If you are no longer able to give your tortoise the love and care that they deserve, you may be wondering if the best solution to your problems is to return the tortoise to the wild. Unfortunately, the quick answer is “please don’t!”.
Can a pet tortoise survive in the wild? A pet tortoise is not likely to survive in the wild because it is difficult to adapt to the new environment. Many tortoises released into the wild may catch a disease, get attacked by a predator, starve to death, or freeze to death. Even if they survived, a new tortoise may cause problems to the local ecosystem.
You should never release a tortoise into the wild because it’s not good for the tortoise and it’s not good for the wild, either. Let’s explore these problems and find alternative solutions to releasing an unwanted pet.
The 9 Problems With Releasing A Pet Tortoise Into The Wild
There are 9 major issues with releasing a tortoise into the wild and they all need to be taken very seriously. Your pet is severely in danger of death in a wild environment and they may cause serious harm to the rest of the animals and ecosystem that they come into contact with.
- They can spread disease In the wild to other tortoises and species
- They can catch diseases that they have not been previously exposed to
- There is a high chance of them being eaten by predators
- They may starve because of problems foraging for food
- They may freeze to death or overheat if the weather is not right
- A lack of appropriate humidity can cause death by dehydration
- It can have very serious consequences on the local ecosystem
- It’s possible that you will be introducing bad genes to the local tortoise population
- It may very well be against the law
They Might Spread Diseases
When the West invaded the countries that make up North and South America, they didn’t just bring guns from overseas – they also brought diseases. Diseases that had little impact on Westerners who were used to catching them and who had some partial immunity to the – wreaked havoc open local populations.
Common problems like the flu could kill 90% or more of the people who caught them because they had no previous experience in fighting off the infections that were now tearing through their bodies.
This is the biggest risk of releasing a captive animal into the wild. It will not have shared the same ecosystem as the native tortoises and thus, it might be harboring diseases which barely even affect your tortoise, but which could be utterly lethal for the local tortoise population.
It’s pretty much universally agreed that what happened in the Americas was a crime beyond imagining, it’s best not to try and recreate this using tortoise.
They Might Catch Diseases
Conversely, of course, your tortoise hasn’t had any exposure to the diseases that the local tortoises are carrying and there’s no guarantee that it won’t get very sick, itself.
The same principle applies in reverse. Without any immunity to such diseases and conditions, your tortoise is entirely vulnerable to catching the local equivalent of a minor cold and yet, still dying a slow, painful death because it has no immunity to it.
Many people want to release animals into the wild because the believe that they are doing the animal a favor and allowing it to abandon “captivity” for “freedom”. Sadly, this simply isn’t the way that the world works, and the more likely outcome is to exchange “captivity” for “death.”
They Might Get Eaten By Predators
Wild tortoises grow up with the threat of predation every single day. They never know when it will be time for a dog to come bounding through their habitat or for an eagle to swoop down, pick them up and then drop them on to the rocks below to feast on their meat.
Thus, wild tortoises spend a lot of time learning survival tricks to protect themselves from these predators. Pet tortoises, on the other hand, face no such threats. They grow up in entirely safe environments which are almost never or never exposed to any threat at all.
As you can imagine, if you don’t have to deal with a threat – you never need to learn the skills to handle such a threat. So, if you release a tortoise back into the wild that lacks these skills and they encounter a threat – they become breakfast for a predator as they have no means of defense.
If disease doesn’t kill the “freed” tortoise, then a predator may well finish them off.
They May Not Know How To Forage For Food
This might sound a bit silly but it’s a very important thing – a pet tortoise doesn’t forage for food; they get fed by their owner. That means they don’t learn to forage for themselves. Now, you might think “when they get hungry enough, they’ll learn” but that might not be the case.
Firstly, it’s possible that the tortoise simply is too stressed by the incredible change in its circumstances, not only does it not learn to forage but it doesn’t even try. It sits there miserably starving to death and unless something else comes along and kills it, it probably does starve to death.
However, let us pretend that our tortoise is not so emotionally frail that it opts for the horrors of starvation but instead, it gathers its tortoise wits about it and goes hunting for its own food. How will it tell what plants are safe to eat and which ones are poisonous to it?
It can’t. It has no experience of the environment it is in. There’s no way for it to know whether that plant over there is a tasty treat packed full of calcium or whether it’s actually a foxglove packed full of poison which will lead it to an agonizing death.
That means, of course, that not knowing how to forage is a very serious problem for a “freed” tortoise. Every meal that it has might just be their last.
The Temperature Might Not Be Right For Them
This isn’t going to be a problem for every tortoise released into the wild. If you live in Saudi Arabia and your tortoise is a desert tortoise and you put him in the same place as other members of his species – you may be risking that they’ll all die of disease but he’s not going to find the climate hard to get used to.
However, if you live in a temperate zone and your tortoise is a desert tortoise then the odds are nearly certain that the first time the temperature drops below zero, your tortoise will become a solidly frozen and very much dead tortoise.
Yes, it’s true your tortoise can freeze to death. This is true of all reptiles and to put your tortoise at risk of this is a genuinely cruel act.
Related article: Can a tortoise freeze to death?
The Humidity May Not Be Right For Them
A tortoise likes to be kept moist – much more moist than your average reptile. Many tortoise owners give their tortoises regular soaks (if you want to know how to do this see our article on how to soak a tortoise safely) to allow them to keep hydrated.
Fun fact: tortoises can drink through a gland in their cloaca and thus they may often not drink very much (if any) water orally.
If you don’t introduce a tortoise into an environment where it can give itself a soak and do so safely, then it can either dry out and die of dehydration or it might even drown, while it might be a turtle that can walk on land, tortoises aren’t cut out for swimming at all.
You May Ruin The Ecosystem
The focus on eco-friendliness also applies to releasing creatures into an ecosystem where they do not belong. Your tortoise may be harboring diseases that don’t just affect other tortoises, but which might cause havoc among other creatures in the local area.
Then there’s the chance that your tortoise accidentally stumbles on some rare vegetation and snacks on it, killing off insects and other small creatures which rely on that particular plant for their food.
And so on… in short, it’s impossible to predict the consequences for the ecosystem of releasing animals that don’t belong there. The cane toad is ruining much of Australia (as the rabbit did before it) and the cat has wiped out much of New Zealand’s bird life. Ecosystems can suffer truly dire consequences when non-native species enter the local environment.
You May Be Introducing Bad Genes Into The Local Tortoise Population
So, let’s assume that despite all of the possible dire problems that you’ve seen above that none of them have taken place and by some sort of miracle, your pet tortoise has not only survived but they have thrived!
They’re now in a place to start breeding with other tortoises nearby and being a frisky wee beast your tortoise is certainly happy to get this process underway. Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a problem here.
Pet tortoises are often the result of poor breeding practices. This can include but is not limited to inbreeding. This allows for the production of characteristics that pet owners desire (like particularly striking shell markings) but it also can mean that pet tortoises have some truly terrible genetic problems too.
By allowing your tortoise to get out and mix it up with the wild tortoises, it’s possible that you are adding a weakness to the local gene pool and that this mixes with other genetic issues in the population and that your tortoise’s children or grandchildren will be severely mutated. So, don’t do it.
You May Be Breaking The Law
Finally, depending on where you are in the world – releasing a tortoise into the wild can be completely against the law. In the United States this is likely to vary on a state-by-state basis but in the United Kingdom, for example, the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 prohibits the release of any animal into the wild and in particular releasing any non-native animal into the wild.
The act explains that releasing into the wild is the removal of any animal from captivity into a state where the animal can choose where it wants to go. So, there’s no confusion here – letting a tortoise go under any circumstances would be an action which contravenes this law.
Breaking laws can result in fines and/or imprisonment and if your case catches the eye of local media, you’re likely to become famous for cruelty to animals, that’s not the kind of fame that most of us are looking for.
What Should You Do If You Can No Longer Care For Your Tortoise?
Now, we understand that people’s circumstances can change and that it’s completely possible for anyone to find themselves in a situation where they are no longer able to care for their pet for any number of reasons. We’re not here to judge you and we don’t want you to feel bad about this. We just don’t want you to release your tortoise into the wild because it’s bad for the tortoise and it’s bad for the environment.
The best way to deal with a tortoise you can’t care for is to find a new owner for it. Join a Facebook group or advertise on Craigslist or in the local press and see if you can find someone who wants to take the tortoise in.
If you do this for a period of time and you can’t find a new owner that is suitable, then the your next alternative is to contact a local animal shelter (just Google for details) and then ask them if they can take the tortoise in until such a point they can rehome it effectively. If they understand that you aren’t able to care for the animal any more – they should be happy to help.
Other Lessons: Never Take A Tortoise From The Wild
Wild animals don’t make for great pets. They don’t have experience being around people and the transition from the wild to captivity can cause huge amounts of stress even to the point where the animal dies of misery.
It’s also illegal in most places to take a tortoise from the wild. Many tortoise species are endangered and interfering with an endangered animal will get you jail time and a very substantial fine.
If you want to own a tortoise – you should buy one from a legal breeder with all the relevant paperwork.
That means it’s as bad to take a tortoise from the wild as it is to return a pet tortoise to a wild that it has never known or experienced before.
Can a pet tortoise survive in the wild? Bluntly, the most likely outcome of releasing a tortoise into the wild is that the tortoise will end up dead and it’s unlikely to be a quick or easy death for that matter.
If it does survive you risk causing major problems in the ecosystem that might include introducing diseases or bad genes into local tortoise populations. The best thing that you can do for a tortoise you can’t care for is not to release it into the wild but rather to rehome it or contact an animal shelter and get them to handle rehoming it for you.
Please take the time necessary to do what is right for the tortoise too.