Many people encourage their children to bring turtles to races without knowing what harm they are doing to the local turtle population.  The purpose of this page is to explain what turtle racing is and why it is wrong. 

 

  What is turtle racing?

 

Turtle racing is an event that is often held for the entertainment of young children at fairs, picnics, rodeos and socials across the U.S.  Several species, most notably the eastern and ornate box turtle, are used. Turtles are placed by children in the middle of a circle or in a rectangular track.  In my area, there are about 50 turtles at every race but some of the bigger events attract hundreds of contestants and their turtles. The turtles are allowed to walk around until one of them crosses the finish line.  At most races a small cash prize is given to the owner of the winning turtle.

 

Where are the turtles obtained and how are they treated?

When I ask a person at a turtle race where they found their turtle, the most common answer is, “Some county road”.   Although some turtles are found and collected in the woods, the overwhelming majority are picked up off of the road (don’t mistake these people for the good Samaritans that help the turtles cross the road).  The family and friends of the contestant usually have to find their own turtles, but often individuals associated with the organizing the race collect turtles weeks ahead of time and keep them until the race.  These “collectors” often exceed their legal limit of turtles.

   Once the turtles are captured they are put in five gallon buckets or cardboard boxes for a time ranging from several days to several weeks.  Several turtles are often kept in the same bucket.  The buckets are rarely cleaned out and as a result the turtles are sometimes covered with urine and feces which could spread disease among the turtles.  This is not just dangerous for the turtles; children handling the turtles can get salmonella.  Although it depends on the how well the turtle’s owner takes care of it, the conditions are mostly contrary to the turtle’s needs.

After the races most of the turtles are dumped wherever it is convenient, whether in the patch of woods behind the house or in their backyard.  If a turtle is released more than a mile from where it was originally found its chances of finding its way back to its home range (the small area it lives its entire life in) are extremely slim.  Most turtles after being released will try to find their home range, but their travels are usually fruitless and will likely brink them into contact more roads.  Wherever it is released, it is almost never the place where the turtle was originally found.

 

 

 

 

This is a photo of a turtle that I saw at a race.  Its plastron (underside) was covered

with feces.  I found it in the box shown below.

 

 

This is an example of the conditions box turtles are kept in at the races. 

These turtles had been kept in conditions similar to these for several weeks.

 

 

 

How many races are there?

It is difficult to know the exact number of box turtle races.  I have definitely counted at least 130 races.  A conservative estimate of the number of races in the U.S. would be 150 to 200 turtle races per year(just box turtle races, not including other species).

   Missouri and Kansas are the worst states for turtle racing with, respectively, 44 and 40 races.  After that there is Oklahoma with 28 races followed by Arkansas with 17 races.  Most of the other states only have a few races, for example six in Illinois.

 

Is turtle racing legal?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes in most states.  There are no laws (with the exception of Florida) that specifically ban turtle racing.  However both Missouri and Kansas have a limit of five box turtles per person.  In addition to the limit, Missouri also has laws about the conditions in which the turtles are kept.  For example, box turtles must have their cages cleaned out regularly and must have at least three square feet of ground space for turtle over four inches in shell length.

  I am not aware of a single turtle race in Missouri that is following regulations.   Almost every contestant I have seen was breaking the regulations in one way or another.  Because of the strict regulations it would be almost impossible for a legal turtle race to be held in Missouri.

Ecological Impact.

In 1989 tortoise racing using gopher tortoises was banned in Florida.  It was banned because the gopher tortoise became a federally threatened species.

  Today thousands of box turtles are used annually in turtle races.  If you multiply 100 turtles per race, which is what I believe is the national average is, times 150 races per year then about 15,000 turtle are taken from the wild for turtle races each year.  Multiply that times 10 years and you get 150,000 turtles taken from their home range every decade.  Even with the smaller numbers like 50, the number of turtles taken each decade is still huge.  Since relocated (dumped) turtles have a lower survival rate than turtles left in their natural environment, turtle racing can have a significant effect on local turtle populations, especially since box turtles are already declining.

  A byproduct of road collecting is that mostly females are collected.  Female turtles often cross the road while looking for a place to lay their eggs.  Permanently removing adult female turtles is the worst possible thing that you can do to a turtle population.  When a turtle is removed from its environment the rest of its reproductive potential in eliminated.  To keep a population of 50% male 50% female turtles stable, a female turtle must replace itself and its mate in the population.

   At the turtle races people usually put their turtles in a pen provided by the organization.  In these pens dozens of turtles may be in contact with one another.  In an environment like this, diseases (such as respiratory disease) could be spread to other turtles.  Turtles with respiratory disease may die after being released.  But it doesn’t stop there.  Released turtles may spread the disease back to wild populations.  Researchers have found up to several dozen dead box turtles in one area, and this was attributed to disease.  It probably wasn’t caused by a dumped turtle,  but it just illustrates how much disease can affect a population.  Today upper respiratory tract disease (URTD) is a major threat to the gopher tortoises.  A major factor in the spread of URTD are diseased turtle who were released into a healthy population.

   Box turtle populations are declining throughout the United States.  With box turtles declining like they are, turtle racing is no longer practical.  In order to keep box turtles from heading the way of the gopher tortoise, the threatened species list, turtle racing needs to be banned, and most of the turtle experts echo my sentiments.  Box turtles have been around for 15 million years and it would be a shame if they were raced into extinction.

  You can help by contacting your fish and game or conservation commission and expressing your concern on turtle racing.  

 

 

 

A public pen at one at a turtle race (this one didn’t even have air holes).  This is a very dangerous

setup for the turtles as just one sick turtle could spread disease to all of the turtles in the pen.

 

 

A bucket full of turtles at a turtle race.

                      

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