Cowabunga?

How Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles devastated the world’s turtle population

During the height of “Turtle Mania,” red-eared sliders were shipped all over the world as pets, but a lot of them didn’t stay in their tanks.

Leonardo may lead, Donatello might do machines, Raphael is, indeed, cool-but-rude. Michelangelo is a party dude. But actual turtles don’t really do much.

Real turtles kind of just sit there, swim around a little, and eat. That’s about it. They also live a long time — like, 30 years — and they grow to about the size of a dinner plate. For all of these reasons, turtles can make for rather costly, unexciting pets that require a long-term commitment.

For some pet owners, this may be fine. I have a pet turtle myself — he’s 14 and his name is Grover — and I’m totally okay with our very one-sided relationship. But turtles are often bought as a cheap impulse purchase for a child and, in short order, the kid grows bored with the pet and dumps it in a local pond.

The turtle-dumping problem was never more pronounced than during the height of popularity for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the animated TV series. During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the dumping of pet turtles around the world got so bad it resulted in millions of homeless turtles and changed turtle ecology all over the planet.

I have a pet turtle myself, and I’m totally okay with our very one-sided relationship.Brian VanHooker

While all kinds of turtles have become pets, by far the most popular is the red-eared slider, a green turtle with yellow stripes and red markings where the ears would be. Native to the southern United States and northern Mexico, red-eared sliders started becoming pets in the 1930s and got really popular in the 1950s.

Back then, sliders could be purchased through the mail.

For just $1.69, a kid could order a baby turtle in a “special moss-protected package.” Look:

“Only $1.69”Reptiles Magazine

After growing in popularity in America, red-eared sliders started to be sold overseas. According to Paul Eversfield, a turtle hobbyist in the UK who is involved with an ecological project known as the Turtle Tally, this was part of a bigger trend in pets at the time.

“They began to come to the UK with the goldfish market after the war,” Eversfield tells Inverse.

In 1975, the turtles-as-pets trend saw a steep decline after the sale of red-eared sliders smaller than four inches was banned in the United States due to salmonella. While turtles of all ages can have salmonella, tiny, dime-sized turtle hatchlings were being sold en masse and there was a fear that children would put them in their mouths and get sick (some children have even died from turtle-related salmonella poisoning).

After 1975, the diminished turtle pet trade remained pretty unremarkable and likely would have stayed that way — had the pop culture gods not intervened a decade later.

“Since the movie came out, every kid on the block wants a turtle.”

Enter Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird who, in 1984, created the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Designed as a parody of Daredevil, the Ninja Turtles were an independent comic that caught the attention of a marketing genius named Mark Freedman who brought the Turtles to a toy company called Playmates. Playmates then helped get a cartoon developed and the rest, as they say, is history.

This now goes for a cool $150 on eBay. Truly cool. Really rude.ebay

As you likely know already, in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had a cartoon, three theatrical films, hundreds of action figures, and just about every kind of branded merchandise you can think of — including their own breakfast cereal.

“Turtle Mania” didn’t stop with the media blitz. It also saw an explosion in the popularity of pet turtles all across the country: “Since the movie came out, every kid on the block wants a turtle,” Oregon pet store owner Joe Coons told his local paper in May of 1990. Just a week later, in Jackson, Tennessee, a pet store owner lamented a shortage in the availability of pet turtles since the first film’s release six weeks earlier. Similar boosts in pet turtle sales were also reported in York, Pennsylvania, Springfield, Missouri, Wilmington, Delaware, and Escondido, California, just to name a few.

From the York Daily Record. April 23, 1990.Newspapers.com/The York Daily Record

The craze spread well beyond the United States. Because red-eared sliders are plentiful and easy to breed, farms in the United States — particularly in Louisiana — began selling millions more of the terrapins overseas. Prior to 1989, about 3.5 million turtles were exported annually, but from 1989 to 1997, the yearly exports jumped up 257 percent, to almost 9 million.

Ninja Turtles aren't entirely to blame. When the U.S. government shut down the sales of hatchlings in 1975, many turtle farms went out of business, but some began exporting more, as the law didn’t restrict that. There were also significant exports to China as food and for use in medicines, as well as for pets. And in Taiwan, red-eared sliders were used for Buddhist ceremonial purposes.

The worldwide craze over the Ninja Turtles was still a major contributor to the explosion in slider exports. “The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon series has revived an interest in the animals as pets,” noted Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald in October of 1990. Similar reports from the UK also exist, and since the Ninja Turtles were a worldwide phenomenon, it likely led to increased turtle pet ownership in non-English-speaking countries as well.

But once those kids got bored of their pet turtles — which, trust me, happens pretty quickly — the turtles often got dumped in a nearby body of water. As the UK’s Wingham Wildlife Park explains on its website: “After the popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films in the ’80s, the sale of these terrapins rocketed in the pet trade, however when these baby pets outgrew their small fish tanks, many of these turtles were sadly released into the wild all over the world, leading to introduced populations of this species in a huge array of countries.”

This is also confirmed by the U.S. Geological Survey, which specifically credits the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle television cartoon craze” with the abundance of wild red-eared sliders worldwide.

Red-eared sliders.Konstantin Iagoudine / 500px/500Px Plus/Getty Images

Both then and now, when red-eared sliders are released, they inevitably make an impact on their new environments. They often carry diseases and sometimes — because they’re omnivorous — people are introducing a new predator into an ecosystem.

The most widespread issue, though, is that the red-eared slider alters the role of an area’s native turtle species because red-eared sliders are bigger and have far more offspring than most other turtles. As a result, they compete with native turtles for food, basking space, and nesting space. In 2014, they were named as one of the 100 worst alien invasive species by the Global Invasive Species Database

Allen Salzberg, the editor of HerpDigest (tag line:All the Herp News That's Fit To Print”) tells Inverse that red-eared sliders were already a problem, but it was “made worse” by TMNT.

I was sounding the alarm back then to news outlets about this issue,” he says, “but it made no difference. In Central Park now, the only turtles in any pond are red-eared sliders, they’ve completely replaced the painted turtle, which was there before.

“Now, you could argue that it doesn’t matter in Central Park because everything there is artificial anyway, but red-eared sliders have also threatened painted turtles outside of the city, which is the native habitat of the painted turtle.”

Red-eared slider terrapins, Central Park, New York City.florentina georgescu photography/Moment/Getty Images

Across the country in California, Greg Pauly, the curator of herpetology at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum, says these turtles could be harming the environment too.

“We did a study that measured the effect that red-eared sliders are having on the Western pond turtle and we found that when you remove a lot of the red-eared sliders, one of the outcomes is that the body conditions of the western pond turtles does improve,” Pauly says. “That says there is definitely competition for resources.”

Pauly’s study is actually one of very few that specifically measures the impact of red-eared sliders in the wild, with good reason. The study involved spending “hundreds of hours” trapping red-eared sliders, making the entire process both difficult and costly.

“It’s also not fun,” he says. “Most of us that get into herpetology do it because we love the animals, so it’s frustrating to do these studies where turtles often have to be euthanized because we can’t find homes for them.”

“There is definitely competition for resources.”

Because studies are so rare, much of the evidence citing red-eared sliders as a problem is anecdotal or it comes from studies done under controlled laboratory conditions. For example, a lab study in Europe illustrated that the red-eared slider is likely impacting the size and mortality of the European pond turtle, which is a native species to southern and western Europe.

In the UK, where there are no native turtles that still exist, The Independent reported in 2010 that, “As committed scavengers without natural predators in Britain, terrapins, and turtles find themselves at the top of the food chain in urban ponds and watercourses, chomping their way through a menu of native species that includes newts, fish, toads, frogspawn.”

In Australia, the red-eared slider has been officially cited as a threat to their native turtles including the eastern long-necked turtle and the Murray River short-necked turtle. In South Africa, they’ve been identified as a threat to the marsh terrapin and the serrated hinged terrapin. And in Japan, red-eared sliders now greatly outnumber all of their native turtle species.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III (1993).New Line Cinema

These problems have only been made worse by the introduction of red-eared slider farms in the last two decades. As Dr. Steven Pearson, a research scientist with the New York Department of Conservation, explains, “In China, there are farms for the red-eared slider and now, many of them being spread around the world come from China.”

These farms have also largely supplanted the American turtle farms, says Pauly, simply because the labor costs involved are much lower.

So what can be done about it? Well, like so much of mankind’s impact on the Earth, you can’t unring this bell either, but measures have been taken to at least mitigate the situation. Red-eared sliders were banned by the European Union in 1996 following the Ninja Turtle craze. Another bill in 2015 banned all other kinds of sliders. They’re also banned in South Africa and Australia and Japan may soon ban them as well.

There are also turtle sanctuaries, but they have their own complications: “Many wildlife rehabbers don’t accept red-eared sliders because if they did, there’d be no space for other turtles,” says Salzburg, the HerpDigest editor.

Turtles at Tokyo’s Shinjuku Central Park.Feifei Cui-Paoluzzo/Moment/Getty Images
“I got into this because I loved Ninja Turtles as a kid and recognized as an adult that these red-eared sliders need help.”

In the UK, Michael Butcher runs the Kent Turtle Sanctuary. A TMNT fan, Butcher runs one of the few sanctuaries in Britain that can accept red-eared sliders.

“I haven’t been able to get the support from the government to get the property needed to actually care for the animals,” he says. “I also get next to nothing in donations. Without that, I can’t care for these turtles and may have to shut down. I don’t want to do that because I love these animals.

“I got into this because I loved Ninja Turtles as a kid and recognized as an adult that these red-eared sliders need help.”

Awareness and education, to some degree, might help the situation. Susan Tellem, the executive director of the American Tortoise Rescue, tells me the best solution is to simply stop buying pet turtles.

“When the new Ninja Turtle movies were coming out a few years ago, I was telling parents to buy their kids Ninja Turtles toys, not the real thing,” she says, “because these animals so often get dumped.”

Tellem has also worked with Nickelodeon — which purchased the Teenage Mutant Turtles in 2009 — to promote World Turtle Day, which was founded by the American Tortoise Rescue in 2000 and has since become a worldwide celebration.

TMNT celebrates World Turtle Day 2020.Twitter

As individuals, the most important thing we can do is educate ourselves about what we’re getting ourselves into when we get a new pet.

As Pauly explains, “Red-eared sliders really aren’t an ideal pet when you think about it. It’s a six-dollar turtle that, in a couple of years, needs a $500 tank to take care of it.

“The only reason why it’s so popular in the pet trade is because the people who farm them can generate such large numbers of them — that’s it.”

“It’s not a good world to be a red-eared slider.”

“Now they’re all over the world, invading all these waterways and threatening other turtles,” he continues, “but it’s not the red-eared sliders’ fault. It’s not a good world to be a red-eared slider either given that they’re farmed in such large numbers in their non-native country, then shipped all over the world in terrible conditions, only to later be dumped by irresponsible pet owners.”

That being said — and I’m saying this as a Ninja-Turtle-loving, red-eared slider owner myself — perhaps one of the worst ways for someone to express their love of turtles is to support a pet trade that negatively affects both native turtles and red-eared sliders in such devastating ways.

Instead, educate yourself about what it takes to care for a turtle and maybe get yourself one that costs a little more upfront, but that's more suited to actually being a pet.

For those out there who already have a red-eared slider, please don’t dump it in a nearby pond, even if it’s not the most exciting of companions.