Sometimes the stories you envision are not the stories you write.
This is such a case.
A few weeks ago, while out fishing and paddling in my kayak, I saw some turtles basking on a log. It was midday and the fish weren’t biting, so I unpacked my camera and went for a closer look.
But they were nervous little guys. They sat and stared and sat and stared and sat and stared, then ultimately plopped into the water whenever I got too close.
For a while, anyway.
Eventually, one stuck around just long enough for a few shots.
They turned out pretty well, too. So I intended to find out what kind of turtle it was and do a little story about how, when and where to look for more of them.
That’s when things got confusing.
Back home, I started comparing my photos to pictures of turtles native to Pennsylvania, where this one had been lazily soaking up the sun. It was hard to pin down.
It looked a little bit like this species and a little bit like that one. But it didn’t seem to match up with anything exactly.
So I put out a plea for help, contacting herpetologists with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
Their answer was a shocker.
They identified the turtle as a Peninsula Cooter. It’s a species native to Florida, with records of it mostly limited to points from Jacksonville south.
So how the heck did it wind up in a lake an hour east of Philadelphia?
Call it another case of pets gone wild.
All across the country, critters that aren’t supposed to be roaming the forests, fields, swamps, lakes and rivers of North America – from goldfish to red-eared sliders to Asian carp to Burmese pythons to, yes, Peninsula cooters – are in fact out there. Always, it’s because someone dumped them there.
That’s not good.
“Invasive species are wreaking havoc in every corner of the world, causing $1.4 trillion in damage annually. In the United States, 42 percent of threatened and endangered species are at risk due to invasive species, and the situation is only getting worse,” says the Endangered Species Initiative.
Invasives are defined as “organisms that have been introduced into an area where they don’t belong, and are negatively impacting the ecosystem, the economy, and human health.”
Some varieties, like the pythons eating everything from deer on down in Florida’s Everglades, seem obviously bad news.
But releasing even smaller creatures, like turtles, is problematic, too.
“Many people think it is harmless to drop aquarium fish, frogs or turtles into local ponds. However, animals from the pet trade don’t appreciate the gesture (and in many cases, it’s illegal),” says the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management.
Many introduced species aren’t equipped for the conditions they’ll face and suffer and die, it added.
Beyond that, though, there are a whole host of reasons why releasing pets into the wild is bad, even if – and sometimes because – they survive, said Kathy Gipe, a herpetologist and nongame biologist with the Fish and Boat Commission.
The potential for disease transmission is one.
“Many bacteria and viruses known to be common in pet turtles can have a big impact on animals that have not been previously exposed, the first and foremost being Ranavirus,” Gipe said.
Non-native species typically end up competing for habitat and food with the varieties that are to be here. And sometimes, they win.
“The red-eared slider is a particularly successful and aggressive turtle in our pond and river environments,” Gipe added.
Every state has some kind of law or regulation on the books prohibiting the release of pets and non-native wildlife.
Obviously, though, folks aren’t getting the message. There may already be enough Peninsula cooters in southeastern Pennsylvania nowadays, for example, to sustain a breeding population, Gripe said.
That’s too bad.
I’ve nothing against cooters, mind you. But they have their place and it isn’t here.
Hopefully, the next turtle basking on a log is a native one.
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