Get your head out of your shell and join reptile enthusiasts across the globe in celebrating some of the Earth's most introverted creatures, on this, World Turtle Day.
World Turtle Day was introduced by the American Tortoise Rescue 19 years ago as a way to "shellebrate" and spread awareness of the vulnerability of turtles, tortoises and their respective habitats.
After 200 million years of leaving their little webbed footprints in the sand of the world, the ATR fears these gentle animals could disappear within 50 years, a result of the exotic food industry, habitat destruction, global warming, smuggling and cruel pet trade.
Owner of downtown's Northern Exotics Dennis Epp, is all too familiar with the dark side of the pet trade industry, caring for a team of animals of which 95 per cent have been rescued or surrendered. In addition to being a fully functional pet store, Northern Exotics houses an indoor animal exhibit and education centre, which supports around 30 exotic turtles.
“Pet stores generally cause the problem, so we wanted to have a pet store and our education centre in the frontline to change the way things are,” said Epp.
Northern Exotics donates a considerable amount of the store's proceeds to the rescue and care of exotic animals, said Epp, which includes information sessions on these species and humans role in protecting them.
Northern Exotics has around nine different turtle species in its exhibit, including the Chinese softshell turtle, southern painted turtle and the most common species rescued or surrendered, the red-eared slider turtle. The red-eared slider in particular Epp said, is a prime example of why exotic animals should not be released outside of their natural habitat.
Native to the mid- to south-central United States, in areas such as Florida, the red-eared slider has become one of the top invasive species in Southern Ontario and British Columbia, competing with native turtles for food, habitat, and resources.
“All species of Ontario turtles are at risk to a certain degree (which) just shows that we need to be aware of them and do our part to help,” said Epp.
He said prospective pet owners are attracted to the red-eared sliders low price point – $25 – and small size.
But Red-eared sliders are also mass bred in the U.S. and can be purchased for as low as $2. That can tempt prospective pet owners to either purchase or smuggle the animal into the country, which is an illegal practice, because a pet turtle must be born and raised in Canada.
While it is not illegal to breed or sell red-eared sliders, and Northern Exotics have sold them previously, Epp said it didn't take long for their team to stop the practice.
Epp said that the most common reason a turtle is returned is the smell of their water, which even as Northern Exotic's tank filters three times every hour, maintains an odour. The second reason is the misconception that turtles grow according to their tank size, which is not the case.
“We had a policy that we would take back anything that needed a home after the fact, but we were overwhelmed,” he said. “Not only have we sold this many turtles that we've ended up with, but everybody else that sold turtles and it's just too much for us. (But) we'd sooner not sell an animal because it's not the proper fit, than to make that sale.”
Turtles also need specialized care, Epp explained, including a UV light for their shell to synthesize calcium, and the perfect ratio of earth and water for digesting food.
If you don’t mind a sunbathing roommate with a bit of B.O., Epp said that turtles can make a great pet, so long as the pet owner understands the responsibility involved.
Find more information on this and Northern Exotics' many creatures by visiting them at 517 Kathleen St. or online here.