comparison, has cost me a bazillion dollars, and counting. Love both. It is very cool to watch the turtle, as she is far more active than the tortoise, always busy swimming around in her 93-gallon aquarium in my living room.
But her tank (complete with a dozen goldfish and some various other fish she hasn't eaten) is a minor obsession of mine, and not a project for the non-enthusiast. Definitely not the sort of thing that a kid younger than 14 or 15 could, or should be handling themselves without a parent that is seriously interested, informed and invested in the project.
I still have to chide my son to remember to provide his tortoise (in his room) with fresh water and to clean his cage more often - and I usually end up doing it myself. My son, now 11 years old, got the tortoise when he was 7.
The good news is that cleaning and caring for the tortoise is something he can handle himself, now, (with some supervision and parental nagging).
Lots of exotic pets either die within the first year because of husbandry issues, or are relinquished to rescues, animal shelters or given away because the folks who bought them originally lost interest.
So while lots of kids think they want these pets, they often don't know the level of commitment involved in taking care of them (not to mention the level of stinky messiness these animals can produce) and the responsibility subsequently falls to the parents. If you aren't enthusiastic about taking care of turtles, tortoises and the like, I'd delay.
I'd also increase the children's levels of commitment by insisting they research the care and proper husbandry for any pets they want (and doing so yourself, as you will need to check in with them on what they are doing). Many enthusiasts and biologists start out this way - being denied their dream pets - until they are knowledgeable, focused and mature enough to care for them properly.
Whatever pet(s) you decide to try, the bottom line is that YOU will be the one taking the ultimate responsibility for it, guaranteed, so be sure you know how much of a commitment you can provide.
And one last thing - those of us who have experience keeping little, furry rodents as pets are also familiar with their remarkable abilities to escape - some never to be found.
But, as Alex Haley once said, "Anytime you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you know he had some help."
Food for thought.
Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.