Can I Release My Box Turtle Back Into the Wild?


In most cases it's a bad idea to release pet box turtles into the wild

It’s usually a bad idea to release pet box turtles into the wild
Cropped and enhanced version of JoJo by Matt Williamson @ Flickr;
licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Did you find a box turtle and think it would be a fun pet, but now you’re regretting it? Or maybe you found one crossing the street and picked it up to protect it, but you don’t really want to keep it? On the other hand, maybe you’ve had your pet for years but don’t have time for it anymore?

Whatever your reason for not wanting to keep your turtle, you might be wondering where—or if—you can release it back into the wild.

The answer depends partly on how you got it, how long you’ve had it and whether you know exactly where it came from.

Releasing Wild-Caught Box Turtles

These can usually be released back into the wild …

BUT! …

Only if you’ve only had him for a short time. And only if you put him back where you found him.

To a box turtle, home is where he was born. And they will always try to go back home, even years later and no matter where they were moved to. So if you can’t put him back where he came from, he could get injured or killed trying to get there. Probably not the freedom you wanted for your pet.

If you’ve had your turtle for a long time, he also may no longer be able to survive in the wild, even if that’s where he came from. Even if you’ve tried to feed your turtle right and keep him healthy, he might not have the nutrient stores he needs to make it through the winter. Winter and hibernation are hard enough on wild turtles. Many don’t make it through, and it’s even less likely that your pet will make it.

Also, even though box turtles have instincts for hunting for food and finding hiding places to escape from heat, find humidity or get away from predators, one you’ve had in captivity for years may not have strong enough instincts to do these things well. A long-time pet is more likely to get sick and die or be killed by predators.

Releasing Captive-Bred Box Turtles

These should never be released into the wild. They’ve never had to survive on their own and are unlikely to be able to do so. Especially if the kind of box turtle you have is not native to your area.

In many places it’s also illegal. Captive box turtles may carry bacteria or other germs that don’t harm them or you but could be dangerous to other wild box turtles. And if yours is a non-native turtle, it also shouldn’t be allowed to breed with the native population. In most of the US, box turtle populations are endangered enough. They don’t need your pet possibly adding to their problems.

What Can You Do With a Box Turtle You Don’t Want?

Find her a new home. There are a lot of people who would love a box turtle! Ask friends and family if they or someone they know would like her. If a local pet store sells box turtles, they may be able to help, although they will probably not sell it for you. A herp society may also be able to help you find a good home.

Make Sure You Follow Local Laws

Some states, especially those where box turtles are native, regulate both possession and transfer of box turtles. In some it is illegal to take box turtles from the wild. Once you have a box turtle, no matter where you got it, it may also be illegal to return it to the wild.

Some states require a special permit to keep even one box turtle. If you give your turtle to someone living in one of these states, that person must apply for a permit or add your turtle to the permit they already have.

Make sure you check your state laws before you do anything with your box turtle.

All these rules might make you want to just go back to your original idea to let your turtle go in the wild. But remember what we discussed above. Releasing him could be a death sentence for your turtle, and possibly for other wild turtles in the area. Box turtle eating strawberry

If you cared enough about your pet to keep him safe before, please continue to keep him and his relatives safe: Find him a suitable new home.


12 thoughts on “Can I Release My Box Turtle Back Into the Wild?

  1. Debbie Harms

    I found a small female box turtle 1 week ago crossing a road. Worried she might get run over by a car I stopped and picked her up,
    unaware that they are protected in some areas and also in decline as well.
    I also have a 4 year old living in my home whom will not let her stay burrowed, etc. I want to take her back to her home and release her back and am concerned if it has been too long after a week.
    I need to know if you think releasing her back where I found her will be okay. I want her to going back to “Her Home” not some new home. I wish I had known more about these turtles before I picked her up assuming I was helping her.
    Please advise me. I feel her wild instincts have not been compromised after just 1 week. She is still bright eyed and active with and outside outing daily for sunshine and exercise.

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      One week should be fine to still release her. And definitely bring her back where you found her. If you remember which side of the road she was heading for, put her there. That’s where she wants to be and she’ll most likely try to cross the road again if you put her on the side she was coming from.

      And don’t be too hard on yourself! You had the right idea … getting her out of the road is helping. But next time, just bring her to the side of the road where she was heading, out of the way of cars.

      Thanks for caring enough to help keep a little boxie alive!

  2. Rem

    i honestly dont know what to do, this turtle was given to me as a “gift” and i feed it each day but it just looks so lonely and as i just found out my stupid maid is cleaning its box in an abusive horrible way, what can i do?! I dont want this poor thing to live in pain

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      If this turtle has been in captivity for a long time, then releasing it is not a good idea.

      If you want to keep it, read up on how to care for it. Check out the rest of this site and also:

      You can also find more information by Googling “box turtle care”.

      You’ll also need to tell your maid not to clean the turtle’s home. Or teach your maid how to clean it. I’d probably opt to do it myself so I was sure it was being done right.

      If you don’t want to keep it, there are some rescue organizations that specialize in reptiles. And a few that don’t specialize in them but will accept them. Google “turtle rescue” or “turtle rescue near me” or add your city and/or state to the “turtle rescue” search. If you can’t find any near you, try contacting one or more of the ones you do find to see if they can help you find a way to get the turtle to a safe place.

      You might also try asking in some turtle forums, like the American Box Turtle section of Tortoise Forum. IF you Google “tortoise forum” you can find more.

      Hope this helps!

  3. C

    We live on a busy road, and I found the turtle crossing my drive way parallel to the road… I did not want to just move it out the way, as It would be really easy for someone to smoosh him flying down the road. Also, the weather is about to get horrendous, lots of rain and really cold. I took him in for the night… should I just put him in the back yard tomorrow even if it’s freezing and raining non stop?

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Claire,
      It’s really easy to feel sorry for these little guys, isn’t it? Especially when the weather’s nasty. But they do live outside quite successfully, and in all kinds of weather.

      My only concern is when you say freezing. Do you mean literally freezing? Because that’s too cold for him, and he should already have been hibernating. If you just mean colder than you’d like, do put him back outside to get on with his life. Although if you can wait until the rain passes that would be nice. If not, try putting him in a protected area, like under a bush.

      If it’s actually freezing in your area, he might be a pet that someone let go. See if any of the shelters/rescue organizations in your area will take a turtle. Or contact a wildlife rehabber to see if they can help.

      Good luck, and thanks for caring about our turtles!

  4. Susan

    Yesterday my brother found a tiny baby box turtle (about 2 inches) in our garage while he was doing some work in there. So we took him inside because it seemed too cold for him to stay out there and unsafe. We were planning to care for him but it’s illegal to here. I tried finding some rehabilitation centers in our area (Savannah), but no luck. Where should we release him and how? Since we don’t know where his original home is and we live in a community with a lot of houses, I worry he’ll get ran over. Or because he’s so small he’ll freeze or starve. We’ve thought about releasing him in the woodsy area down the street because it would make sense that that would be his home. But now I’m worried he might get hurt returning to his real home! Help!

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Susan,

      I’m not sure what the best answer is for you 🙁 Like you, I worry it’s too cold for a baby outside, and by January he should have been hibernating already. But since he was out & about, maybe it’s been warm enough that he has stayed active this whole time. Or possibly he was hibernating and woke up because there was a stretch of warm days? That can happen.

      I wish it wasn’t illegal to keep them in Georgia & you could keep him until it warms up. Since that’s not possible, I think I would bring him to the wooded area you mentioned. It does seem likely that’s where he came from. It’s also probably the best place for him to find a good place to dig in and hibernate again if necessary. If there’s a spot with deep leaf litter and/or some kind of shelter, consider putting him there.

      Thank you for caring about a little box turtle. I wish I had a better answer for you.

  5. cambrie hanks

    i didn’t know taking a box turtle from the side of the road caused so much damage and i found a box turtle on the road the other day i want to put it back but i forgot where i found it what should i do so it doesn’t get hurt???

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      🙁 I’m not sure, but the best I can suggest is to put it as close to where you found it as possible. Try to remember, at least the approximate place you found it. What street? What was nearby? Thinking about where you were coming from/going might help jog your memory.

      Good luck! 🙂

  6. Hunter

    Hello. I found an eastern box turtle (guessing no more than 3 years old by the size) crossing a busy road in Atlanta. I took it home with the intention of releasing it close to where i found it. I’d read somewhere that they only range around within a mile of birth in their lifetimes. However, when I returned to the area in the direction the little one came from/was heading to, there was no suitable habitat. no area of forest or water source, just houses with a lots of fenced-in yards. I suppose it was an escapee from a pet owner? Don’t know for sure, but think it would be a death sentence to let it go in that area. Would its young age, perhaps, make it more amenable to relocation? I know several spots in this area with decent sized populations of the same species. Thanks for your time

    1. boxturtleworld Post author

      Hi Hunter,

      Obviously I can’t know for sure, but it doesn’t have to be an escaped pet just because it was in an area with lots of homes. In recent years experts have realized these guys can and do live in these areas. Fences don’t really stop them from wandering. And even if you didn’t see an obvious source of water, there could be an area where water pools after rain & that might be big enough & last long enough to keep the turtle happy. Someone might even have a vegetable garden it likes to raid for stuff like tomatoes that have a high moisture content.

      In the wild there are no guarantees no matter what you do. And I’m not sure at what age they become fixated on finding their home if they are moved. If it was me I think I’d let it go where I found it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *