Virginia's wildlife agency is proposing a ban on keeping box turtles as pets. The move is aimed primarily at poachers, but it also affects everyday children and adults. This turtle was photographed crawling through Charles City County Nov. 1, 2012. (J.D. Kleopfer/ Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)

Virginia’s wildlife agency is proposing major restrictions on keeping native reptiles and amphibians as pets. The proposals would ban the keeping of box turtles altogether. 

Box turtles are colorful, softball-sized reptiles that have been popular pets for generations of Virginians. But wildlife officials say the animals have become imperiled by people who pluck them from the wild.

“Wild animals belong in the wild,” said J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, or reptile expert.

The proposals by the state Department of Wildlife Resources are aimed mainly at poachers, who can take animals in huge numbers. A particularly pretty box turtle can bring $20,000 in China, according to the agency.

But the proposals also would make it illegal for a child or adult to take a box turtle home.

“I guarantee you, this is controversial,” said Larry Mendoza of Henrico County. “I’ve heard from so many people about this, and they’re not happy.”

Mendoza is a former president of the Virginia Herpetological Society, a nonprofit scientific and educational group dedicated to reptiles and amphibians. 

At a time when many children are glued to phones and computer screens, Mendoza said, a box turtle ban would push young people farther away from nature, eliminating encounters that might inspire future conservationists.

“Being able to touch these animals and keep them as pets and study them at home, I think that is valuable. Why do you want to stop that?”

On the other hand, Travis Anthony of Henrico said the best thing to do with box turtles, and even more-common reptiles, is to catch and release them. 

“Take some great pictures, interact with it,” then say goodbye, said Anthony, the current president of the Herpetological Society. The group has taken no position on the proposed restrictions. 

State and federal laws protect many mammals and birds — you can’t have a pet bobcat, for example. But Virginia has long allowed the catching and keeping of common reptiles — snakes, lizards and turtles — and amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders.

Too often, critics say, these pets outlive their welcome and are given away, flushed or turned loose in places the animals don’t recognize.

Reptiles and amphibians should not be treated as “second-class-citizen wildlife,” said Kleopfer, a member of the wildlife department’s staff. “We at the department are trying to change that attitude that these are disposable pets.”

Everyone agrees that box turtles are special. The docile animals have bright eyes, anatomically fixed grins and dark shells highlighted with yellow or orange splotches.  Also called woodland box turtles or eastern box turtles, the land-dwelling creatures clamber through forests like little Army tanks. When scared, the turtle completely closes its shell, tucking its head, legs and tail into the tight “box.”

“I’ve never met a person who hasn’t been happy to see a box turtle,” Anthony said.

The proposed ban on pet box turtles is part of a larger effort by the wildlife department to strengthen regulations to protect reptiles and amphibians.

Another proposal would slash the number of common, native reptiles and amphibians that people can keep as pets. Now, a pet owner can keep up to five of most species — for example, five garter snakes, plus five bullfrogs, and so on. The new rules would cut that to one — literally one animal, not one of each species — per household.   

The Eastern gartersnake, the official state snake. (Virginia Herpetological Society

The current  five-per-person limit is so weak that five people in a house — say, a poacher and four relatives — can legally have 25 animals of a single species, Kleopfer said. “It’s next to impossible for law enforcement to say, ‘Are these the same 25 box turtles you had here a week ago?’ “

If the rules are adopted, anyone who keeps a pet box turtle or keeps more than one common reptile or amphibian could be found guilty of a Class 3 misdemeanor and fined up to $500, according to the wildlife department. At the wildlife department’s discretion, the possession of multiple animals over the limits could represent multiple offenses. For example, having three box turtles could draw fines totaling $1,500. And the owner’s animals could be confiscated. 

Mendoza said the proposed one-animal-per-household limit should be adjusted. Otherwise, for example, a child couldn’t keep tadpoles in an aquarium.

“The tadpole thing” might require a tweak, said Kleopfer. “Nobody’s going to come after a kid’s tadpoles.”

Rare species such as sea turtles are already protected. Also, the new proposals apply only to native Virginia animals — not to, say, tropical tortoises bought as pets.

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Under the proposed rules, people who have box turtles and other native reptiles and amphibians now could keep their animals as long as they disclose the pets to the wildlife department.

The public can comment on the proposed pet restrictions through Monday (May 10). The state Board of Wildlife Resources will consider adopting the rules May 27. The changes would take effect July 1.

Virginia “has seen an increase in the illegal trafficking of reptiles, turtles in particular, over the past several years,” the wildlife department says in a statement with the proposed rules. “This trend is not limited to Virginia, but is occurring throughout much of the eastern United States.”

Illegal turtle trafficking is a “global crisis,” Kleopfer said. Poached turtles often go to Asian countries, where they become pets or ingredients in traditional medicine, among other fates, he said.

Other states along the East Coast, which is flush with turtle species, are also considering new protections. In South Carolina, for example, Gov. Henry McMaster recently signed a bill to ban the commercial trade of native turtles there.

The box turtle’s life cycle is a blueprint for trouble. The animal can take 7 to 10 years to reach sexual maturity, it produces just a handful of eggs, few of which survive predators. The turtles overcome these reproductive drawbacks with longevity — they can live 100 years or more, though they rarely hit that lifespan in the wild.

“When you pull out these large adults, you take out the best reproducers, the best animals,” Kleopfer said.

Box turtles are not officially endangered, but experts say they are imperiled by development that destroys their woodland homes, by cars that crush them on roads and by people who catch them.

Mendoza said it’s wise to crack down on poachers, but he said he has seen little evidence that everyday people keeping pet box turtles is a major problem. “I guarantee you that’s not what’s driving down the population.”

Mendoza has about 40 snakes, a Gila monster and a “rescued” box turtle at home. He gives reptile talks to school kids and various groups. He has a state permit to exhibit the animals.

However,  Kleopfer said there’s an ethical problem with keeping box turtles.

“You’ve got an animal that’s been wandering around in the woods its entire life. Suddenly you grab it out of the wild and stick it in a 10-gallon aquarium for your own personal enjoyment. That’s borderline inhumane.”

Mendoza said box turtles can be kept in outdoor pens. “They make great pets if you know what you are doing.”

Anthony, who keeps three rescued box turtles, pointed out another issue: The animals are extremely attached to their wild homes. “So if you take a box turtle out of your local park, and you take it home miles away, and you decide a couple of days later, ‘You know what, I don’t want this turtle,’ and you just set it outside behind your house, it’s going to try to walk back to where it thinks its home is.” That turtle faces almost certain death from cars, starvation or other threats.

Supporters of the proposed reptile and amphibian protections include the Wildlife Center of Virginia, a prominent wild-animal hospital in Waynesboro. 

Ed Clark, the center’s president, said box turtles have complex diets that few people know how to provide. 

“When we get former pets, many have been on such calcium-deficient diets that their bones are almost transparent on X-rays,” Clark said. “They are starving to death, with a full stomach.”

A professional biologist, who asked not to be named to avoid getting publicly involved in the debate, said the state government is trying to protect nature by keeping people away from it.

“If we don’t have people who love nature, how are we ever going to preserve it?”

You can develop a love of nature without keeping wild animals in your house, Kleopfer said. “People don’t say, ‘I don’t like birds because I can’t go out and collect birds.’ “

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