Call of the Turtle and the Exotic Turtle Trade

In the spring of 2022, Cheryl Beillard, fellow printmaker and the new president of Art Pontiac, announced her vision for a special show to be held at the Stone School Gallery during the summer.  Combining science, the environment and art, Call of the Turtle is an exhibition aimed at drawing attention to the plight of the turtles and to protect local wetland habitats. 

Poster for Call of the T
urtle exhibition at Stone School Gallery July 29-August 21, 2022

Cheryl asked me if I ever featured turtles in my art projects, and I said I had. In the early summer of 2021, while on the grounds of the Britannia Water Filtration Plant, I observed lots of excitement when a couple of fairly large (8-10 inch long) painted turtles scurried across the lawn weaving their way among Canada Geese with their goslings and people of all ages enjoying the sunshine. Amazed at how fast the turtles moved, I guessed they were females ready to lay their eggs off to find nesting sites on the gravelly shoreline of the Ottawa River nearby.  

Although turtles weren’t my usual subject matter, I decided to make some prints.  I made a two-layer stencil of a turtle mimicking the turtle’s scutes. I inked a simple drypoint plate in bright colours and superimposed the inked turtle stencil and printed it on my brand new mini-etching press.  I printed the monotype in a small variable edition, which I called Turtle on the Move (monoprint, 8X10 inches). 

Beth Shepherd, Turtle on the Move (monoprint, 8X10 inches. The image shows a green turtle on a burnt orange ground.
Beth Shepherd, Turtle on the Move, Monoprint, 8X10 inches, 2021

I reused the turtle stencil to imprint turtles on eco-print paper I had made using a trace monotype technique. (Eco prints are prints made by transferring the pigments in plants, especially flowers, to paper using steam and a mordant like alum). I particularly like how Two Turtles on the Move (monotype on eco print, 11X14 inches) captures the impression of the animals scampering through wildflowers. 

Beth Shepherd, Two Turtles on the Move (monotype on eco print, 11X14 inches). The image is of two shadowy turtlers in dark blue moving through a landscape of wild flowers..
Beth Shepherd, Two Turtles on the Move, Monotype on eco print paper, 11X14 inches, 2021

When first thinking about my contribution to the Call of the Turtle exhibition, my first action was to check iNaturalist to see which of Ontario’s eight turtle species were located at Mud Lake near where I live in Ottawa. Mud Lake is home to only two native species — the Midland Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) and the Snapping Turtle (Chelydra serpentina). I was surprised to find a sighting of the Red-eared Slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) – an “alien species” in this neck of the woods. On doing research, I learned that the sighting of the red-eared slider was most likely of an escaped pet. Native to the southeastern U.S., the red-eared slider does not successfully breed in the area because their offspring cannot survive the cold Ottawa winters; nevertheless, these robust turtles can compete for scarce habitat and resources and transmit diseases to our native turtle populations. 

The pet turtle trade has a long history. As a child I remember having a number of baby turtles that spent their short lives basking under the green and brown palm tree in their little plastic turtle bowls. Thanks to the exotic pet trade, baby turtles (red-eared sliders, painted turtles, and other species) became a craze in the 1950s. Sold in pet stores and through mail order promotions, as in the British advertisement, these little critters made their way around the world. (1) In the 1980s and 90s demand for pet turtles, red eared sliders in particular, exploded again in response to the comic franchise Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles, four red-masked anthropomorphic crime-fighting turtle brothers trained in ninjutsu.(2)

A 1950s advertisement for a Turtle Bowl Kit and the cover of a 1984 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic
A 1950s advertisement for a Turtle Bowl Kit and the cover of a 1984 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic.

In my etching Alien Encounter, I imagine these two world-travelling aliens encountering each other in Mud Lake. 

Beth Shepherd, Alien Encounters, etching with hand colouring, 6 X 9 inches, 2022

With fond memories of my own turtle pets, in the 1990s I decided to buy my now-adult children a turtle too. I bought a spiny softshell turtle (Apalone spinifera) at a local pet store. Brown and leathery with a sharp proboscis, we named the turtle Snort.  Snort lived in a large aquarium for a number of years and we even took him with us on vacations to our cottage. When he wasn’t amusing the kids, we left Snort in his dishpan vacation home in a shady spot on the back deck. One night, a heavy rain caused the dishpan to overflow, allowing Snort to make his great escape, as depicted in my second print, Snort-The Great Escape. With Calabogie Lake only a short distance away, I imagined him growing to a large size and nipping at the toes of unsuspecting swimmers.

Beth Shepherd, Snort: The Great Escape, etching with hand colouring, 6 X 9 inches, 2022. The image shows a spiny soft-shell turtle escaping from a dish pan and heading to a lake.
Beth Shepherd, Snort: The Great Escape, etching with hand colouring, 6 X 9 inches, 2022

These nostalgic stories aside, turtles are not suitable as pets and generally suffer greatly. They are also the source of zoonotic disease. People think of turtles as low maintenance amusements for their kids but they can live for 20-40 years and grow quite big. According to the World Animal Protection’s 2019 report called “Risky Business – The Unregulated Exotic Pet Trade in Canada,” 50,550 red-eared sliders and 22,169 painted turtles were identified as pets in Canada. “Exotic” pets are non-domesticated wild animals, that unlike domesticated animals, maintain their complex social, physical and behavioural needs. The report stresses that the basic needs of the captive animals are not being met and a high number die within one year of becoming a pet. Those that do survive often end up in shelters while others are released into the local environment. (3) For those released or as in the case of Snort, that escape into the wild, face the travails of being an alien creature, alone in an alien world.

The continued importation and illegal collection and trade of wild turtles is a major threat to turtle populations in Ontario and globally. Although many exotic animals are imported, the illegal collection and trade of wild turtles is among the major threats to turtle populations in Ontario. According to Ontario Turtle Conservation, too little attention has been given to poaching – the removal of turtles from the wild on a large scale, for profit. These turtles may be sold as pets in Canada but are often then illegally exported to other countries for sale. Poaching is having a negative impact on Ontario’s turtle species such as the spotted, wood, and Blanding’s turtles. (4)

(1) 1950s Madness: The ‘Turtle Bowl’,

(2) How Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Devastated the World’s Turtle Population,

Image at

(3) World Animal Protection, “Risky business – The unregulated exotic pet trade in Canada”,

(4) Ontario Turtle Conservation, Poaching Brochure,