Tips for Helping Wild Turtles

Know when to call for help, and when to leave a wild turtle alone.

an upclose view of a woodland box turtle outdoorsVirginia is home to 24 species of turtles, many of which can be found on land or in water throughout the commonwealth. Turtles are generally active from spring through fall and hibernate in the coldest winter months. The most common causes of admission for turtles at the Wildlife Center are vehicle collisions and encounters with lawn equipment.

Leave Turtles at Home

Many people encounter turtles as they are crossing roads. In the spring, many turtles crossing roads are egg-laden females looking for appropriate nesting sites or male turtles looking for a mate. In the fall, turtles return to their seasonal hibernaculums, where they’ll spend the winter. 

If it’s possible to help a turtle cross a roadway safely, it’s best to carry the turtle in the direction in which it's headed. Many people are tempted to relocate the turtle from the busy roadside to a “better place” down the road or across town, but turtles have very small home ranges, and studies indicate that their survivability depends on staying “at home”. Relocated turtles often spend their time wandering, looking for their home habitat, and are much more frequently hit by cars or attacked by predators in these new unfamiliar locations. 

If you find an injured turtle, put it in a box and contact the closest wildlife veterinarian or permitted rehabilitator. Make sure to record details of the rescue location so that the turtle can be returned once it has healed.

Protected Species

It may be tempting for people to take turtles home as pets; their slow movement and relatively harmless demeanor make them appear as if they would be easy to care for. In reality, it’s challenging to provide ideal captive care to a turtle, with proper nutrition, lighting, heating, and other husbandry requirements. It’s also illegal to keep most species of turtles as pets. 

In 2021, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation to provide greater protection for wild reptiles and amphibians. According to Virginia Administrative Code 4VAC15-360-10, there can be no more than one individual of any native or naturalized non-SGCN (Species of Greatest Conservation Need) species of amphibian or reptile per physical address. That means that many species of turtles can not be legally possessed at all, including those that are most often poached in the illegal pet trade: Woodland Box Turtle, Spotted Turtle, Bog Turtle, Wood Turtle, and the Northern Diamond-backed Terrapin.

One of the primary goals of the 2021 regulations in Virginia is to impede the proliferation of the illegal wildlife trade, particularly for turtles. The relative ease of capturing and smuggling turtles in comparison with many other wild animals makes them especially vulnerable to poachers.

What You Can Do

  • Woodland Box Turtle on a branchNever relocate a turtle to a “better place”. Assist turtles crossing the road by carrying them across in the direction they’re headed. Turtles have small home territories and should be left where they are found. Their survivability depends on it!
  • Take special care when dealing with a Snapping Turtle. These turtles may be as much as 19 inches long, weigh up to 35 pounds, have powerful jaws, and a long neck. To handle a large Snapping Turtle safely, avoid the front half of the turtle’s body. While wearing gloves, place one hand on the base of the turtle’s tail – to help stabilize and secure the turtle – and slide the other hand halfway under the turtle’s shell.
  • Don’t ever keep a wild turtle as a pet. Wild turtles belong in the wild, where they can live their lives and contribute to the declining turtle population. Every individual is important!
  • Watch out for turtles and other wildlife when mowing lawns and doing yard work.
  • Keep domestic animals indoors or on leashes. Free-roaming dogs and cats injure and kill millions of wild animals each year. Learn more about the turtles in your area. The Virginia Herpetological Society has great information on Virginia’s wild turtles.
  • Always wash your hands with soap and water after handling a turtle.
  • Help monitor the declining Woodland Box Turtle population in Virginia. Fill out this Box Turtle Reporting form whenever you encounter one!

Interested in finding out more about turtles at the Wildlife Center of Virginia?  Check out our World Turtle Day post from 2023

You Can Help Support Our Work With Native Wildlife.

Your donation will help provide expert care for our turtle patients and ambassadors, and approximately 4,000 other patients that the Wildlife Center will help this year.