Box turtle ban: New proposed regulations would restrict keeping of native reptiles and amphibians

Virginia's wildlife agency is proposing a ban on keeping box turtles as pets. The move is aimed...
Virginia's wildlife agency is proposing a ban on keeping box turtles as pets. The move is aimed primarily at poachers, but it also affects everyday children and adults. This turtle was photographed crawling through Charles City County Nov. 1, 2012.(J.D. Kleopfer/ Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources)
Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 10:04 PM EDT
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Virginia’s wildlife agency is proposing major restrictions on keeping native reptiles and amphibians as pets. The proposals would ban the keeping of box turtles altogether.

Box turtles are colorful, softball-sized reptiles that have been popular pets for generations of Virginians. But wildlife officials say the animals have become imperiled by people who pluck them from the wild.

“Wild animals belong in the wild,” said J.D. Kleopfer, Virginia’s state herpetologist, or reptile expert.

The proposals by the state Department of Wildlife Resources are aimed mainly at poachers, who can take animals in huge numbers. A particularly pretty box turtle can bring $20,000 in China, according to the agency.

But the proposals also would make it illegal for a child or adult to take a box turtle home.

“I guarantee you, this is controversial,” said Larry Mendoza of Henrico County. “I’ve heard from so many people about this, and they’re not happy.”

Mendoza is a former president of the Virginia Herpetological Society, a nonprofit scientific and educational group dedicated to reptiles and amphibians.

At a time when many children are glued to phones and computer screens, Mendoza said, a box turtle ban would push young people farther away from nature, eliminating encounters that might inspire future conservationists.

“Being able to touch these animals and keep them as pets and study them at home, I think that is valuable. Why do you want to stop that?”

On the other hand, Travis Anthony of Henrico said the best thing to do with box turtles, and even more-common reptiles, is to catch and release them.

“Take some great pictures, interact with it,” then say goodbye, said Anthony, the current president of the Herpetological Society. The group has taken no position on the proposed restrictions.

State and federal laws protect many mammals and birds — you can’t have a pet bobcat, for example. But Virginia has long allowed the catching and keeping of common reptiles — snakes, lizards and turtles — and amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders.

Too often, critics say, these pets outlive their welcome and are given away, flushed or turned loose in places the animals don’t recognize.