- It is illegal to sell or purchase any turtle species that are native or naturalized in Virginia, but they may be given away and kept as pets, as long as the person has no more than five individuals of that species in captivity.
- Turtle species that are not native or naturalized in Virginia, and are not federally listed as threatened or endangered, may be sold or purchased, either on your own or through a pet store.
- There is a ban on collecting northern diamond-backed terrapins, spotted turtles, and eastern hellbenders (even though these species are not theatened or endangered, there is a specific regulation banning their collection).
Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries staff do not come to your home or property to pick up/remove/relocate turtles. (It is illegal to relocate, or liberate, turtles in Virginia, 4VAC15-30-10).
If you see a turtle in your yard, even if you are not near water, this is not something to be alarmed about. Aquatic turtle species will travel quite far from water, up to a mile in some cases, to find a place to lay eggs. The best thing to do for any turtle you see in a yard is to leave it alone. They instinctively know what direction to go when they are on their own. Relocating them will cause them to search for where they were headed and create more hazards. Turtles that are out and about, whether to lay eggs or to search for a new source of water and other resources, are best left alone. They will leave the immediate area within a day. If a turtle needs to be moved out of the way, such as out of a driveway, be cautious in case it is a snapping turtle. Moving a turtle, especially if it is a large snapping turtle, may require that you use a large shovel to scoop it up from behind and into a large empty trash can or storage tote so that it can be moved without being able to bite you. For smaller turtles, you can grab them by the shell around the back legs and tail. Snapping turtles can reach around to their sides to bite you.
It is very common to find turtles on the road, in your yard, or other places outside. Turtles are particularly active at dawn on a rainy day, and late May through June is a particularly active time of year. Many of them simply live in the area and you just happened to come across them. Moving or relocating such turtles will only result in tragedy. They will likely try to return home, and thus wander out into a road somewhere else. More importantly, they could carry a disease to a population which was unprepared for it, and thus kill hundreds of other turtles. Box turtles do not require much in the way of habitat. There have been turtles living for decades in enclosed lots in New York City. Adult turtles can adapt well to urban and suburban life; relocating them to “natural” habitats is usually a mistake. Also, relocation of wildlife is illegal in Virginia.
One of the biggest tragedies occurs when someone picks up a turtle on the road, takes it home and puts it in an aquarium with water. Often, the aquarium is too small and does not meet other requirements for good health in a turtle which is terrestrial. The turtle may then lay eggs. Many of the turtles out in the spring are females moving to their nesting grounds. By picking up these turtles, not only are you removing the adult from the population, but her babies as well.
Virginia regulations allow you to return a turtle to the wild, ONLY if the following criteria are met:
- the captured reptile or amphibian is released within 30 days of capture;
- the animal is released only at the exact location where it was captured;
- the animal was not housed with any other reptiles or amphibians during its time in captivity; and
- the animal is not displaying any signs of illness or injury. Also, if the turtle you capture does lay eggs, you need to be aware of another part of the Virginia regulation that states you can collect and keep for personal use, no more than five individuals of any single species of reptile or amphibian. There could be as many as 20 to 30 eggs, which if all hatch, would put you well over the limit you are legally allowed to collect and keep.
If you have a pet turtle which is a native or naturalized species that you have had for some time and no longer are able to or want to keep it, there are very few options. You may call local nature centers and similar facilities to see if they can take them in as program/exhibit animals. Or, you can contact a reptile rescue group, such as Virginia Reptile Rescue to see if they can help find a home for the turtle. Depending upon the species, finding a home for the turtle may be difficult. Most nature centers are too full of turtles, particularly box turtles, red-eared sliders, and other common water turtles. If you cannot find a home for the turtle then it would need to be humanely euthanized. It cannot be released into the wild unless it meets the criteria stated above in bold.
What should you do if you see a turtle on the road? If it is possible, safely go to the turtle and move it to the far side of the road in the direction it was traveling. Safely means parking your own car off the road and not exposing yourself to getting hit. Do not risk your life, or the lives of others on the road, to save one.
If a turtle is injured or turtle eggs are unintentionally dug up, you may want to contact a wildlife rehabilitator in your area that handles reptiles.
If a turtle has laid eggs in your yard and you are concerned, use chicken wire to form a dome over the area of the nest and bury the edges of this wire dome a couple inches into the ground surrounding the nest. This will protect the nest from predators such as raccoons, skunks, opossums, and stray dogs. The openings between the wires are large enough for the hatchling turtles to be able to pass through once they emerge and make their way instinctively to the appropriate habitat in which to hide and feed (leaf litter and ground cover of the forest floor or vegetation along the edges of ponds and streams). Emergence of hatchling turtles from the nest can vary from late summer to early fall OR they may overwinter/hibernate within the underground nest after hatching, waiting until spring to emerge. Hatchling turtles often emerge from the nest in the early morning hours before sunlight, so emergence may occur undetected.
For more information on turtles, visit the Virginia Herpetological Society website.