Bright green and viscous, Morningside Pond looks like a vat of unappealing pea soup. Styrofoam cups and plastic bags cling to the pond’s edge, bound in place by bubbles of green foam. This is, perhaps, what’s to be expected of an artificial pond in the center of a New York City park.
Still, there is life here. A stream flows over the exposed bedrock opposite the pond’s benches, and a few weeping willows bend toward the shore. And then there’s the row of nearly a hundred turtles lined up along the pond’s edge, glistening in the springtime sun.
These are red-eared sliders, the most popular turtle in the American pet trade. Native to Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico, they’re bred by turtle farmers on an industrial scale and sold wholesale to pet retailers. More than 52 million red-eared sliders were legally exported from the United States between 1989 and 1997, many of them to China, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Many more are sold illegally through a network of pet shops, street vendors, and websites.
Red-eared sliders—so named for the brilliant red marks on their heads that look like ears—are consistently designated one of the world’s hundred worst invasive species by the IUCN. When pet owners realize the reptiles require large tanks and expensive filtration systems, and can live up to 50 years, they often dump them outside. (Read why you should never release exotic pets into the wild.)
Indeed, up to 90 percent of...