Big Head Press

L. Neil Smith's
Number 764, March 30, 2014

Civilization is not inherited; it has to be
learned and earned by each generation anew;
if the transmission should be interrupted
for one century, civilization would die,
and we should be savages again.
—Will and Ariel Durant

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Nihon Ishigame: An Outlaw Turtle Enthusiast Goes Japanese!
by Jeff Fullerton

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Attribute to L. Neil Smith's The Libertarian Enterprise

I have kept turtles as pets since my preschool days. My first was one of those baby red-eared sliders that were commonly sold in pet shops before the FDA ban on turtles under 4 inches in the early 1970s. It was kept in the typical fashion in those days—in the small plastic bowl with the ramp and plastic palm tree and fed commercial turtle food. Needless to say it did not last long and was soon replaced a few times over. The second one I actually caught myself in the creek behind my home in suburban Manassas Virginia—no doubt an escaped or released captive—as the Red-Ear Slider—Trachemeys scripta elegans is not native to the Atlantic slope—but in the years since it has been naturalized in many places there and elsewhere around the world being the universally popular pet turtle!

I soon graduated to other species—Eastern Box Turtles which were common in the nearby woods and often appeared as wanderers passing though my backyard. And painted turtles which were aquatic like sliders and fairly common but not easy to come by because they were very flighty and scrambled off their perches—usually a rock or floating log where they often piled up two or three deep—and would look back at you—an eight year old kid—tauntingly from deep water as their heads poked through the surface. And then there were baby snapping turtles which are so ugly that they are downright cute—but soon grow up to be big and unmanageable. I once caught a huge one in the creek and dragged it out of the water using an old dish rack like a cage and a board for a ramp. Have no idea how—even with a little help from my friends I got that furious, snapping, hissing thing that could break sticks—and probably fingers in its gaping jaws—over the chain link fence and into my backyard but once I did—I had literally The Greatest Show on Earth going on with half the kids in the neighborhood sitting on the fences watching until a lady a few houses down got concerned and called the police who came with some help from the fish and game people—and relocated the turtle to a safer place out in the countryside.

Over the years my favorite turtles became the Eastern Box and North American Wood and the Spotted Turtle—which I became quite successful at keeping and breeding in captivity. My first serious attempt a keeping turtles long term began with a young female North American Wood (or just plain old Wood Turtle back in the day before Asian pond and forest turtles—and their Mexican and Central American counterparts—also referred to as 'Wood Turtles' became common for a while in the trade)—her name was "Greedy" as in Greedy Smurf because she was a voracious eater that would devour just about anything you put down in front of her. I could write quite a story about her from the time I scooped her up as a small one on a path back in the summer of 79 to the spring of 2005 when she, along with the male I paired her with in the intervening years and a box turtle—were taken by raccoons which I learned sadly too late can when hungry enough—be a danger to the adult turtles as well as the tender young ones and the eggs.

Wood turtles are getting rare and are protected in most states where they are found. In Pennsylvania where I now live; they along with all native reptiles and amphibians—are regulated by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission—which for the longest time has prohibited commercial sale and set possession limits for all species not listed as threatened or endangered. Generally that was 2 of each species except for bullfrogs and green frogs taken for human consumption you could take several per day and snapping turtles—still considered a pest under the old school of fisheries management were unlimited.

And it continued that way for many years. They were very anal about their rules and regulations—it was unlawful to sell anything—as if the word "sell" were a profanity. And you could only possess 2. My thoughts on that rule; two of each—what the hell is this—Noah's Ark? And the next question becomes—what if those two you have in possession are a male and a female? Like in the biblical tale of Noah— the objective was to repopulate the Earth after a global catastrophe has destroyed all animate life on the land—it could work fairly well for producing more rare turtles and other reptiles for ones's own gratification or to trade or give as gifts to friends. And for a good while that was a good thing—because I do agree with many of the experts in Turtledom that unregulated exploitation of slow breeding animals—as most turtles are because of the high mortality of offspring due to predation on the eggs and young and the slow growth and low recruitment of those that survive—into the adult population. Add to that mortality of breeders getting smashed on the highway or removal by people who take them home as pets and there is no denying that some species including some of my favorites are in serious trouble. It is well documented. However part company with the "experts" when they insist that prohibition and the politics of contraband are the only answer to the conservation of threatened and endangered species. Or the species that are not yet quite threatened but may be in the near future if they are not conserved. Box turtles for example are very widespread but it is well documented that they are declining. It is also has been noted that within 20 years after an area is opened up to public recreation—the box turtles and other species that are appealing to turtle enthusiasts disappear entirely. That is probably among the best examples of the Tragedy of the Commons that anyone can come up with. And it probably is inevitable on public land for other reasons besides commercial or casual collecting. Any heavily used park usually also attracts and enhances the growth of raccoon populations and other human subsidized predators that prey on turtles. And there are also many recreational lakes that were created at the expense of natural habitat—like the lake near my house that was once an awesome floodplain forest home to wood turtles and some other interesting reptile and amphibian species. I could not help but think of it every time I read that well quoted phrase by Mary Ruwart; that the biggest polluter is the federal government, which is also a big habitat destroyer. Greenlick Lake belongs to the state and local governments—but they got plenty of federal funding and the direction to build the dam back in the 1970s as a federally coordinated flood control project after the ravages of Hurricane Agnes in 1972.

Captive breeding for satisfying commercial demand and also for repopulating habitats that were depopulated by over collecting or acid mine drainage or other pollution that has been cleaned up is a sound conservation strategy. Yet many state wildlife officials are so indoctrinated in the old school bias against commercialization of wildlife which for some strange reason seems to be insanely prejudiced against reptile enthusiasts—yet they have no problem with people breeding white-tailed deer or operating commercial hatcheries that produce trout and other game fish. And then you have the newer generations of wildlife managers coming online who are heavily steeped in the deep ecology propaganda of the environmental movement that has slowly been gaining ground over the last half of the 20th Century into the current century where obsession with biodiversity and intrinsic value and other aspects of a biocentric fascism have become all the rage and now the move is afoot to use any excuse under the sun—from climate change to invasive species to regulate human activity and put the natural world off limits to all but a few elite researchers and managers who have a legitimate scientific reason to be out in the wilderness that they intend to return most of the world to.

This sounds a lot like UN Agenda 21, doesn't it?

Such a far cry from a few decades ago when it seemed we were winning. The late 1980s and early 90s were the renaissance of the reptile hobby with captive breeding and advances in husbandry as hobbyists adapted to the growing restrictions on collecting and importing of herps imposed by various state, federal and foreign governments and international treaties. There was an explosion of knowledge in the way of books and websites as more and hobbyists began exploring the Internet creating vast online communities. Growing markets in dry goods in the billions of dollars. And reptile enthusiasts became politically active and even managed to overturn laws and regulations or get them amended to allow captive breeding and commercial trade of offspring. It was becoming obvious that the old school conservationists were living in the past and their knee jerk reaction to an emerging cottage industry made them look even more foolish in an era when a strong case was being made for free market incentives in all sectors of human life. And there were was Philipe DeVosjoli talking about biophilia and the philosophical concept of the reptile hobby as an expression of human love of fellow life forms in the natural world. [Link]

And that was me for my entire childhood plus 40 some years as a serious reptile hobbyist actively engaged in the long term husbandry and captive breeding of box, wood and spotted turtles. Of the native wood turtles I raised two generations of offspring which I gave away to friends because they were illegal to sell. For the longest time the PFBC didn't care much beyond maintaining their official stance against commercialization and the hallowed possession limit of two—until about 2005 when they floated the proposal that became the current law. They added all of my favorite native turtles plus several other reptiles and amphibians to a no-catch list on the grounds that their conservation status was undetermined and lowered the possession limits of all other species to a single specimen in order to curtail incidental or deliberate captive breeding in private collections. Species being added to the no catch list and specimens in excess of the new limits would be grandfathered but only for the lifetime of the animal and no breeding was permitted. There was even an asinine provision allowing people to kill their turtles or other pets if the commission determined them ineligible for permitting. [Link] So much for conservation or humane treatment of animals.

The PFBC held meetings and called for input by reptile hobbyists and private breeders but paid little attention to their ideas and concerns. There was hope that Pennsylvania might adopt a system similar to Maryland where it is permissible to remove up to 4 individuals of any non-threatened species from the wild without a permit and apply for an annual permit that covers all species for a nominal fee. A real bargain considering a really successful breeder could cover the cost just selling one or a few of some of the more valued species. A good incentive for conserving rare species and making it possible for people to obtain pets without removing animals from the wild. But the authorities in our state would have none of that. They had deep philosophical objections to commercializing native herpetofauna on top of concerns that conservation officers would have a hard time determining if said offspring were legitimately captive bred—or just collected from the wild and being laundered as such. In the bureaucratic mindset it's always about the convenience of the system and one size fits all.

In the end it was their way or the highway and in 2007 when the new regulations went into effect—Pennsylvania reptile hobbyists got the shaft. Many were turned into outlaws at the stroke of a pen.

I chose not to grandfather my animals for a number of reasons. Chief among them was my contempt for the authorities and the arrogant way they rammed through these new rules after seeking and ignoring our token input. Beforehand I have even consulted with my state representative who told me that he and his fellows in Harrisburg were officially powerless to do anything about it on the grounds that it was regulation and not legislation. This speaks volumes for the work that is needed to be done on the part of those wanting to reign in the power of out of control governmental agencies which essentially have the power of kings to make rules by decree without being accountable to the people. As for my situation—for a while I was an outlaw turtle keeper hanging on in hope that these rules could be overturned someday and maybe they would grant amnesty to those who came forward to declare in good faith. But then the nation took a sharp turn to the left in electing and reelecting a very progressive president who is setting the tone for dramatic usurpations of individual rights by many federal and state environmental agencies. Several notable reptile dealers have been busted and amnesty is more likely to be granted to illegal aliens than to illegal reptile breeders.

In the end I decided to give up on all species native to my state in order to stay on the right side of the law—for a little while longer anyway—and for peace of mind. It's a lot less fun when you are constantly worried about getting in trouble and given all that I have said in cyberspace which never disappears and soon the conservation agencies will likely flying drones over our properties for a birds eye view of my turtle pens. And when you are in hiding—you cannot speak freely. And that last item was the most important one. I have a good story and in order for it to be told—some sacrifices had to be made.

Other than the Big Three turtle species—Wood, Spotted and Eastern Box—(I don't count the Bog Turtle which has been listed as endangered since the late 70s), Timber Rattlers and some of the colorful and easy to maintain Ambystomid salamanders—Pennsylvania does not have that many reptile or amphibian species with broad appeal to hobbyists. The most commercially viable snakes—Corns, Kings and Milk Snakes come from the Deep South and Desert Southwest and Mexico. Rattlesnakes only appeal to a limited niche of hobbyists for obvious reasons! With so many other species both foreign and domestic still being made available by other enterprising hobbyists—there are options for fulfilling the biophilic impulse without the hassles of having to deal with the government or putting one at risk for arrest, fines or property forfeitures. Maybe not a permanent solution given the tendency of government to continually expand its reach into private life and the ongoing clamor for action to address the issue of invasive species—but for now it is breathing room.

The best candidate for replacing my long time favorite—the North American Wood appears to be the Japanese Pond Turtle—Mauremys japonica. Or Nihon Ishigame Which translates as "Japan Stone Turtle" so named for the stony brown or gray color that matches perfectly the background of its native habitat—rock bottomed high gradient streams which turns out somewhat different from that listed by most sources which state "soft bottomed streams, ponds and marshes, rice paddies etc. It's ecology and husbandry requirements are very much like its native counterpart sans all the red tape to acquire and work with them. And like any living creature—beautiful and amazing in its own way. And equally amazing is a turtle enthusiast from Japan by the name of Hayasuii who was the one who completely sold me on this new species with some very well done You Tube videos!

The guy is a freaking genius. He builds the ultimate bio filtration system to keep his turts in the best of health. Then in another video he takes you on a safari to see them in their habit. I may have to study Japanese to get the full info from the subtitles in the video. But I have learned more about these amazing creatures and their ecosystem and husbandry requirements just from this video and a couple others by this hobbyist than all the English language sources on this species that I know off—short of Karl Ernst's Turtles of the World that I would have to dig out of a box somewhere.

He makes a trip to the creek sound like skimming across the landscape of an alien world as he encounters turtles and other creatures. I think I recognize some White Cloud Mountain Minnows among the small fishes—which are common fare in most US pet shops!

[Link to YouTube]

Enchanting to say the least!

Hayasuii manifests a real passion for this turtle and the more I watch the more I want to get one—actually a few and attempt to establish a breeding colony. With just pictures he's told me everything I want to know about these creatures. He's mastered their natural history, underwater photography, captive breeding of the Japanese equivalent of the North American Wood Turtle and even appears to have a program going to release head started young back into the habitat. To think we could be doing that here with our native species. Which was yet another reason I decided to shrug.

If the state wants exclusive access and control of them: it's their problem from now on. I'm moving onto other things that will give me pleasure and the possibility of even making a little money at something I enjoy. Always wanted to set up a table and sell stuff at a reptile show. No hope anymore of doing that with NA Woods or Spotts or Eastern Boxies. But Japanese Woods,and other Asian turts and the non-indigenous subspecies of US turtles are still legal and will be worth breeding now that they are getting rarer in the trade. It is a matter of learning to be happy with what I can have as opposed to what I cannot. And I used to be almost a purist when it came to "Native Species"—but over time I have found that philosophy a bit too limiting.

I called the Turtle Source a couple weeks ago and ordered the breeding trio posted for sale on their web site. For the price of a week in Apalachicola or Wilmington I bought them. Requested delivery date middle of next week—which should give time to get indoor accommodations up and running. Some will say it was a foolish impulsive decision but if I waited the opportunity might disappear tomorrow. Will probably find out about better deals to be had at the reptile shows but all the better to acquire additional turts for my flock. 1.2.0* is not a bad starting point. From there I will probably add a few more sub adults and hatchlings from other breeders later this season plus offspring from my own if I get lucky this spring. I will not get too hopeful in that regard because I'd just be happy for the ones that will be coming to arrive alive and well, settle into their new home and the seasonal husbandry routine and start laying eggs next season. I hear they often double clutch or even a third clutch over the season so who knows. Cause for looking into TSD data for the species and investing in a good incubator!

In case anyone is wondering what I'm talking about: that's Temperature Dependent Sex Determination—which means that in many reptile species the gender of the offspring is often determined by the temperature at which the eggs are incubated at with females being produced at the warmer end of the range and males at cooler temps. For Mauremeys japonica 30 C—86 F—the magic number for producing female offspring. I think it is close if not the same threshold for box, spotted and painted turtles—indeed most North American freshwater turtles—and many other reptile species including Alligators follow a similar pattern. Some of the kinosternids—Mud & Musk Turtles and possibly Snapping Turtles have a single threshold of a few degrees where males are produced and females above and below that range.

Sorry—in my passion for turtles I digress!
Which is a phase I became familiar with long before I read it in one of El Neil's Lever Action essays; remembered from RD Bartlett's In Search of Reptiles & Amphibians which was my bible for a while in regard to entertaining interests in collecting and breeding some of the amazing reptiles and amphibians mentioned in his book.

TSD has great utility as a conservation tool—esp in the hands of private breeders in pursuit of their own happiness and maybe even a financial return from their efforts. Thinking that seems to be part of the motivation of Mr Hayasuii—at least the personal passion aspect driving the creative energy that went into his efforts. I think he must have some kind of government sanction to be able to be breeding and releasing offspring back into the wild. Try doing that here in the US with most state wildlife agencies dominated by jealously protective academic and professional types with that ecofascist sentiment mentioned above: that usually brings down a great deal of wrath for just making such a suggestion. Things may be a little different in densely populated Japan where nearly all of the land is heavily impacted by human activity and the idea of trying to re-wild it is obviously a pipe dream. And maybe despite the tendencies of Asian cultures toward conformity to rules and regulations—there is some modicum of common sense that often seems lacking in America where political correctness and zero tolerance for anything that might throw a monkey wrench into the agendas of the environmental ideologues and central planners. I could be mistaken because I know very little of how things work in Japan—but maybe there is some willingness to trust in the good will of an individual who loves turtles and the natural world in general and give him permission to do what I wish I could have done with my own native species.

And it's not even the red tape. Even that can be overcome with enough passion to motivate a dedicated enthusiast to apply for permits and keep records. But in many states like Pennsylvania they won't even grant permission. End of story. Many state wildlife agencies are worse than the federal government when it comes to regulations. They often list species as endangered because the edge of the range barely reaches into the state—which can be quite frustrating to the aspiring hobbyist who is forbidden to possess what someone in the neighboring state is free to keep as a pet, eat or use for fish bait! And now the added restrictions on what were once common species—some of which truly are in trouble but the authorities driven by their personal bias for centralized control and inability to trust the average person— insist on putting off limits. Or using them as tools to regulate land use and ultimately ague for eviction and resettlement of entire human populations for the sake of restoring the biotic integrity of the landscape**. How can you justify that if someone can argue that it is possible for a mere hobbyist to repopulate that endangered turtle or minnow from stocks propagated in a backyard or basement on a shoestring budget? It is a lot like the answer to a question posed by a fish enthusiast long ago on a native fishes forum I used to belong to—as to why the Fish & Wildlife Service couldn't allow private individuals to raise the Federally endangered Devil's Hole Pupfish hanging on by a thread in a shrinking desert spring in Nevada—since they are actually not so difficult to breed on an aquarium—and in an outdoor setup like a garden pond or large tub with the proper water conditions and absence of natural predators they would be even more prolific! The hobbyist gets a song and dance from an "expert" about a poor beleaguered government wildlife biologist who just got done talking to a bunch of angry ranchers from the Klamath basin trying to explain why it was important for them to sacrifice to conserve an endangered sucker fish that firefighters have died for because they couldn't dip water out of the river to save them from burning alive!—and you come along wanting permission to keep something in an aquarium!

I wish I had more time to find that link. It is somewhere in the archives of the native fishes group—and some of us commented on that thread. It was pre—9/11 and people were still bugging a lot about that mean old nasty Helen Chenoweth, the Sagebrush Rebellion and the Wise Use Movement that was the equivalent of the den of iniquity and false prophets to the religion of environmentalism back then.

And today the reptile hobby continues to struggle along in spite of the hard times of lower demand and increasing pressure for stronger regulations or even outright prohibition. The last two decades has demonstrated conservation utility of captive breeding (whether the authorities choose to accept it or not) and its superiority over collecting and brokering wild caught animals. Most breeders even the ones that are curmudgeons take pride in their work. Probably because there is a pride of ownership that is missing absent the proprietary aspect of harvesting stock from the wild. And then you are in conflict with others over how common property should be used and shared.

Which is why I got away from the native stuff. I want something that my state fish and game people can't claim as the common heritage of the people and tell me I cannot own it privately or produce and sell the progeny thereof. I want to eliminate their controlling interest in my life as much as I can. Getting into Japanese turtles is sort of like escaping state laws without actually moving to Japan to enjoy them. The issues of the federal or state governments cracking down more on exotic species is a battle to be fought when it comes. It is too late to fight the one over native turts as it has been lost for now and I don't want to put my life on hold waiting for the world to change in our favor. I may not live to see that but I'm going to live as well as I can under the current circumstances and if they one day reach the tipping point where life becomes untenable or intolerable— that is another bridge to cross when I get to it.


* 1.2.0 = 1 male, 2 females & 0 juveniles of undetermined gender as expressed in the shorthand of reptile dealers and breeders.

** But God forbid some amateur fish or reptile enthusiast even bring up captive breeding as a conservation tool—least politicians beholden to developers and property rights interests start pushing it as an excuse to relocate species in the way of mining and development or otherwise in conflict with humans. That is heresy against the biocentric orthodoxy of Deep Ecology environmentalism and must be silenced at all cost.

Friday March 28—my first three Mauremys japonica (1.2.0) arrived alive and well by UPS overnight express! They are currently setting into their new indoor accommodation—a 50 gallon Rubbermaid tub with basking rock and incandescent light for a heat source—as they await the renovation of an outside enclosure and warmer days. It's a new direction for an old hobby and perhaps a fitting end to this long winter that I have complained and written about too much already!

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