RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-The Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources is sounding the alarm after busting an illegal turtle trade. Experts say people buying them as pets are a big part of the problem. 

As her name suggests, Shelley Whittington has a passion for turtles. She founded the Box Turtle Sanctuary of Central Virginia more than a decade ago.

“They are just absolutely amazing little dinosaurs that have super powers,” Whittington said. “All I want for the turtles is for them to be able to be turtles.”

(Photo by Jackie Defusco)

Whittington wasn’t surprised when she heard on Wednesday that conservation officers in Virginia had seized dozens of turtles from commercial and private retailers throughout the state. 

“The turtle trade is huge,” Whittington said. 

J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, said it’s among the largest animal trafficking problems globally. He said it has significant implications for animal welfare and the health of ecosystems. 

The nonnative red-eared slider, for example, is one of the top 100 most invasive species worldwide, according to DWR. 

DWR reported taking a dozen red-eared sliders and eastern painted turtles, as well as 30 Mississippi map turtles from the sellers.

Kleopfer said these species, which don’t naturally originate in Virginia, can disrupt the balance of ecosystems and carry harmful diseases.

Since it’s difficult for the state to find proper homes for these turtles, Kleopfer said their only option was to “humanely euthanize” many of the ones that were seized. Others were sent to zoological facilities for education and exhibitation purposes.

“We can’t just keep piling up animals into rescues that have no end in sight as to what they’re going to do with them. It’s a recipe for a bad situation and it’s not a viable answer,” Kleopfer said. 

Kleopfer believes pet traders are the source of the problem and need to be held accountable. He said people seeking these turtles out as pets are enabling them.

“It’s almost exclusively for pets. Unfortunately they are very cheap and so they are often treated as disposable,” Kleopfer said. “I would probably say less than one percent of all turtles that are brought in for the pet trade live out their very long life span, often 30 to 50 years plus, with the owner that purchased them.” 

Whittington said turtles often die due to poor care or get released into the wild when owners realize they’re unprepared. She said many don’t realize how large turtles will get and it’s difficult to replicate the outdoor environment that they need to thrive. 

Whittington added that Virginia needs to focus on conserving more land and creating additional programs to rescue turtles.

“The thing that people need to know is they make terrible pets. Don’t buy turtles, don’t support people that are selling turtles. If you see turtles being sold they should be reported,” Whittington said. “All the turtles that we euthanized had little personalities and little lives. They didn’t ask to be here and they just want to live.” 

Kleopfer said Virginia allows certain exotic and snapping turtles to be sold. However, he said it’s illegal to sell native and naturalized species. 

There are updated regulations on the personal use of reptiles on the DWR website.