Virginia legislator: ‘My War with the Eastern Box Turtle’

(U.S. Fish and Wildlife Department photo)

Dear Friend

“What do you have against turtles?”

Today I did something I never imagined I would have to do when I was elected to serve in the Senate of Virginia. I spoke and voted against legislation to make the box turtle as our state reptile (passed 24-15). That has led to some asking me, “What do you have against turtles?” It’s not a question I anticipated being asked this session, but it’s one I’ve heard more than a few times in the last few days.

For the record, I don’t have anything against the Eastern Box Turtle or terrapins in general, so there’s no need to speculate.

No, I don’t object to turtles; I object to wasting time on trivialities while seriously contemplating pushing back the budget for some later date. I have nothing against the Eastern Box, but I do have a problem with the amount of time we’ve spent this session on bills that have nothing to do with making our Commonwealth a better place, to say nothing of getting our economy back on track. This bill is just one isolated, albeit absurd (okay, even slightly amusing), example of a larger trend.

Is designating a state reptile really worth our time? We already have a state beverage, state insect, and a state gold mining interpretive center – presumably to distinguish it from the pretenders. We even have a state fossil, an extinct scallop.

I concede that Virginia trails other states in designations. We don’t have a state shrub, a state grass, or even a state donut. But if we’re to pick a state reptile, how to choose? Sure, the Eastern Box Turtle is a fine choice, but there’s something to be said for the endangered stinkpot turtle, too. And who doesn’t have a soft spot for other reptilian species, like the yellow-bellied slider, the common five-lined skink (and, of course, some would undoubtedly suggest politicians and lawyers)?

You know, we have a state shell as well. Increasingly, though, I think our state shell should be the one some in government are hiding under they we wait for the economic ill winds to pass us by. One of the counties I represent has an 11.7% unemployment rate, and they’re not alone. People are struggling to make ends meet across the Commonwealth, and they need the General Assembly to redouble its efforts to promote economic recovery, not ignore the problem in the hopes that it will just go away.

So nothing against the turtle – but if I had my way, he’d have to get in line.

Mark Obenshain
Virginia State Senator


  1. Right; we’ll just ignore the fact that state designations provide a far more interesting educational introduction to school students who are learning about the legislative process. We certainly don’t want younger generations getting involved in politics. Your “no” vote sure showed them…

  2. Why not vote for the Eastern Box Turtle. Did you not take more time to vote against this wonderful reptile than to vote for it? You could let everyone know how important it is for children/adults to leave these wonderful creatures in the wild than to claim them as pets. How wonderful it would be for builders to scan their sites before allowing bulldozers to flatten them. You could have done so much good…instead you did not.

  3. I ask that the Senator reconsider his position on the Eastern box turtle. I understand that there are many, many pressing and serious matters in our Commonwealth and I sure don’t want to make light of that. I respect his point. However, where I live (in Fairfax, VA), there “ain’t a heckuva lot of nature” left. It’s been paved over. These turtles are one of the few natural things that have really managed to hang on and there are many dedicated citizens who have really worked to protect them and their habitat.

    I know one conservationist in particular (she happens to be past president of my Republican women’s club) who has worked tirelessly to get the turtle this far. I’m sure she’d have preferred ideal timing, too, but this is when the opportunity arose to have the turtle get his day in the state house, so to speak.

    In the spirit of bi-partisan cooperation, in the spirit of conservation, let’s not punish the turtle or the citizen-activists of both parties (and no party) who have worked to get these cool critters so far through the process.

    Yes, the timing could have been better and, indeed, we are living in tough times. But it takes as much time to say “yea” as it does to say “nay.”

    Designating the turtle as Virginia’s official reptile isn’t going to cost taxpayers anything, but it means a lot to dedicated conservationists. Officially recognizing the turtle means that school children may have more opportunity to learn about them, that people out hiking may be more aware of them and their habitat needs (and will be less likely to take them home as pets, thereby shortening their lifespan), etc. It’s a win-win for people and turtles.

    So, I say: vote “yea” for the turtle!

  4. The Eastern Box Turtle is unquestionably deserving of being recognized as the Official State Reptile of Virginia. Small and brown, unassuming and close to the ground, he has remained unchanged for countless ages. Anne is right – It takes as much time to say “Yea” as “Nay,” and in this gloomy economic climate, to do something that costs nothing and means so much will surely bring a smile to many Virginians. Yes, Virginia, we do want a turtle…..Please don’t crush him in the House.

  5. I can not understand why the Virginia General Assembly could not adopt the Eastern Box Turtle as Virginia’s state reptile.

    It was Aesop who honored the turtle thousands of years ago by showing how the turtle’s slow and steady pace is preferable to the rapid running of the rabbit. It was the Native Americans who called North America Turtle Island, and the first United States submarine to engage in combat was named the Turtle.

    When Jamestown was first settled, box turtles willingly sacrificed their lives so that Captain John Smith and the other colonists could survive the starving times by slurping turtle soup. And according to box turtle lore, our nation won its independence at Yorktown because box turtles sacrificed their lives by crawling into the British cannons and disabling them. Even Thomas Jefferson, in his only published book, mentioned the turtle. And certainly we all remember that the design of the CSS Virginia, which fought the USS Monitor in Hampton Roads, was based on the design of the box turtle.

    In addition to its role in Virginia history, the turtle has many qualities of Virginians. It moves slowly and deliberately, provides for its own home, and takes care of its family without asking for a Federal bailout. And because it lives so long, the turtle has a sense of ancestry worship which is certainly a characteristic of all true Virginians. Indeed, there are reports that the Eastern Box Turtle frequently checks out the extensive turtle archives in the Library of Virginia.

    Obviously, the Virginia General Assembly has been guided by the box turtle by the way it [the General Assembly] moves so slowly and deliberately in the lawmaking process. Although some members of the General Assembly think “outside of the box” and some “inside of the box,” it is now time for all of our legislators to come together and make the “turtle in the box” our Virginia State Reptile when they meet next year. Lawmakers!!!!! Remember the Turtle!!!!!

    Sic Semper Turtle,

    Walter S. Griggs, Jr.
    Richmond, Virginia

  6. I vote for the Eastern Box Turtle for state reptile. I found one on my acreage the other day. He was very healthy and quite a mover.

    Is there any organized effort to get the economy moving in VA, to provide middle class jobs, any e links for Virginians to find jobs, jobs, jobs or radio shows to connect people with employers. We need to maintain the roads and ease the road congestion in northern VA, we need to remain competitive to attract employers, we must have good infrastructure. I vote for more freight rail.
    I saw so many trucks on I-81 last night on my way from Leesburg VA to Winchester VA. It was intimidating. I vote for more freight rail and more passenger rail and more commuter buses. Gas is going up.

  7. “…I do have a problem with the amount of time we’ve spent this session on bills that have nothing to do with making our Commonwealth a better place…”
    Wouldn’t a few Box Turtles, improved education and a healthy environment make the Commonwealth a better place?

    Go to his website…it will quickly tell you what he’s about: ‘family values’, guns, business-friendly and stopping criminals. Everything else can just “get in line”.

    It’s not his fault, he’s from the party of “NO”

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