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Answering Googled Questions

“do box turtles bite”

Yes. Yes they do. On the other hand, they are turtles. They don’t move particularly quickly, and if you pick them up by the middle of their shell, between the front and back sets of legs, they can’t reach you with their head to bite. In fact, pretty much the only way you are going to get bitten by a box turtle is by putting your finger right in front of its nose and then waiting patiently for it to unbox, examine your finger, and decide to bite you. It might decide to just wander off, instead. Box turtles are pretty peaceful little guys.

This is by far one of the most popular questions, along with people looking for “why can’t I pet a service dog” or “when can I pet a service dog” (A: because the dog is working and doesn’t need you distracting it and B: never. Stop asking me. The answer is always no.) that gets people to my blog.

Just make very sure that the turtle you’re handling is a box turtle before handling it cavalierly. I do not trust the turtle-identification skills of city slickers and other reptile-naive folks. Snapping turtles look nothing whatsoever like box turtles, and are also incredibly aggressive. A big snapper can bite your finger clean off, and they can in fact reach you with their long snakey necks if you pick them up by the sides of the shell. So be very, very sure what kind of turtle you’re looking at before you touch it.

Last tip: always wash your hands after handling reptiles, wild or domestic, and never, ever lick a turtle or other reptile. You can get salmonella that way.

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Answering Googled Questions

“What happens if an Eastern Box Turtle bites you?”

Really? Someone is seriously googling this? Look, if you have been bitten by an Eastern Box Turtle, it is because you stuck your finger in front of its face and waited, patiently, sometimes for hours, until the turtle un-boxed and saw your finger, and then you wiggled your finger enticingly, like a worm, and got bitten.

All right, maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much. C’mon, guys, they are turtles. It is true that turtles can move pretty freaky fast when they want to, but it’s still not as fast as human reflexes. An EBT, unlike a snapping turtle, cannot reach its own sides with its mouth. All you have to do is keep your fingers behind its front legs and you are going to be totally safe.

But if, for some reason, you thought it was a brilliant idea to stick your finger in a box turtle’s mouth, clean it out really well and keep an eye on it for infection. EBTs will eat carrion when given the chance and most reptile mouths are kind of a cesspit of bacteria. So once the turtle lets go (this may take a while) you are at risk for infection.

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This is the kind of thing that only happens to me, Turtle Edition Part II

So I have a bunch of telcons today at work which meant I ducked out around 0820 to grab food for lunch. As I’m driving by an area that’s being developed, as in “all of the lovely second-growth forest cut down and the trees burned in big piles before the ground is totally leveled and a big-box store is built on it” I see three guys standing around looking at a small lump on the bit of road they’ve built. It’s a turtle.

Eastern box turtles, as people who have read my EBT posts before know, live their entire lives within about 600 feet of where they hatch. If you move them away from there and do not prevent them from trying to go home, they will try, and they will most likely die. And if you destroy that little patch of second-growth forest, well, they die. Slowly and painfully, since they have no idea where to find food and water and places to hide.

You know where this is going, right? I mean, what else was I supposed to do? Of course I pulled over and grabbed a box out of my car and smiled cheerfully at the nice gentlemen staring at the turtle and said “Let me just grab him real quick.” And then before they could recover from their confusion over a cane-wielding redheaded lady in a long skirt stealing their turtle, I hopped back in my car with him and drove away.

He’s very pretty, his front legs and head are marked with a vivid salmon-pink and he has bright, bright red eyes. Currently he’s hanging out in an Amazon box under my desk with some leafy greens from my salad. Sigh.

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Box Turtle Questions

I swear I get more box turtle hits off google…

“box turtle problem in my yard”
You probably do not actually have a box turtle problem. If you have box turtles in your yard, what you have are handy little beasts who will take care of your slug and snail problems for you, as well as keeping your hostas trimmed back. Please just let them be and enjoy the little buggers. This is, of course, provided they are wild box turtles wandering through. If a previous home owner has left you a legacy box turtle, well, that’s a whole nother pile of herpetological difficulty, now isn’t it. I highly recommend The Box Turtle Care and Conservation Webpage, run by Tess Cook, and also the super helpful and friendly people over at the Yahoo group Tess runs.

“relocating eastern box turtles”
“returning eastern box turtle to wild”
I keep harping on this: it’s difficult and the turtle is unlikely to survive it. If you cannot provide for the turtle yourself, the best bet is for you to find a wildlife rehabber or turtle rescue who can take the small scaly stalker in. It’s possible to relocate an EBT, but it involves knowing where the turtle is at all times and making sure it’s finding food, water, and the good hibernation places. Odds are good that if you’re trying it without slapping a GPS tracking device on the turtle and following its movements daily, the turtle will just die.

It’s far better to leave them where they are if at all possible, if they’re already in the wild. If this is a pet turtle who has lived in captivity for many years, you should just find it a home prepared to deal with the requirements of a pet box turtle, or a turtle rescue, seriously. Don’t sentence the turtle to death just dropping it in the woods somewhere.

“eastern box turtle safe to touch”
Well, for whom? You are unlikely to get diseases from the turtle unless you lick it, and you will have to go out of your way to get bitten by one, seriously. On the other hand, the turtle is going to find it stressful and unpleasant and that’s just mean. The best rule with wildlife is look, but don’t touch, and Eastern Box Turtles are wildlife. Unless the turtle is in imminent danger of death, just leave it alone, please.

In fact, if there’s one rule I wish I could get everyone to absorb re: turtles, it’s JUST LEAVE THEM ALONE. They take an enormous amount of specialized care to keep in captivity. You don’t even want to know what Jeremiah Swakhammer’s enclosure cost. They’re much, much better off living their little turtle lives in the wild as the Big Sky Turtle intended, without being petted, picked up, prodded at, chewed on by dogs, or otherwise harassed. Just let the little scaly bastards be.

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Answering Googled Questions

I am in England this week visiting my fiance and queuing these posts up beforehand.
An anonymous Googler asks “will a turtle die if you move it”.

I can’t speak for all turtles, but for Eastern Box Turtles the answer is “almost certainly yes.” EBTs live their lives within 600 feet of the place they hatch. If you move them away from there, they have a homing sense and they will try to return. The world is a hazardous place when you are a small, slow-moving reptile, even if you are a mobile panic room[1]. So the turtle is probably going to die trying to go home.

If you see a wild box turtle, the best thing to do is leave it alone. If it’s in a dangerous place (like the road) then you can help it across, taking care to keep yourself safe. Always, if possible, move the turtle across the road in the direction it was going anyway, so it doesn’t just stomp right back into the road.

This is, after all, how I ended up with Jeremiah Swakhammer and a $400 turtle pen in my yard–a well-meaning soul picked him up, drove him all over a couple counties, and was intending to release him a long way from where he was found. While I’m enjoying Jeremiah, who is the least troublesome of the Usual Suspects, he would have been better off in his home range in the wild.

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The Epic Turtle Palace

We got the foundation laid yesterday, and all the wood for the sides cut to length, and soaked the dirt down but good in preparation for planting today. I didn’t feel like dealing with 50 cubic feet of dirt right at the moment so there’s no new topsoil, but will be stealing bits of forest floor (complete with bugs) to make the place homier for little Jeremiah Swakhammer. I also got him a strawberry plant and sweet basil and a cantaloupe vine, plus some hastas (we’ll see if they take). And I have weed seeds left over from my attempts to grow a garden for Clover the Departed that I will be planting out there, as well!

The foundation is 12″ x 12″ pavers, the actual enclosure will sit on them to keep Jeremiah from digging out. Hopefully. If he does tunnel over a foot to get out, well, I’m not going to stop him because that’s a hell of a tunnel for a little box turtle to dig. The sides are 2″ x 10″ x 10′ lumber, stacked two high and anchored on chunks of 4″ x 4″ at the corners, the lid will be two 5′ x 10′ sections because I’d like to be able to lift it, made with 1″ x 4″. There’s latches to keep the coons, possums, and other turtle predators out.

I would have pics for you but discovered when I went out this morning to take them that my camera’s battery was dead, so I petted Noodlehead instead.

Confidential to whoever got here googling “where can i buy an eastern box turtle in virginia”: you can’t. It is illegal to import eastern box turtles to, export eastern box turtles from, and sell eastern box turtles within the state of Virginia. Your best bet is to check out The Mid-Atlantic Turtle and Tortoise Society, who may have a rescue EBT that you can adopt. If you do find someone selling them, please contact The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries to report them.

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This is the kind of thing that only happens to me.

My Mom is buying me a new side door, so this morning a gentleman came out to measure for it. And lo, he was a very nice man, and we were chatting while he measured and Tink was out there with us and as it turns out the door-measuring gentleman also likes animals, and moves turtles out of the road. In fact, he said, he had one in the car because he’d stopped for it and hadn’t been able to move it because of traffic, and could he release it here?

But i already have a hamster and two little rats, which they actually don’t take much of the space but I like to pay my full attention to them, they are just like small dogs, so sweet and want so much attention and need lots of care. I was thinking of buying them a new house so I could move them to one of the best rat cages I’ve seen so far and it doesn’t take much space so I could put them somewhere up and keep the turtle down.

Oh dear. The problem is that Eastern Box Turtles have a home range, and if you take them out of it, they will try to get back and most likely die on the way if they are four inches long and adorable. Even a healthy full-size adult box turtle will probably die if it’s been moved more than a quarter mile from home.

There’s a group in, I believe, Pennsylvania that relocates them to a nature preserve, but they do it by installing GPS tracking devices on the turtles and making sure they stay where they’re supposed to and find the food and hibernation spots. Soooo…. I took the turtle in. I had some gear from poor departed Clover, my Russian Tortoise who was killed by the cats, after which I swore that there would be no more small pets. Circumstances however have conspired to make a liar of me. Obviously I am going to have to get cracking on the outdoor turtle habitat I’ve been talking about making for the past year or so.

And yes, of course I took pictures. The turtle has been christened Jeremiah Swakhammer, after an intrepid and armor-clad character in Cherie Priest’s book Boneshaker. It’s a good book, and also I happen to know that Cherie is fond of turtles and will probably appreciate having this handsome little devil named for her character.

A small Eastern Box Turtle sits, totally boxed up, next to a thick ergonomic keyboard. The keyboard's bottom edge with no keys is perhaps two-thirds as tall as the turtle's shell, with keys it is very nearly the same height. From this angle you can see the arch of the front opening, and the turtle's plastron, which is ivory with darker brown markings on the edges of the scutes.

A top view of Jeremiah Swakhammer's shell, which is about 4 inches long. The shell is a dark, rich brown, with bright gold markings. The dorsal scutes have gold shapes reminiscent of a curved capital E, the shapes on the lateral scutes are more abstract but vaguely similar. The peripheral scutes have little flame-like gold markings on them.

Jeremiah Swakhammer, partially unboxed, looks dubiously at the camera. In fact, his look is fairly indignant. His eye is a dark brown, and his face and front legs are black with little dots of yellow on them. His beak and lower jaw are more the ivory color of his plastron.

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Finally, one that wasn’t in the road.

Shortly after lunch, Beowulf wanted me and the Best Mom Ever to know that there was something weird out in the yard. We ran to the window to look and didn’t see anything except…what looked like a rock, wandering toward the woods. Turtle! I lamented that we’d eaten all the strawberries the night before and bolted out the door with the camera. I have rescued fifteen or more off the road around here, but this is the first time I ever had some leisure to get a good look. She was most obliging, too, not bothering to box up since I didn’t touch her (although I was tempted to take the cobweb off her back, but figured she wouldn’t appreciate it).

An Eastern Box Turtle looks at the camera from an indifferent and thin bit of lawn.  Turtle faces always look angry.  Her eyes are a deep orangish-red, set in a striking face of bright yellow with black lacing.  One foreleg is forward, caught in the act of taking a step, and the same bright yellow scales with black edges can be clearly seen on it.  Her shell is a dusty black with darker, orangier yellow markings on the scutes in patterns suggestive of alien handprints.  Her shell is also mildly deformed, the sides tucked and a bit steep rather than being smoothly domed, with clear growth ridges on the scutes.  The edges of her peripheral scutes are rough and damaged.  She has clearly been crawling through a cobweb, the remains of which are caught on the back of her shell along with bits of detritus.

A top view of the same turtle, showing the darker yellow pattern on the top of her head, clearly damaged scutes at the edge of her shell, especially in front, and one extend back leg, which is black and scaly and looks a little as if it is wearing ill-fitting trousers.

Still the same turtle, this time viewed from behind.  From this angle, you have a fetching three-quarters view of her face as she keeps an eye on the photographer.  You can also see that her tail is tucked to one side, which marks her as probably female.  Another charming detail visible from this angle are the two yellow racing stripes that run down each black back leg.

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It’s World Turtle Day!

It’s also Box Turtle Season here in Virginia, although unseasonably cold and wet weather has kept the turtles out of the road, so I have yet to move one. Nevertheless, I thought I’d celebrate World Turtle Day by taking a break from cat-related posting in order to relay my Tips For Moving Turtles Out Of The Road.

1) Be situationally aware. Do not slam on your brakes to save a turtle if it’s just going to get you hit by the guy behind you, who was not expecting you to stop because a turtle suddenly darted into the road. While it is true that turtles are important, your bodily integrity is even MORE crucial.

2) Stop your car well back from the turtle and turn your hazard lights on. Your car is going to be the first warning sign another driver has to be cautious. If you’re blocking the road, distance is tricky. You don’t want to park your car so close that if someone hits it, your car will then hit you and the turtle, but you also don’t want it so far back that another driver will hit you after going around your car.

3) Stop, look, listen. At least here in the piedmont of Virginia, one is most likely to encounter a turtle in the road on the winding, hilly, two-lane back roads. You will hear another car before you will see it. Be cautious!

4) Move with a sense of purpose. If you pause to take pics, remain especially alert for other cars. Better yet, get pics while moving quickly to the turtle, and if you need more pictures, they can wait until the turtle is off the road.

5) Don’t get bitten. I specialize in moving Eastern Box Turtles, which are not going to bite you unless you go out of your way to stick a finger in their mouths, but still, be canny. If you’re trying to move a snapping turtle, for instance, exercise EXTREME caution. An adult snapping turtle can bite your finger off.

6) Handle the turtle safely for the turtle, as well as yourself.

7) Move the turtle across the road in the direction it was going in the first place. Otherwise, it may just turn around and stomp angrily back into the road, and all your work was for naught.

8) Don’t move the turtle a long distance. An Eastern Box Turtle, for instance, has a home territory that it roams. If you take it out of its territory, it will try to go back there. If you’ve moved it more than a quarter mile, odds are good the turtle will die on the way home.

9) Resist the urge to lecture the turtle on the foolishness of crossing roads in the first place. They never listen.

10) Don’t expect any gratitude. The scaley little bastards always act like you have created a huge problem for them when you whisk them safely to their destination on the opposite side of the road.

11) DID I MENTION WATCH OUT FOR CARS? Stay safe. You are of limited use to turtles or anyone else if you’re lying in a hospital after having been hit.

Also, I lied about the break from cat posting. Here’s a pic of Emmaline and Noodlehead from yesterday. My quest to get the perfect picture continues; Noodlehead had her tongue out for this one. Sigh.

Emmaline, whose face is mostly white but who wears a jaunty tabby-patterned cap, and Noodlehead, whose face is mostly tabby but has squiggles of white running up her nose, take a break from their wet food buffet (visible in front of and behind them on paper plates) to stare at the camera.  Noodlehead has stuck her tongue out, because cats are cruel like that.