TOPEKA (KSNT) – Conservationists in Kansas are taking steps to make local turtle races safer for the turtles involved after prior years of mistreatment and neglect.

KSNT 27 News spoke with Alex Heeb about the practice of turtle racing and its origins in a recent interview. Heeb, a conservationist with the Turtle Race Task Force based out of Colorado, explained how turtle races date back to the 1920’s when the first race was organized as a rodeo sideshow attraction in Oklahoma.

Map showing where turtle races commonly occur in the Midwest. (Photo Courtesy/Alex Heeb)

Since then, the races have spread like wildfire across much of the Midwest, with most of the races taking place today happening in Kansas and Oklahoma. Over 140 races operate in Kansas alone, according to Heeb, and have historically involved mistreatment for the turtles used in the races.

During most of these races, turtles are placed on the ground in a parking lot and are surrounded by circles drawn on the pavement. Whichever turtle makes it to the final ring first is the winner. According to Heeb, the key aspect of these races that draws people in is their tendency to be random.

“You’ve got these turtles that are walking around randomly and changing directions,” Heeb said. “It throws the crowd when you have that randomness. Its an equalizer… nobody knows who’s gonna win and it’s something that everyone can participate in.”

(Video Courtesy/Alex Heeb)

In years past, these turtle races drew the attention of conservationists for their tendencies to lead to illness, death and other problems for the turtles involved. According to Heeb, turtles brought out of their natural habitats, or “home ranges,” can become lost as they search for the territory they know. Wild box turtles, which are the most commonly used type of turtles for these races aside from three-toed box turtles, typically live within a 15-acre site and rarely leave unless they are laying eggs.

Turtles are usually painted with numbers during the races as well, making them easier to spot upon release and sometimes introducing them to toxins from the paint. Poor nutrition and living conditions of the turtles can also lead to shell rot and the spread of respiratory diseases which may then be introduced into the wild population.

Turtles gather in the shade to escape the heat after a race. (Photo Courtesy/Alex Heeb)

“Box turtles are the longest lived land animal in North America, they can live to be 100 years old,” Heeb said. “The idea of a box turtle being taken out of its habitat to be used for human entertainment just breaks my heart.”

Many of these races occur during the summer and on popular holidays like the Fourth of July. The races can take place on hot pavement which can burn the turtles and make them overheat. All of these problems can have a severe impact on native turtle populations.

“A one to three percent collection or mortality rate is all they can handle,” Heeb said. “Go above that and their populations begin to plummet.”

While the races are not illegal, some have used endangered species. A race in Nebraska was found to be using endangered Blanding’s turtles according to Heeb. In Kansas, one bill, HB 2479, was introduced to the Legislature in January this year which would have made it unlawful to capture or posses ornate box turtles. However, it has since stalled and hasn’t had any activity since the end of January.

“We’re stepping into a void,” Heeb said. “The state doesn’t want to regulate these things or outlaw them which has left a gap that we’re stepping into.”

Heeb, along with other conservationists with the Turtle Race Task Force, have been observing races in Kansas since 2021. They’ve been trying to find ways to change the races to make them safer for the turtles involved. The task force has been encouraging and working with the organizers and participants of turtle races in Kansas to help educate them on how to properly take care of these animals.

“We know it’s gonna be a slow process to get these races changed over into a positive thing,” Heeb said. “Basically, we will attend the turtle race, set up an educational booth and work with the kids. We offer guidance and suggestions to the race organizers. If we see a sick or abandoned turtle, we have veterinarians and rehabbers that work with us who will help take care of those turtles.”

Heeb wants race organizers to follow six principles to help make things safer for the turtles which can be seen here:

(Photo Courtesy/Alex Heeb)

“We’re not trying to demonize or criticize anybody for what happened in the past. It’s just a question if we can work towards a better future for these turtles,” Heeb said. “We want them (the races) to be a better experience for the kids who can connect to them as wild creatures.”

Heeb and his fellow conservationists hope they can combat the mentality that these turtles are something humans can extract from the environment and then dump when they’re finished with them. Members of the Turtle Race Task Force try to be present at races in Kansas to help spread awareness for proper turtle care and make it a fun, educational experience for those present.