Turtle Laws – What Legalities Entails Owning A Pet Turtle?

Turtle laws are meant to protect these hard-shelled reptiles from threats such as the turtle’s extinction, promote their welfare, and preserve the ecosystem, among other purposes. In addition, some of the laws are to protect the owners against public health issues arising from interacting with turtles.

Some turtle laws vary from one location to the other. While some states allow people to keep certain turtle species or a specific number, other states entirely ban their residents from owning a turtle. Besides these laws, there are also international turtle laws. Let’s look at the legalities that entail owning a pet turtle and avoid finding ourselves on the wrong side of the law.

Reasons Why Turtle Laws Exist

1.     To Protect Endangered Or Vulnerable Species

There exist over 300 turtle species in the wild. Some of these turtles are the risk of extinction due to factors such as illegal harvesting, environmental degradation due to human activities, water pollution, and destruction of nesting grounds, among other reasons.

Turtle laws come in handy in regulating the interactions between humans and turtles. These laws apply to controlling the collection, sale, and possession of turtles. They limit the number of turtles one can own, ban ownership or protected turtle species, and govern the collection of the turtles from the wild.

2.     To Protect The Environment

Another benefit of turtle laws is that they aim to protect the ecosystem. In the past, there have been common scenarios where people released their pet turtles into the wild because they could no longer effectively care for them. Such actions lead to an imbalance in the state’s ecosystem, which can adversely affect other animals and plants.

Turtle laws prohibiting turtles owners from releasing their pets into the wild protect the food web strain that such cases cause.

3.     To Promote Public Health

There are turtle laws that prohibit kids, the elderly, and immune suppressed people from interacting with the reptiles. In addition, some states have banned people from having turtles in food establishments or near medical facilities.

These laws help prevent and curb Salmonella infections to these vulnerable groups from the turtles. They also prevent the spread of Salmonella through food. Other turtle laws that promote public health include the 4-inch turtle law.

The 4-Inch Turtle’s Law

We will start with the most common turtle law that applies in all US states. Turtles often carry Salmonella, leading to severe salmonellosis infections in human beings. The most susceptible population is kids and the elderly, as the infection can cause severe illnesses to the extent of hospitalization for these vulnerable groups.

Salmonella spreads by touching turtles, their supplies, habitat, or parts where they roam. Owing to this, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) adopted certain regulations on the trade of small turtle species measuring 4 inches and below.

The 4-inch turtle law has remained in effect to date since 1975. The primary prompt was the Salmonella scare, where kids were putting baby turtles in their mouths. It aims to regulate the commercial trade of these small turtles because of their threat. This law prohibits one from distributing or selling pet turtles measuring 4 inches in carapace length and below.

However, there are exceptions to this law. They include that it doesn’t prohibit a turtle’s private ownership irrespective of the size.

While the 4inch turtle law promotes public health and human safety against Samonella infections, it also has disadvantages. For instance, the law discourages the breeding of rare species as the turtles can’t be traded till they measure 4 inches and above. In addition, it puts pressure on the trade of mature turtles, especially in areas where turtles are sold for food or medicinal purposes.

Ultimately, the law’s intentions are good, and they outweigh its drawbacks. As such, it is good to familiarize yourself with the 4-inch turtle law and adhere to it.

Federal Turtle Law In The US

The US is home to more than 57 native turtle species. Breeding, trading, and possession of these turtles are regulated under federal, state, and local laws in the US.

Their federal laws on turtles apply to all the states in the US pertaining to the commercialization, possession, and other matters regarding turtles.

US turtle federal laws dictate that public distribution or commercial sale of turtles measuring less than 4 inches in carapace length or viable turtle eggs is illegal. In addition, these laws prohibit one from holding the same with the intention of sale or distribution. However, if the turtles are for exhibition,  bona fide education, or scientific purposes, there are exceptions.

In addition, this law, under the Endangered Species Act, protects all sea turtles. It is, therefore, unlawful to commercialize or sell any sea turtle across all states in the US. In addition, the sea turtle laws prohibit one from disturbing sea turtle’s nests and eggs or selling the eggs. The nests of sea turtles are in specific locations along the beach.

You would need a State permit to capture wild sea turtles, which is only allowed for circumstances such as when studying sea turtles. The permit will enable you to retain the specimen in captivity or a holding facility. In addition, you would need to get a Federal permit if your activities exceed the limits of the state since all sea turtles are endangered.

US federal turtle laws, however, allow the import and sale of large turtles as long as they are not on the endangered list or the action is not prohibited by another law such as a particular state’s.

South Dakota and North Carolina states have a total ban of batter trade, offer for sale, and sale of all turtles.

There are also five states, e.g., the District of Columbia and Louisiana state, which require that any turtle on offer for sale must be certified to be free of Salmonella. Further, some states have put laws regulating turtle exposure of vulnerable populations such as the aged, children, and those with suppressed immunity. These states include 16 states that limit the access of turtles anywhere around children and eight that limit turtles within medical facilities.

Still, on federal laws, 10 US states have banned the presence of turtles within food establishments.

The District of Columbia, plus eight other states, requires that the sale be turtles be accompanied by health advisories, warning labels, and further related instructions.

US states seem to be increasingly developing regulations to protect wild turtles. Such restrictions include bans on commercial turtle hunting and limits on commercial harvests.

US State Laws On Turtles

The around 57 US native turtles are more prominent in some states than in others. Each state is free to impose its specific laws regarding wild turtles. Let’s look at the turtle laws in US’s richest states in terms of turtle diversity.

1.     Alabama Turtle Laws

Alabama is home to more than 30 native turtle species. They include three box turtle species, 22 freshwater turtles, and five sea turtles. With such diversity, this state has enacted laws to govern the ownership and other matters around turtles. Let’s look at Alabama turtle laws that apply to all turtles, including terrapins and tortoises.


It is legal to own turtles in Alabama, depending on the species. The law protects certain endangered species.

Without a permit, it is illegal in Alabama to own a gopher tortoise, Alabama map turtle, flattened musk turtle, Mississippi diamondback terrapin, Alabama redbelly turtle, alligator snapping, black knobbed sawback turtle, Barbour’s map, and Escambia bay map species.

It is also unlawful to own any of the sea turtles and more than one Box turtle.


Alabama turtle laws prohibit the sale of a turtle that one does not have a license or permit. It is also forbidden to sell turtles caught in the wild and turtle eggs. Further, the law prohibits the sale of the Alabama native sea turtles, including Flatback turtles, Oliver ridley, Kemp’s ridley, and Leatherback sea turtles, among others.

Lastly, it is illegal to commercialize or sell a vulnerable or endangered turtle species in this state.

2.     California Turtle Laws

California is home to about eight turtle species: the southern pacific pond, common snapping turtles, western painted turtle, red-eared slider, desert tortoise, spiny softshell, northern pacific pond species, and the mud turtle. Here are this state’s laws about the sale and commercialization of these reptiles in this state.


California turtle laws permit one to own certain turtle species. However, endangered species are protected by the law, and it is unlawful to have one unless you have a permit allowing you to do so.

The law prohibits possession of snapping turtles, desert tortoises, and any sea turtles. It is also unlawful to release a pet turtle from captivity into the wild because this leads to competition in natural resources.


The law permits the purchase of unprotected California native turtle species. Otherwise, it is illegal to sell any of the protected, endangered, or vulnerable turtle species.

Sellers must have a license or permit; otherwise, it is illegal to participate in the trade, and this is a punishable offense. Transporters and propagators must also have a reptile propagation permit, but pet shops have an exemption.

The law also prohibits pet shops from displaying California native turtle species that can’t are illegal to sell.

Wild Turtles

Besides painted turtles, softshell species, and the red-eared sliders, it is unlawful to take any other turtle species from the wild irrespective of the circumstances. To collect painted turtles, softshell species, and the red-eared sliders from the wild, you would need to have a sportfishing license.

Any of these wild-caught turtles can’t put on an offer for sale or be sold. It is also illegal to destroy their habitat when taking them from the wild.

3.     Turtle Laws In Oklahoma

Yet another state rich in turtle diversity, we have Oklahoma, home to about 17 native turtle species. With such rich diversity, the state has enacted state laws to protect the turtles and the ecosystem.


The law allows you to own a turtle in Oklahoma, depending on the species. The law prohibits one from owning some Oklahoma native turtle species, including western chicken turtles, alligator snapping turtles, common map species, and endangered species.

It is also against Oklahoma turtle laws to own more than six turtle species at a go. If you are to own any of the endangered species, you would need a state permit or license.


The law allows the commercialization of turtles as long as one has a harvester license; otherwise, the contrary is a punishable offense by the law.

Oklahoma turtle laws prohibit the selling of box turtles but permit their ownership for non-commercial purposes. It is also illegal to sell wild-caught turtles. As with the law in all 50 US states, Oklahoma’s law dictates that it is illegal to commercialize any sea turtles, vulnerable or endangered turtle species.

Wild Turtles

The collection of wild turtles requires one to have a fishing license. As for box turtles, you need to have a hunting license to collect them from their wild habitat. In addition, you can’t take from the wild more than six turtles in one day.

Under all circumstances, the law prohibits one from removing an alligator snapping, western chicken, or a common map turtle from the wild. It is also illegal to take any turtle species from Wichita Mountains.

Oklahoma turtle laws prohibit you from using weapons when capturing turtles and taking turtles whose carapace length exceeds 16 inches.

4.     Florida Turtle Laws

Florida is one of the wealthiest US states in turtle diversity. There are over 30 native turtle species, 13 of them being freshwater turtles. Besides the federal laws, other rules specific to this state have been enacted to govern the trade and other interactions between the residents and turtles.


In addition to all sea turtles, there are other turtles under protection by Florida turtle laws, and there are rules on the type and numbers one can legally own. The law prohibits you from owning or transporting an alligator snapping turtle, gopher tortoise, Barbour’s map, Suwannee cooter turtle, or their eggs.

Florida laws on turtles also make it illegal to have more than two specimen turtles of the box turtle, loggerhead musk, diamondback terrapin, or the Escambia map turtle species. It is also illegal to own a red-eared slider pet turtle without having proof that you got it before mid-2017.

The law also prohibits the release of turtles into the wild. Further, transporting more than one turtle at any given time without a state permit is also illegal.


If you have a licensed Class III, Florida turtle laws allow you to sell or exhibit certain turtle species. The import of non-native turtle species from other states requires you to have a special permit.

Commercialization of turtle eggs collected from the wild is illegal. The transport of more than one turtle within a day without a sale or exhibit license and documentation proving that you are in legal possession of the turtle is also illegal.

As with all other states, it is illegal to sell or commercialize any sea turtles, vulnerable or endangered turtle species.

Wild Turtles

For the species not protected by the law, removing more than one turtle from the wild in a day is illegal. It is also unlawful to collect Barbour’s map turtles, cooters, Escambia map turtles, and the snapping species from the wild.

Furthermore, Florida turtle laws prohibit people from collecting wild softshell turtles from 1st May to 31st July every year. The law only allows you to collect turtles using nets, hands, or baited hooks, and all other weapons are prohibited.

As far are turtle eggs are concerned, Florida turtle laws prohibit you from collecting any turtle eggs from the wild.

5.     Kentucky Turtle Laws

This state found on the southern side of the US is home to about 17 turtle species.


Kentucky laws allow you to keep certain turtle species as pets. However, it is illegal to take a turtle from the wild and keep it as a pet. If you already have a pet turtle, releasing it into the wild is unlawful.

There is a total ban on the passion of the alligator snapping turtle, any of the sea turtles, or an endangered or vulnerable turtle species.

Even so, the law allows you to legally obtain up to 5 turtles from a breeder for personal use without necessarily getting a permit.


A commercial captive wildlife permit is a mandatory requirement for your to sell, barter, offer to sell, or trade turtles in Kentucky. However, it is unlawful to sell wild-caught turtles even with a permit. The permit only allows the commercialization of captive-bred turtle species, and there is no limit on the number of turtles you can have as long as you have this permit.

As with all other parts of the US, it is illegal to sell any sea turtle, endangered, or vulnerable species.

Wild Turtles

Kentucky turtle laws allow you to take up to 5 turtles from the wild for personal use; otherwise, you would need a fishing license to take more.

Only common snapping and softshell species may be taken from the wild all year round. You may use traps to collect the turtles, but if you want to use the fishing gear, you will need a fishing license or a hunting license to use weapons such as bows and arrows.

US Local Laws On Turtles

The above are turtle laws from some of the richest US states regarding diversity in turtle species. Besides the state laws, these states also allow the cities and districts to enact their additional local regulations on turtles that will apply to the specific city or district.

Familiarize yourself with any other local turtle laws in your area and adhere to the same.

Global Turtle Laws

Besides these US federal, state, and local turtle laws, it is also essential to familiarize yourself with the endangered and vulnerable turtle species and the global turtle laws that apply to these categories.

Some globally recognized institutions have reviewed the status of turtle species and listed them into different categories in terms of risk of extinction or trade and transportation rules and regulations. They are;

1.     IUCN

The union reviews the status of animals and groups these turtle species and other animals into data deficient, least concern, near threatened, followed by vulnerable species, endangered, and the most susceptible being critically endangered. The IUCN red list is one of the most referred to list on the global conservation status of turtles and other living organisms.

2.     CITES

It is an international conservation agreement that UNEP administered. Having been in force since 1975, it regulates the global trade of already threatened species and those at the risk of being threatened. They put measures that facilitate trade that can be traced and is both legal ad sustainable.

CITES groups different species’ levels and types of protection into categories of Appendices I, II, & III. While Appendix I applies to threatened species, Appendix II applies to those that are not necessarily at the risk of extinction. On the other hand, Appendix III applies to native species.


Turtles are some of the oldest creatures alive today. It is crucial to have rules and ensure they are adhered to to prevent these slow-moving reptiles with a hard shell from becoming extinct under preventable circumstances.

The US is home to one of the largest turtle species globally. There are federal rules enacted to protect the turtles, ensure the ecosystem is not imbalanced, and govern human interactions with these reptiles, especially among vulnerable groups, to curb the possible spread of Salmonella.

While the 4-inch turtle rule applies across the country and the federal rules too, state turtle laws differ from one state to another. Familiarize yourself with the turtle laws in your state to ensure that you do not end up committing an offense. By adhering to these rules, we aid the population growth of the turtles and protect ourselves and our loved ones from possible Salmonella infection.

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