Thom Smith: Remember, real turtles aren't ninjas


Many say the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie released in 1990 is a classic with adventure, action, comedy and amazing effects. That film spawned three sequels and a TV series, in addition to countless games and paraphernalia that accompanies such success. We can take some pride that the TMNT idea originated in Western Massachusetts when (struggling) artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird living in Northampton came up with the Turtles in November 1983.

This August, with the kids who saw the first 1990 film now adults, a new generation will be eagerly awaiting for the (nearly endless) coming attractions and advertisements to finish and the movie, the latest TMNT, to begin. It promises to be entertaining and fun, but the movie is not what this column is about.

I write of the anticipated repeat of the downside that follows flicks where animals, real or contrived, have the starring role. For instance, following the release of "101 Dalmatians," people bought thousands of dogs on a whim, many of which ended up in shelters.

And, excerpted from a letter from Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson, co-founders of American Tortoise Rescue, "Since the first movie was released in 1990, hundreds of thousands of live turtles, mostly water turtles called red eared sliders, were purchased for between $10 and $25 after each ninja movie was released. The result? Many, if not most, were dumped and even deliberately killed or flushed down the toilet."

Unfortunately, children do not realize that real turtles do not fly, perform stunts or do any of the exciting moves fictional movie turtles do. Parents, trying to please their children, purchased live turtles, which ended up languishing in tanks. Or, when the kids realized after a few weeks that these were not ninja turtles, the turtles were dumped illegally into rivers and lakes as well as dumpsters, flushed down toilets or relinquished to shelters and overcrowded rescues. It's estimated that 90 percent died. As an aside, zoos do not take turtles.

Note: Purchasing baby turtles with shells under four inches is against the law. Releasing them into the wild in most places is also against the law.

"The effect worldwide was just as devastating. In 1990, some 250,000 turtles were imported into Britain to feed the demand of young Turtles' fans who wanted them as pets. For only a few pounds, kids could easily buy a small turtle, not knowing that it would grow to be the size of a dinner plate. When the kids no longer wanted to take care of the animals, they were often dumped in rivers and ponds, where they devastated native ecosystems. The problem became so severe that the European Union banned the sale of the most popular breed, red-eared terrapins, in 1997."

Called red-eared sliders in this country, these baby turtles (less than four inches) are not sold legally in many states, including Massachusetts, because they carry salmonella, which can make both children and adults very sick. Most groups and organizations dealing with live animals will not recommend turtles or tortoises for children under 13 because of salmonella exposure and because the kids lose interest almost immediately. Just ask Scott Jervas at The Berkshire Museum Aquarium how many turtles are offered to that institution every year.

What can you do to help? Buy your children Ninja action figures and toys instead of live turtles and save a turtle's life, and perhaps even your child's. Take your children to a zoo, aquarium or nature center to learn about real turtles, not those that fly about, saving the world.

For more information: Follow @tortoiserescue on Twitter; On Facebook, search American Tortoise Rescue; Or visit,

Questions and comments for Thom Smith: Email


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