A Short Tale About Turtle Rage

Overcrowding can lead to many problems. In our society, we see it reflected in various criminal acts such as theft and road rage.

Are other species immune to the pressures associated with this lack of personal space? Do other animals on this planet choose to live in close proximity to each other?

This is a story of how tight quarters affected a group of animals often thought of as slow and mellow.

Mrs. Tokuda brought in her pet box turtle Speedy for a physical exam. The reason for the visit was to find out if there was something going on with Speedy’s shell.

“Well, Doc, I would say that I noticed these soft divots about a month ago. Speedy started out with one, but as the weeks went by, I counted more and more. All in all, I think he has five spots.” Mrs. Tokuda pointed to each one before handing Speedy to me.

Sure enough, Speedy had five areas on his shell that were soft to the touch. Two of these lesions were on his carapace (shell that sits on his back) and three were on his plastron (shell that covers his underside).

“Mrs. Tokuda, these soft spots are what we often call shell rot. It is usually a sign of living in a dirty environment, but it also can be a reflection of Speedy’s immune system, especially if he is stressed out about something.”

Taking out a cotton swab, I gently rubbed away the soft, diseased layer of shell with an antiseptic solution.

“Carefully clean off the soft spots and apply betadine or iodine onto the shallow crater that is left behind,” I recommended. “Do this daily and they should heal up nicely.”

Mrs. Tokuda pondered for a moment, then said, “I’m pretty sure that the yard Speedy lives in is clean, and the other turtles don’t have this problem.”

“Other turtles?” I asked. “I don’t want you to think I’m one of those hoarders, Doc, but the box turtles that I’ve rescued continue to reproduce. All in all, I have 32 turtles in my yard,” replied Mrs. Tokuda.

While listening to Mrs. Tokuda, I carefully examined Speedy’s tail and saw what I expected: It was stubby, as if something chewed off half of it.

“Do all your turtles have short tails?”

“Funny you should mention that,” she said. “I’m starting to notice that the turtles sometimes chase after each other. When they bite, the retreating turtle sometimes loses the tip of its tail. I just thought it was sibling rivalry.”

I explained to Mrs. Tokuda that this behavior is most likely linked to the lack of personal space. Having a few turtles in the yard would be fine, but 32 were just too many. In fact, the stress caused by the crowding probably contributed to Speedy’s shell rot. By the end of the appointment, Mrs. Tokuda promised to find homes for a handful of her extended family.

Tail-biting may not seem too bad, but in the turtle world it could be considered “yard rage,” so to speak. Thank goodness we humans don’t resort to that type of behavior.

Dr. John Kaya is director of the Windward Community College veterinary technician program and associate veterinarian for VCA University Animal Hospital.