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Our son caught a turtle three years ago, and brought it home as a pet. He seems to have lost interest in caring for it. Is it okay to release this turtle, or will it be unable to survive in the wild now that it has been a captive for so long?

There are situations when a captive turtle should not be released. These include:

  • Image of red-eared sliderNever release a turtle that is obviously ill, weakened, or in otherwise poor health. It will likely not survive in the wild, and could spread disease to wild turtles.
  • Never release a turtle that has been kept in the same enclosure (and shared water and food) with exotic, non-native reptile species. (To avoid spreading exotic diseases into a local population.) If you got the turtle from someone else, and aren't sure whether it was exposed, ask a veterinarian (or veterinary pathologist) to do a pathology check of the turtle's feces and perhaps throat swabs and a blood check as well, to rule out undetected infection.
  • A turtle should not be released unless you can find suitable habitat, within its species' known range and inhabited by others of its kind. (A "lone turtle" that can never reproduce is biologically "dead" as far as its species is concerned.)
  • Never release a non-native species into the wild, outside of its natural range.

More Detailed Information

For captive turtles that are healthy enough to be released, and for which proper habitat can be found, here are a few guidelines:

  • Image of map turtle (hatchling)If the turtle is a long term captive that has been fed an unnatural diet (i.e. "prepared foods" and foods not common in its natural habitat), gradually accustom it to foods likely to be found in the wild before its release, and let it "find" and pick up its own food if it wasn't already doing so.
  • If the turtle was kept in a small tank or enclosure, it would probably better adjust to the wild if allowed to live for awhile in a larger, more natural enclosure, outdoors if possible.
  • Release the turtle as geographically close as possible to where it came from. (Different populations even of the same species may be adapted to different climatic conditions. For example, an Eastern Box Turtle from Georgia may be less well-adapted to survive our long, cold Michigan winters than a turtle of the same species from Michigan.) If you know about where the turtle came from, release it as close as possible to that site. If you don't know where the turtle came from, research the species' normal habitat needs and find a protected habitat that meets those needs. (See list below for general hints on our native species' preferred habitats.)
  • Release the turtle as far as possible from roads, buildings, boat docks, camp grounds, and other human activity centers, to give it the best possible chance of surviving. (Newly released turtles often wander around investigating the area before "settling down.")

Each type of turtle prefers a specific habitat, especially Michigan's turtles

  • Image of midland painted turtleSnapping Turtle: Larger ponds, shallow weedy lakes, slow-moving rivers and sloughs. Statewide.
  • Common Musk Turtle: Larger ponds, open marshland, and shallow, weedy lake edges (most often with some aquatic vegetation and a sand or marl-bottom substrate). Lower Peninsula.
  • Spiny Softshell Turtle: Larger lakes and slow-moving rivers (not small ponds). Lower Peninsula.
  • Spotted Turtle (Threatened, protected species in Michigan): Bogs, fens, sedge marshes, and the boggy edges of small lakes or ponds. Western and southern Lower Peninsula.
  • Wood Turtle (Special Concern, protected species in Michigan): Wooded and partly wooded stream and river edges. Northern Lower and Upper Peninsula only.
  • Blanding's Turtle (Special Concern, protected species in Michigan): Marshes, small ponds, and sloughs; wanders extensively on land in spring. Statewide, but very rare and local in Upper Peninsula.
  • Image of eastern box turtle (male)• Eastern Box Turtle (Special Concern, protected species): Our only terrestrial turtle. Moist open woodlands, woodland edges, and adjacent old-fields, but usually near small ponds or streams. Western and southern Lower Peninsula.
  • • Painted Turtle: Ponds, marshes, shallow lakes, sloughs, river backwaters. Our most common turtle statewide.
  • • Map Turtle: Lakes, rivers. Lower Peninsula. (Possibly southern Upper Peninsula, but very rare.)
  • • Red-eared Slider: Ponds, lakes, marshes, sloughs. Note: Sliders are found in a few localities in southern Michigan; some of these may represent introduced populations, as thousands of baby sliders from the southern states were once sold in the pet trade—most died from poor care, but those released were able to survive in southern Michigan. There are 2000 year-old archeological records for sliders in Michigan, so the species can be considered "native" to Michigan.

For descriptions of these and other Michigan turtles, check out our "Critter Field Guide"


Image of snapping turtleJames Harding
MSU Museum
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824
(517) 353-7978