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Tuesday, August 5, 2014


by Pam Keyes, Guest Blogger

Is there such a thing as a “domesticated” box turtle, as compared to a wild one? I don’t think so, even with the ones which are “captive bred” and have been in captivity since hatching from their eggs.

I’ve had pet box turtles since I was a child, and as an adult, I have had them for many years in a backyard pen that takes up one-third of the yard and is situated under a huge mulberry tree. A few of the three-toed box turtles which have lived there have been wild, rescued from the highway or other streets, but most have been indigenous to my neighborhood. Turtles naturally walk into my backyard each spring and summer, up my long driveway into the fenced backyard, after mulberries and other food. Since I did not want to accidentally crush a turtle under the car when I backed up, I decided to protect them by providing a large pen to contain them. Currently I have two adult female box turtles in this pen, plus a male adult box turtle in his own, newer pen to the west of the large one. These three adults are semi-wild, but all three are tame. They do not close their shells and “clam up” when I approach them, probably because they know that I always bring some sort of food for them, whether it’s moist cat food, raw corn niblets, scrambled eggs, or their favorite, blackberries. Usually all I have to do to get their attention is to hit the can of corn on a rock, and they come out of their hiding places as fast as possible to eat.

One might think my turtles’ dependency on me for food and treats makes them domesticated, but that is not so. They still hunt and forage for worms, pillbugs and other insects in the pen, just like they would have done in the wild.

Years ago, I had a friend on a farm who fed wild turtles who lived in the fields near her. She had noticed when she put out cat food for her barn cats, that turtles would occasionally come up and eat alongside the cats, so she began feeding a couple of the turtles twice a day. Somehow this developed into lots of turtles coming up to her back step looking for food, and some were so bold they would eat from the end of a spoon. This was quite remarkable to see, considering these were all wild turtles. They came up twice a day from the fields, in the morning and the evening, like cattle. One time I counted 20 around her mowed yard. None of these turtles were what I would call tame, they were simply being box turtles who were opportunistic feeders. That they had developed a pattern for their opportunism is interesting, particularly since more and more turtles kept showing up for food, like a Pied Piper event.

In addition to the adult turtles, I have young captive bred box turtles who hatched in my pen. I immediately took them indoors to live in tubs with lights, as unprotected hatchlings are preyed upon by many things in the wild, including adult turtles. So are these young turtles domesticated? No. When they get bigger, they can be placed out in the backyard free of any constraint, and can fend for themselves, and forage like any other box turtle. That is because their foraging methods, etc., are instinctual and not learned behaviors. The young turtles are indeed very tame and trusting of humans, but it is not a true domesticated behavior.


  1. I love the pictures of your turtles, and never knew they enjoyed eating berries.

  2. Very interesting! I've never heard of turtles flocking to regularly feed like that. I bet that is quite a sight to behold - 20+ turtles running for food. Ha!

  3. Hi. Pam. I enjoyed your article, and the photos are stunning. I especially like the last one, where the little turtle is obviously smiling.

    I think the word "domesticated" has so many different meanings that even when people are using it "correctly" the connotations of other meanings are still there. If by not being domesticated you mean your turtles have not undergone a long process of genetic selection for being compatible with humans, then I agree. But one of the things that many people don't seem to grasp is that without genetic modification, many wild animals can relate to humans, just based on a positive experience with humans. Your turtles look very happy.

  4. Yes, some people interchangeably use "domesticated" for "tame", and in that sense of the word, it could be said my turtles are domesticated. Turtles are highly adaptive, though. In the wild, they usually are loners, and the females abandon their eggs once they are laid and buried. Placed in a pen, this loner behavior changes, as witnessed by the photo above of the two females sunning close together. Sometimes they sleep together, too, even though there are several places in the large pen that they can each go to. Two male turtles in a pen fight each other in the early spring, until the alpha turtle with mating privileges is determined, and then they get along. The reason I had to make the second pen for my male turtle Sam is he continually escaped the big pen, and one time last summer got attacked by either a dog, rat or other predator who chewed bits of his shell off. He cannot escape the new pen and is safe there, as the predator does not come into my back yard.

    1. It is interesting that the turtles change their behavior toward one another based on being in a pen. It sounds as if they become more social based on the communal living arrangement that you have provided them.

  5. Yes, Aya, they tend to become more social based on being in an artificial environment (the pen). At one time in the past, I had 14 turtles in it, and they all pretty much got along. The ones that aren't happy in the pen break out: these are usually hobo males that are just attracted by the females in the spring. This summer, I have had no turtle visitors to the backyard, not sure why. It may be that the scent of the groundhog next door deters them, although the groundhog does not bother turtles. Within the pen, there is distinction between types of box turtles, the three-toeds will not interact with ornate box turtles, or with Gulf Coast box turtles.