Introduction: How to Clean a Turtle

Picture of How to Clean a Turtle

So, by some method, you have come into the possession of 1 or more legally edible turtles. Congratulations! They are legendarily good eating. Or, if you're into catching, cleaning, and eating turtles, there's a good chance that you might refer to them as good eatin', if that makes any difference.

What do you do with it (them)? Well, that's where this instructable comes into play.

Note: Some of the photos depict some pretty graphic turtle-ness. If you are a card-carrying Sierra Club/PETA member, or just don't want to see some turtle guts pictures right now, then don't look at this instructable.

I'm sick of people leaving comments saying that this is mean. Can you please be concerned about something infinitely more important, like the millions of innocent human beings that die each year?

If you eat meat, especially, realize that the meat you eat was once an animal. The difference between it and these turtles is that (except in the case that someone hunted the animal and gave/sold its meat to you) these turtles, while alive, were free to roam around the lake they lived in and wherever else they chose to go. The animals whose meat you buy in the store were probably kept in ridiculously small pens, fed ridiculously low-quality feed, until they were fat enough to kill profitably.

Caution: Obviously, you'll be dealing with a turtle (quite possibly a mean, old snapper), so be careful around its mouth (esp. if a snapper), and watch the claws. Also, be careful, you're using knives. And scissors, and maybe a bone saw. That bit's up to you.

Step 1: Assemble Materials and Tools.

Picture of Assemble Materials and Tools.

Well, you're going to need at least 1 turtle. You can catch turtles (at least in many states) by rod-and-reel fishing (same rig/bait/techniques as catfishing), with float lines (baited hook on a line, tied to a float, tied to a tree/dock), with traps, or even noodling (although I'll just stick to one of the others, and not risk my fingers).

You'll also need:

1 sharp knife (such as a short (4-6") fillet knife
1 piece of stout wire for each turtle (I used 14 ga electric fence wire (had it around), it worked for a 5 and a 7 lb turtle)
1 pr wire clippers
1 very heavy knife or a hand axe (I would recommend a hand axe)
1 stout stick that can survive the turtle's bite (for snappers)

Gloves (leather work gloves or fishing gloves, for grip and protection)
Kitchen shears/heavy-duty scissors
serrated knife/small saw (for cutting through bone/tough shell bits)

Here, I have two turtles, and some of the tools (I took these pictures as I went along, before I knew just what I would/wouldn't need for sure).

A lot of people recommend putting the turtles in a big barrel (55 gal), with clean water, for 7 days. Replace the water ever couple days or so. This is to purify their system (so when you accidentally puncture the bladder/bum pouch, it doesn't stink up the room or risk possibly tainting the meat). This is optional.

Step 2: Pre-cleaning Preparations

Picture of Pre-cleaning Preparations

First of all, you remove the turtle's head in this step.

With a snapper, you can usually get them to bite onto that stick you should have, then they'll hold on pretty hardcore. Pull the neck out as far as possible, and then, cut the head off, leaving as much neck as possible. If it won't snap onto the stick, then just wait for it to poke it's head out enough.

The key is to cut off the head cleanly, in one chop. A hand-axe would help greatly, especially if you positioned the turtle's neck over a board. Minimize the animal's suffering. One thing my dad always taught me when we were fishing, was that you never mock your catch, and if you're going to kill it, you should do it as painlessly as possible for the animal. Do turtles feel pain? I don't know. But it'll be better for you (less gore, less mess) and the turtle (suddenly over, no bleeding in the face or whatever).

Now, take the pliers, and hold the wire with them. Poke the pointed end that you clipped into the wire through the turtle's tail, or (if a soft-shell), it's shell at the very tail-end. Wrap the other end around a tree branch, and leave it for a while, so it will bleed out. Small turtles= less bleeding, I would assume. So, no set time. I bled mine until the blood stopped dripping and started clotting on the neck.

Step 3: Clip, Dip, and Scrub.

Picture of Clip, Dip, and Scrub.

Because a turtle has both nasty claws and terrifying reflexes long after death, it's a good idea to remove the claws after bleeding out. Use the wire clippers. These are some gnarly toes.

Next, fill a big pot with water, and bring it to a boil. Dip the turtle in there, and then scrub the turtle with a hard brush. My turtles were too big to fit, so I dipped them halfway (holding the bleeding-out hook was handy), and then pulled them out, then dipped the other half. You can figure something out, I'm sure. Check out the pictures for some more details of the process. It's pretty self-explanatory.

A skin might come off of a soft shell turtle. Maybe these twe were mutants.

You might be thinking, "Why boil it?"

Well, that's because this is a turtle. It's spent it's life wallowing in rotting fish parts, decayed plant matter, all sorts of aquatic critter poop, and it's been pretty unconcerned. Maybe you shouldn't have asked questions. Just scrub. Rinse well afterwards.

Step 4: Remove the Meat

Picture of Remove the Meat

Start by laying the turtle on its back.

Note: While cutting-try not to open the organ sack. Try not to stab anything that looks like a little water balloon. Chances are, no matter what it is, when your knife pokes it, one of the foulest mixtures of liquid hell will pour out. Just avoid stabbing at the turtle in general.

Cut around, and remove the bottom plate. A serrated knife/saw comes in handy at times here.

Then, cut the back legs and tail off the top shell in 1 piece. Cut the front legs and the neck off.

Throw away the carcass (the shell and guts). You can look in the stomach to see if you can find your bait and hook. Here, I found the hook, with the whole liver still on it, in both stomachs, unharmed in each of them! (Both meaning both turtles, not two stomachs in one turtle).

You can either skin it, or cook it with the skin on (in a soup, maybe?).

Once you've skinned it (sorry, no more pictures), if it's an old granddaddy snapper (12 + pounds or so), parboil the meat first, to tenderize it. After that (or if it was a younger turtle), you can roast/fry it just like chicken. Or make the ever-popular turtle soup.


MelerayW (author)2016-08-16

Thanks for the info!! Beinf invaded by soft shells and red ears while Cat fishing.. Been catching amd releasing 5 or 6 a day. Next one that steals my bait im trying this.

TheRedFury (author)2016-08-05

I think we should eat death row inmates due to overpopulation and the money we waste on them in the courts, cell space, their food and housing etc. there should be a way to humanely homogenize and sanitize them for consumption like Spam.

Oh Screw You ! I Just wanted to clean my shell ! Now I have blood stains all over it and they will never go :(

Indy Dawg (author)2015-02-04

This is rediculous. Why do you want to kill a turtle. You are stupid

JonF38 (author)Indy Dawg2016-05-28

Because they are delicious!

rangerdoug1 (author)Indy Dawg2016-05-12

So what do you eat ?

ayano.manning (author)Indy Dawg2015-03-15

turtles are yum your just a softy' circle of life atleast i know what im eating.

sleeping_gecko (author)Indy Dawg2015-02-04

The "why" is fairly clear--to eat the turtle's meat. I realize that some people would prefer not to eat meat, and I support anyone's decision to reasonably follow his or her own conscience.

There are, of course, also people who do eat meat but who refuse to kill or process their own meat when an opportunity arises. They opt instead to rely on the oft-unsustainable or at least undependable modern food system. This group makes much, much less sense than either the content meat eaters or the moral vegetarians.

That said, you shouldn't be rude, it violates the Instructables "be nice" comment policy. If you're going to be rude, you definitely should make sure you spell things correctly (ridiculous), punctuate correctly (your second sentence is interrogative--you need a question mark there instead of your period), etc.

In general, the person who makes the first personal insult loses. It undermines your argument. I hope you feel better by the time you read this reply!

charlie37h1 (author)2016-01-23

Turtles in a half shell, turtle power!

jspencer723 (author)2015-04-09

I'm trying to turn this turtle shell I found into a ashtray should I bake it to kill any bacteria. Any feedback would be appreciated.

Labrat3 (author)jspencer7232015-07-19

Hi! I'm doing taxidermy for a hobby and actually am doing three tortoises at the moment. The best you can do is clean out as much of the meat and connective tissue as possible. Then you can either leave it outside in an opened box out of the rain! so beetles, ants, woodmites and/or maggots can get in to eat what you should not want on there. You can also use a dermestid beetle colony if you can find someone who owns one.. I am not exactlt sure about turtles tho, this is what I do for turtoises. For them it is really important to keep the shells as dry as possible because otherwise they can lose their scutes. Contact me if you need any more information!

While I have never attempted that sort of project, I will give you my thoughts:

If it is a soft-shell turtle (as the turtle in this Instructable was), you might want to think of it as closer to a hide than a shell. In other words, there might be more of a drying process involved.

If it is a hard shell (not a leatherback, etc.), then I would still bake it, for a couple reasons. One reason, as you mentioned, is to kill potential nasty critters that might have taken up residence in the shell. The other is to do a more complete drying of the shell. This would probably make it easier to remove any meat or connective tissue from the shell (once it has dried).

Again, I haven't attempted this--I'm just giving my (untested) thoughts. I do think it would be a cool project, so feel free to post a pic or make an Instructable about it when you finish!

bluegrassdakine (author)2015-04-28

Snapping turtles and other hard shells can be well cleaned by ants. In Hawaii when we catch or harvest items from the ocean we place them in the sun near an ant hill. In a week it is absolutely picked clean and regards a sea shell bleached near white by the uv from the sun. Turtle shells don't turn shite but the u v does great good in killing microscopic critters and bacteria on and in the shell. Good idea to separate upper and lower shells first. This works good for many other items that need micro cleaning. Good luck

gary.dooley.77 (author)2015-03-25

the same reason ppl kill cows.

sugarlips365 (author)2015-02-09

This is very informative, I'm looking forward to trying this. :) As far as the pics and butchering of the animals, that is a part of life, I'm sorry if any one gets offended by the fact that I eat meat but, to get meat the animal is raised fed and then killed if you like steaks you understand my point of view. And to indy dawg, you can't rip the meat off while the animal is alive that would just be cruel. The animal has no idea what will happen of when it happens they can't feel a thing. :)

CamiloS (author)2014-12-15

first, i have to start with a confession... my girlfriend and i watched a few episodes of 'naked and afraid' on the net. i'm curious about this incident.

looks like the couple caught a turtle and, judging by the clip, didn't carve it the way you suggested. Would it be safe to assume they clipped a bladder or other sac and tainted the meat?

CamiloS (author)CamiloS2014-12-15

and, by the way, thanks for posting this information in such a simple and straightforward manner. i really appreciate it.

holly.kendall.790 (author)2014-12-02

I had to research and see how you are supposed to kill a turtle for this. My neighbor last night disrupted my sleep (I am sick, atm) by "hammering " right by my window. I found out this morning he was killing pet store bought turtles, I imagine (since catching and disrupting turtles in our area is illegal.) I am debating calling the cops for animal cruelty because the way they killed the turtles, was inhumane (death by smashing)

sleeping_gecko (author)2009-07-01

I just have a couple points I'd like you to consider. "Pig" and "hog" are pretty much interchangeable terms. As my brother discovered at the state fair when he was a child (and my grandfather took the excited child to see the hogs), "They're just big pigs!"

People can develop close relationships with cows just like they can with dogs. Both can be beautiful animals with unique traits (what you might call "personality"). Just because many people never interact with cows that aren't wrapped in plastic at the supermarket does not mean that they aren't real animals.

If you've never seen chickens, it would be easy to assume that they are annoying. All that clucking and crowing. What is a person to do? If you've actually had or tended chickens (at least those of the free range persuasion), you would probably know how amusing they can be to watch. Not to mention how efficiently they can keep down a bug problem around the yard/garden.

Why would people be universally better off eating fish than turtles? If your only reason is that turtles are cute and fish are not, let me be the one to tell you that this is a personal opinion. Many people find fish to be quite adorable, and turtles to be nasty. Put a turtle terrarium in one room, a freshwater aquarium in another. See which stinks first. Turtles won't seem as cute.

If you've never eaten turtle meat, I'm curious to find out why you assume that it would not be as tasty as fish meat.

I made sure to state clearly in the introduction that this was about preparing turtles for eating. If you somehow missed that part, and you didn't understand that the opening picture of turtles+big knives=not a turtle bubble bath, then I probably cannot help you.

I mentioned that different, "typical" American food animals can be cute or friendly. That doesn't mean I wouldn't eat them. I do eat most animals. I've never eaten dog or cat, but that's largely because I've never come across the right restaurant.

And, to answer the question (which you punctuated not as an interrogative statement but as an exclamatory), "HOW DO {I} EAT THOSE TINI {sic} CUTE TURTLES! {sic}

Fried, usually with a knife and fork. Kind of like how I like to eat squirrel.

jack8559 (author)sleeping_gecko2010-06-01

I have personally cleaned and ate at least 20 snapping turtles in my lifetime and don't plan to stop just because someone else doesn't like it.  Yes, I will kill a turtle just as it killed and ate fish and other animals to live - it's the way man has survived for centuries, killing and eating. I always cut the shell around the head/legs/tail areas with a hatchet but I guess there are other ways.  I like them in a stew and barbequed the best and I'm sure that someone someplace has a way to make patties, etc.  There are 11 different flavors of meat in a snapping turtle, like there are 7 different flavors in a hog.(Bacon, T-loin, ham, etc.)
       I try my best to kill humanely and be as fast and efficient as possible so the animal doesn't suffer regardless as to what kind of animal it is.  I try to get the hides tanned and use everything, no waste. I feel that anything killed for sport alone is wrong, but if you plan to use all the animal then it's not so bad.  What bothers me is when an animal like, say a deer, gets hit and the meat isn't harmed totally and they put the freshly killed animal in the dump when there are so many people around the world hungry - The meat could be used in prisons or jails for one, almost fat free to boot!   
   As for the people that are vegetarians, my hat's off to you, you don't like something that you have never tasted!  That's not the way to make an informed decision, but it's your right.  I like fruits and vegetables, fish, poultry, turtles, mammals, nuts and berries, and I plan to continue eating all of it for as long as I can.  It was put here to eat or use as a medicine, and I try to use everything as I see fit.  If you don't like this instructable because you are a vegetarian, please tell me why you are so interested in looking at it to start with, I don't get it..... 

rduncan2 (author)jack85592011-05-22

I just read what you had to say in a comment almost a year ago. I have to say, you put it the way I feel, thanks. I have been fishing on the river lately and have caught a few soft shell turtles on our trot lines. Everyone has told me how good the meat was, but don't know how to clean one. Really not sure if they are legal to keep anyway. If I won't eat it, I won't kill it.

jack8559 (author)rduncan22011-05-23

rduncan2, I am not sure if you can eat the soft shell trutles, I have only eaten the hard shell ones with tails that have 'spikes' on them and claws on their feet, they look prehistoric to me. I doubt they have changed much through evolution in the past million years or so anyway though...

screeching crow (author)jack85592011-11-03

Yah you can eat soft shells. The typical turtle soup is either made from a snapping (the ones with spikes) or soft shelled turtle.

ever had it with the combination of hard and soft shelled turtles? just wondering if the taste would be different?

jack8559 (author)screeching crow2011-11-04

I'd like to try a turtle soup or stew made from a soft shelled turtle sometime by someone that knows how to make one the right way since I don't. I'm game to try any new food.... I have put the hard shelled snapping turtles' meat on a grill and eaten it bar-b-qued - that was delicious!

standfieldbiz (author)2014-08-10

I realize that this is an old post, but I was curious as the season for turtle has opened here and well the darn things keep steeling my bait for the fish. Now, I was looking to see what to do with one if it ever decided to join my caught fish. Thank you, now I know. I found your 4 step instructions extremely learnable...when I catch one I will try your methods. Good hunting. :)

dortha.little (author)2014-07-27

I know this an old post, however, thank you for it. I have turtles in my pond, they have killed at least one of my ducks maybe 3. My ducks will not go back on the pond. When they go to the pond, they only get on the shallow end and are all in a wad. This will come in handy if I catch any, I have a turtle trap ordered. I think I will use a large plastic garbage can and clean them out for the seven days. However, I think I will look at someone to help me kill and clean!! Thanks again.

indywave (author)2013-07-29

Ahhh you killed a turtle. I thought you were going to like wash it or something!!!!

sleeping_gecko (author)indywave2014-02-12

I didn't realize until recently that this was in the "Pets" section. I think that was done automatically. I published this project in 2006, and I don't recall having the option of categories (I certainly can't imagine intentionally publishing it in that category, as it would needlessly offend folks looking for something else). Because I thought there may be some confusion, I put the disclaimer on the intro step.

WVKatCurse (author)2009-09-06

Thank you for the instruction. I now know how to clean hunt one. I still need to find how to bring a large one to the surface and keep him there. He is eating my mallards and geese.

These were caught while a buddy and I were going for catfish in a lake. The line was heavy enough to bring them up most of the time (though we usually had breaks in the line, probably due to larger turtles).

Aside from building turtle traps, I haven't read up on anything aside from using heavier line and bringing them in slowly.

Since your turtle is a nuisance, it might be worth the time/effort/risk to build a trap or two and see if you can catch the bugger. (Normally, I'm not a fan of the turtle traps I've seen, as they leave a turtle sitting there until you get around to checking the trap, which, IMO, isn't too humane. In a nuisance/pest-type situation, though, that becomes a lesser concern, to me at least.)

papasmurf54 (author)WVKatCurse2012-11-04

Buiild a 4' square with large sticks/small logs (about 4" in diameter). Attach old wire fence/chicken wire to one side of square all the way across and staple (fence staples) tightly. Turn it over and drive a 4" nail pointing toward the center (sticking up at about a 45 degree angle) about every 3 to 4 inches, then clip off the heads at an angle so that you have sharp spikes about 2" long all the way around. Make sure it floats, then wire fish heads, chicken necks, etc. to middle of square. Rig up an anchor with about 10' of line and float it in your pond. (If you don't have a boat, attach a second line so you can drag it to shore) The turtles crawl in to get the bait, but can't get back past the spikes, I used this sort of rig and a .22 to get rid of about 20 snappers (largest was over 20 lbs.) from a farm pond 30 years ago. Good luck!

this method works like a charm

TheCommander (author)2014-01-28

I like the category you put this under XD

Until I saw your comment, I didn't realize this was in the "Pets" category. When I originally published this project (2006), I don't remember there even being categories for different Instructables projects (though I may be mistaken). I certainly don't think I would've put it in the "Pets" category myself. If they organized things by category at a later date, I could see how this would be auto-sorted into a Pets category.

It also explains most of the comments I seem to get. Every couple months or so, it seems I get a notification of a new comment about how it's wrong/misleading... I always thought they just were ignoring the disclaimer at the beginning...didn't realize it was in the "Pets" section!! :0

LovelyGirl113 (author)2014-01-23

How Does Turtle Taste Exactly? I'm Going To Try This! I've Had Gator, Snake, Deer, Coon, Beef, Pork Etc But I've Never Had Turtle...Thanks For The Idea!!

fishkiller10 (author)2013-07-11

Excellent post and I applaud your stand against the naysayers. I, like you, enjoy the fruits that Mother Nature provides for us. Whether it be animal, vegetable, or mineral. My family and I enjoy hunting, fishing, and picking. A friend of mine once said, "If God didn't want us to eat animals, He wouldn't have made them out of meat". That said, Michigan's turtle season opens next Monday, and I intend to participate. Good fishing!!!!!

the_burrito_master (author)2013-05-15

I thought you were going to clena teh seaweed off its shell to keep it as a pet then i saw the knives and I thought to myself "like hmm that's a weird way to clean seaweed off a tutrle, OHhhhhh...."

DSR2003 (author)2013-04-16

You monster. How could you do something like

projectbronco (author)2013-04-07

That was really interesting. I didn't even know you could still catch turtles. Pretty cool.

darthbindy (author)2011-11-20

poor turtles! =(
but as you said, and i agree, there still meant, and therfore i have no problem with you eating them, but did you kill them quickly?

Certainly. They were killed swiftly, by decapitation. Don't get me wrong, I think turtles are adorable, but I also think ducks, goats, cows, etc. are cute, too. I have no problem with eating animals, so long as they are killed humanely and treated with appropriate respect (i.e., not wasted, mocked, etc).

good. =D

aruno (author)2011-10-05

Good tutorial, but the title really should be "How to prepare a turtle", so as to attract the correct audience.

klaw3 (author)2011-07-08

Thanks for sharing. I always get the turtle already cut up in the wet market and wonder how they do it.

dcapotosti (author)2011-07-06

Wish I had found this before I went fishing. The last few nights I have caught at least 10 soft shelled turtles ranging from the size of a small plate to the size of a manhole. I had heard they were good eating, so I did a search on them and found your instructional. I am ready to go back for another night now. How much meat do you get from each one and can you grill the meat??

afairbanks (author)2011-06-21

Can you eat Red-eared sliders? I caught a huge one at work today and was wanting to eat it, but after reading some of your posts I want to make sure that is a species that is edible.

dfernstrom (author)2011-04-21

Yes, turtles certainly do feel pain--all vertebrate animals do (and so do a select few invertebrates, such a squid, to a more limited degree). I recommend that you not only remove the animal's head, but also go to the trouble of destroying the brain (either before or immediately afterward). There is some evidence to suggest that, due to their extremely low oxygen requirements, a reptile's brain can remain active and alive for some time after the head is removed from the body. You should also destroy the brains of fish before you clean them, for the same reason. Just because an animal relies on its environment to regulate its body temperature does not mean its senses or ability to feel are impaired.

Reptiles, amphibians, cephalopods, and fish also experience very simple emotions. How do we know this? We're at a level of understanding where we can control computers with our brainwaves--determining whether an animal has the right brain parts to enable it to feel or emote is much simpler.

So, for the sake of being humane, treat your fish, frogs, and turtles the same way you would a squirrel or rabbit. Do not go out of your way to frighten, distress, or cause pain to them. Besides, stress chemicals may make the meat less tasty.

TurtleKeeper (author)2011-04-18

hi Instructables!!
i have kept turtles for a few years now, i adore them as pets,
i also kept Pigs, and various birds,

i am writing to say to those taht say this is "cruel" that it is not cruel in any way, it is infact a far more sustainable way to maintain a method of sustainable meat farming, its not like these animals where bought in a pet store.

also it helps to keep the population down, i would rather see three turts on a plate then dead on a road, in an inadequate tank or setup in general.

however, i would like to see how many of those that deem this practise of turtle eating as gross or wrong, have actually seen how pork gets to the home or beef or chicken,
all these animals have wild behaviors that we surpress or just ignore for our benifit,

a pig gets pinnedand tied to the ground while in labour, when she really wants to nest and move.

cattle are kept in herds untill they are funnelled into a run, where they get to line up hear their companions crys of agony and then can only move forward.

and chickens, they are either fed until their legs are useless, or, have their legs broken and sit in a cage being pumped hormones to lay eggs all the time.

how would you feel to give birth all day, everyday, thats what is happening to those poor defencless animals that see nothing but the same field, the same cage, the same steel barn.

now who is being cruel??

Cheezpaper (author)2010-09-03

I came here looking how to clean my pet turtle... =\

About This Instructable




Bio: I'm 27 years old, and I live in a small town in northwestern Indiana, USA. I stumbled across this website a few years ago ... More »
More by sleeping_gecko:How to clean a turtle
Add instructable to: