If you have the space, a pond could be a fun summer turtle project.
Aquatic turtles are among the most popular of reptile pets. I don’t have to tell you why. If you’re reading this blog that means you’re inherently interested in reptiles, and you probably already know the allure of turtles. Even if you don’t keep them, you must be aware of their intrinsic charm. They are the gentle goodwill ambassadors of the reptilian realm.
Unfortunately, from a historical perspective, they are also among the most maligned of pets. This began years ago, before the 4-inch law cracked down on the retail sale of hatchlings, when they were being sold by the millions. A cheap price would get you a hatchling red-eared slider and one of the infamous plastic enclosures that featured a little plastic palm tree. Of course, I had my fair share of these, and I inadvertently killed my fair share of red-eared slider hatchlings, too. But even in these days of a much more enlightened herpkeeping audience, turtles are often still the victims of abuse. Probably the most common instance is when they are forced to live in indoor enclosures that are either too small for them or otherwise don’t provide them with the proper environment.
A friend of mine has an adult red-eared slider named Franklin, who she keeps in a 20-gallon tank. There are no lights of any kind over the tank. She doesn’t even provide a land area to allow Franklin to leave the water! Whenever I would visit her (I live in California; she lives in Georgia), I would nag her about this. I would tell her how red-ears are basking turtles that need a land area and a basking light. I repeatedly urged her to give the poor turtle a better home, but she always shrugged me off. She’s been keeping him like that for years, and he eats well and appears to be healthy, so she sees no need to change his environment. I guess she won’t feel it’s necessary to change anything until Franklin begins exhibiting symptoms of illness due to the improper living conditions he’s being forced to endure. Of course, because reptiles tend to hide signs of illness until it is advanced, by then it may be too late for her to save him.
When discussing proper environments for aquatic turtles, you can’t do much better than an outdoor pond. With warm weather ahead, perhaps this would be a fun outdoor project for you turtlekeepers, if you have the space and the inclination.
The first thing you need to do is decide where the pond will be located. You probably don’t want to locate it in a high-traffic area of your yard. Consider how the sun will hit it, too, and for how long during the day. It is a good idea to locate the pond near a tree or other vegetation that will partially shade it, so your turtles can escape the sun if they want to. Also, in regard to any vegetation that may be in the vicinity of the pond, be sure none of it gets treated with pesticides or other chemicals. You don’t want to risk any of that stuff seeping into your turtle pond.
Once you know where the pond is going to be, dig the hole. Ponds can be dug by hand, of course, or heavier equipment, such as a backhoe, can be used to do it. Consider having a plan, or at least a rough drawing, of what you want before the actual digging begins, and know how deep you want it to be in certain sections. I generally like ponds that have a sloping shape, with deeper water for turtle and fish swimming, as well as a sloping area up to some shallower water, where turtles can rest with their heads out of the water, but with their bodies still beneath it. Another way to provide resting places for pond turtles is by placing live floating plants in the pond. People striving for a natural appearance should do this regardless. Just be careful which plants you use, as some, such as duckweed, can take over your pond. Lilies of different types, of course, are often used.
It is possible to get fancy when building the pond, by pouring cement and installing mechanical filtration. Or you can simply use a pond liner, which is basically a big rubber mat that you place into the hole to prevent the water from turning the whole thing into a giant mud pit. There are also heavy-duty plastic tubs or pools that you can sink into the ground. When the liner or tub is in place, you can then landscape around it with rocks and plants. You could even install a waterfall if you like. Research your options. Water gardening and pond building has been increasing in popularity over recent years, and you can find lots of pond products that will help you with your turtle pond project (one theory for the increase in pond popularity cites the fact that the U.S. economy sucks so bad; rather than travel as much, people are staying home more often, and they are working on projects such as pond building to entertain themselves).
Turtle basking site placement should be carefully considered. Of course, some nice flat rocks stacked up in an area of the pond that gets a lot of sun will be favored by the turtles, as will logs or thick branches. I’m sure many of you have seen turtles all lined up next to each other, or even on top of each other, on a log at the edge of a pond or lake. They’ll drop into the water and scoot to the bottom at the first hint of danger (and to them, pretty much any movement seems to hint of danger). Providing places for your turtles to emerge from the water to bask in the sun is of paramount importance, but consider having some haul-out areas in a shadier portion of the pond, as well. When you’re stacking rocks, be sure they are not precariously arranged in such a fashion that they could topple over and injure your turtles. Stack them solidly. If necessary, you can even use epoxy or cement to stick them together.
Depending on how rural an area in which you live, backyard ponds can attract an assortment of wildlife, and some of the wildlife it attracts, such as raccoons, may not mind snacking on aquatic turtles. Of course, raccoons may show up even in urban areas. One night recently, I heard some noises outside my front door, and when I went out to investigate, a huge raccoon startled me when it leapt up to clamber over the fence between my house and my neighbor’s. I’ve been seeing possums in my yard for years, but that was my first raccoon sighting. Of course, this was put to shame by a later report of the two coyotes neighbors said they saw running down the middle of the street in front of my house! Soon after that, the wandering cat population went down slightly. Anyway, visiting wildlife (or visiting children, pet dogs, etc.) is one reason why you should include some depth to your turtle pond, so they can dive in and seek safety at the bottom. You can also try critter-proofing the area around the pond with various screening, electrified fences, etc. Some of these things don’t do much in regard to creating a pleasant, natural look, and neither does placing screening over the pond itself, but do whatever you think is necessary for the safety of your turtles. Of course, ponds can also attract other herps, such as frogs and other amphibians, and maybe even other turtles.
This blog is meant to get you thinking about building a pond, and to whet your appetite for the idea. It’s not a how-to, but you can find lots of do-it-yourself articles about outdoor ponds here. If you scan through the article topic lists you’ll see articles about pond construction, filtration and more that will educate you to a great degree. One I will recommend in particular is a really good article about building an outdoor ornamental fish pond, which can be found here. While it’s technically about building a pond for fish, the basics remain the same, and this article will go a long way in helping you plan a terrific outdoor refuge for your sun-loving turtles.
If you don’t have the space or inclination to excavate and set up a pond, you can always take the quickie “kiddie-pool” route, and use one of these to provide your basking turtles with some outdoor time. Buy a plastic wading pool, stack some rocks and logs in it, and just add water and turtles. These are easy to clean, and they provide an easy way to get your aquatic turtles outdoors for some healthy sunshine. If you go this route, still heed my previous warnings in regard to providing shady areas and stacking rocks safely. Also, because these pools are not very deep, you may want to consider placing screening over the entire top of the pool to keep turtles in and intruders out.
Do what you can to provide your aquatic turtles with the space they need, and, if possible, the sunlight they crave. An outdoor pond, especially during the warm months ahead, can provide both of these things. Dig it!