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At the end of summer last year I acquired four baby Eastern Box turtles. They were barely a month old and I was taking them in to shelter them from city life and the terrors awaiting them outside. No, I hadn't come across a nest and raided it, that would be wrong. My great aunt owns five adults and each year they lay one batch of eggs. This year I reaped the bounty of their labors.

My great aunt keeps her turtles in her back yard, which is surrounded by a chain-linked fence they are too large to crawl through. They live in her garden year round, burrowing under cactus plants to weather the Maryland winter. The babies born to her group are tiny little creatures when they emerge from their shells; anywhere from under an inch to an inch and a quarter across. Being the sweet little wanderers that they are, these infants would no doubt in a matter of minutes find their way through the fence and into the alleys and streets beyond. If they aren’t run over by cars, trampled by feet expecting nothing beneath that scrap of newspaper or eaten by stray dogs, cats or birds they will be lucky indeed, but they aren’t guaranteed to live. At that point, they have to weather the seasons, find food and most importantly water.

To increase the likelihood of survival in her pets’ progeny, my great aunt watches the cactus garden like a hawk all summer and immediately scoops the little ones up and puts them in a makeshift home until caretakers can be found for them. It’s not likely she saves them all but she does her best. The makeshift home she puts them in consists of a Tupperware container with roughly two inches of soil, a dug up patch of grass and a little container of water. The babies will burrow under the dirt or hide under the grass.

When I got the call from my grandmother that there were little ones in need of a good home and that they were turtles...I was sold. I picked them up; along with some printouts my great aunt had on turtle care, and headed home. It was at this point that I ran into a problem...what to keep them in. I couldn’t very well let them live in a shallow dish until they were large enough to let loose in the back yard. So I sat and read through my printouts, went out and got a book, then set about creating a habitat for my babies that would make them feel at home.

Gathering the bits n pieces
For four tiny turtles I opted to get a 10-gallon tank. It may not seem like a lot of room, but they are pretty small and at this point all they mostly do is sleep. The tank was cheap, and I knew that when they started to grow I would have to get something larger for them. If you don’t have use for extra tanks in your home, then I’d skip ahead to a 20-gallon tank. Should be plenty large for tiny turtles to crawl, explore and grow in for a while. (For larger or full-grown turtles you'll want a foot for every inch they are long at minimum.) If you have no curious cats, free-range birds or little fingers to worry about then I wouldn’t bother with a hood/lid/cover for the tank. So long as you are confident no potential predators can get to them, they should be ok without one.

You have the walls, now what? Well, of course you’re going to need some kind of “floor” for the habitat. You can’t expect their baby toes to touch slippery cold glass, that’s just not right. There are a whole slew of things you can get for your habitat floor, I chose the cheap and “natural” way to go; basic potting soil. Not the kind with the little white aerating thingies or with plant food in it, just plain old topsoil; dirt with the occasional stick in it. You can go even cheaper and just dig your own yard, but I wanted to make sure there were no critters in my home.

Ok, now you have a glass house and a dirt floor. It still needs something. Oh! A lagoon. Yes, your little ones need all the fresh water they can get and you have two choices here, as I see it. You can either level out the dirt so one end is higher than the other and just make a mud pit on one side (not a bad thing really, it is pretty natural) or get a plastic container or a pet store purchased lagoon for your habitat. I opted for the lagoon (ok...I’m a little bit anal and can’t handle muddy babies in my house) and placed it just off center in the tank. Why off center? Well you need to worry about temperature control, remember these babies are reptiles so heat is important. In fact...that’s the next thing you need to worry about.

In the reptile aisle of any pet store you will find light bulbs, heat lamps and temperature/humidity gauges. You’ll want at least one of each. I say at least because you can get bulbs for your heat lamp that produce different levels of heat. You’ll want to check with your pet guidebook for what temperatures are appropriate for your turtle. Taking into consideration where you live and what the daily and nightly temperature averages are would help as well. I keep my turtles in the 75F range with a full-spectrum bulb that is coated in Rare Earth Neodymium. Basically this means it sends vitamins and whatnot to the turtles that a normal household bulb wouldn’t; these things are important to consider when you have a reptile.

Put the bulb in the heat lamp and place it so that it focuses primarily on one end of the tank. Don’t aim it straight down, but rather at an angle. This way you’ll have a variation in tank temperature so the turtles can crawl in and out of the heat to their liking. You’ll stick the temperature gauge to the wall of the tank or lay it on the floor of the habitat on the “hot” end, but make sure it isn’t close to the actual bulb or you’ll get a higher reading than that area is actually averaging. The humidity gauge can go on the opposite side of the habitat. This just watches the humidity, which is more important in some turtle breeds than others. Again, consult your pet guidebook for the necessary levels. If you keep water on hand at all times, box turtles will be happy.

Ok...you’ve got walls, you’ve got a floor, you’ve got indoor swimming and a tanning area so you must be done, right? No. Now you need to get shade. You’re turtles will want to hide from the dangerous “sun,” it’s instinct. They can just dig their way under the soil, but that’s no fun to look at. People will think you’re crazy with an empty tank you lovingly refill the lagoon in each day. No, best to find something they can crawl under or in instead. I have found that instead of buying expensive pet store items, I can use a fifty-cent clay pot to half bury in the soil. They babies love it. I also looked for a plant or two, but at the time came up empty as fall was nearing and garden shops were tapped. Worried about putting something they might nibble on and end up getting poisoned by in the habitat I opted for a little fake ivy purchased at Wal-Mart for roughly a buck. They climb in it, on it, under it and so long as I clipped the dangerous metal part at the end I had no worries with it harming them. Recently I have purchased some ornamental grass to put in the habitat, which I keep trimmed so they can’t climb out of the tank, and they love it. I put some on the cool end, some on the hot end and they have a little cave to crawl into. My turtles are happy.

Once you’ve arranged the habitat in a manner that pleases you, you can release your turtles into the habitat. They will love it. It certainly beats a Tupperware container.

You need to remember when feeding your turtles that you can’t let the food just sit in the tank overnight and you can’t put it in the hot side of the tank. Putting it in the hot side will only make it spoil faster, and you want to give your turtles all the time they need to find the food without letting it spoil in the habitat. For my babies I vary their diet with raw ground beef, leafy greens, and a pumpkin/vegetable mix I found at the pet store.

Always, always, always consult a guidebook about your breed of turtle before putting in plants, setting temperatures and choosing foods.



A side note about raising baby turtles: Eastern box turtle numbers are dwindling due to their popularity in pet stores and being hit by cars; run over by lawn-mowers; and, unknowingly set fire to in piles of leaves. They also have natural enemies and fall victim to their own misjudgments. Among the misjudgments you should worry about is hibernation. When baby turtles try to hibernate for the winter they often bury themselves too deep, not deep enough, or don’t eat enough calories to last the winter. SO, if you have baby turtles keep them warm year round and don’t let them hibernate until they are 2-3 years old. By then they should know how many calories they need to consume. And don't be alarmed if you have your babies for several months and never see them eat. I had mine for a month and a half before they began noticably eating what I was giving them. Just make fresh food available and they'll eat it when they're ready.

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