Baby turtles are adorable, inexpensive, seemingly low maintenance and big business for people selling the equipment needed to keep a turtle alive, never mind happy or healthy. The baby red-eared slider turtles were a favorite of American children and classrooms in the 1950s and 60s, producing a sale of 15 million turtles from Louisiana at its peak.
Citing severe risks of Salmonella, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the sale of turtles 4-inches or smaller in 1975, with exemptions for those used in education, science and exhibitions. The FDA estimated that the ban would prevent 100,000 incidents of Salmonella every year. It also prevented needless deaths of baby turtles who suffered from a lack of proper care, who actually have a natural life expectancy of 50-70 years.
Despite the ban, a black market for baby red-eared slider turtles has led to a thriving underground business profiting millions of dollars and leaving thousands of turtles abandoned and dead.
Last year in Maryland more than 100 hatchlings were seized during a two week investigation, including one person selling them on craigslist.org.
In September authorities in California urged the public not to buy turtles from vendors after finding 10,000 live baby turtles, 500 crammed into each box, and others dead after being abandoned at a park when they began to grow or people tired of caring for them.
The ones who don’t die from dehydration, starvation or predator attacks are left to wreak havoc on native animals and eco systems.
An estimated 2 million turtles are sold in small pet stores, at county fairs or by street vendors, mostly illegally.
After the ban, half the turtle farms in Louisiana were forced to close. Louisiana is the only state that regulates turtle farmers, but officials say the ban has not stopped people from catching them in the wild infected by disease.
With many of Louisiana’s fishermen losing their jobs because of the BP oil spill, the turtle market has become a crucial income. About 80 farmers in Louisiana sell 4 million turtles a year, mostly to China and Europe because of the U.S. ban, a number that’s been declining since China began domesticated turtle farms a few years ago.
The Independent Turtle Farmers of Louisiana (ITFL) requested a lift of the ban to help the economically depressed region. The FDA denied the request on the grounds that they could not prove that Salmonella free turtles could be consistently produced or that they wouldn’t be reinfected later on.
In 2007, the ITFL sued the FDA in an attempt to get the ban overturned. The ITFL argued that they were being treated unfairly and that they could produce turtles free of Salmonella with newly developed cleaning procedures. In March Judge Dee D. Drell ruled that the FDA failed to adequately consider arguments made in 2006 to end the ban that cited larger turtles can carry Salmonella and products like antibacterial soaps are readily available and reduce the risk of contamination.
“It would be a big tragedy for us if we have to quit,” said Eddie Jolly, president of the ITFL.
The FDA and other advocates of the ban cited Salmonella outbreaks in 2007-08 sickened 107 people, most of them children, in 34 states including children who handled or swam with these pet turtles. Salmonella was typically spread to children who handled the turtles or put them in their mouths, which was part of the reason for selecting the size for the ban. Another was that larger turtles weren’t as appealing as pets.
In 2007, a 4-week-old infant died in Florida from salmonella that was traced to the family’s pet turtle. It was a gift from an illegal sale at a flea market.
Judge Drell ultimately upheld the FDA’s decision to keep the ban in place. Considering the number of unwanted and abandoned turtles, the high mortality rate and the risks they pose, it wouldn’t make any sense to lift the ban and let more flow into the market.
The responsibility is not all on government agencies. Propelling this trade is a lack of education and understanding of the long-term requirements for keeping turtles as pets, as well as ignorance of the origins of turtles that are purchased and a lack of caring on the part of sellers about what happens to these tiny creatures after they’re sold.
The Humane Society recommends the following tips:
- Report illegal sales of baby turtles to local authorities as well as the local humane society and the FDA. Contact information for the FDA’s consumer complaint coordinators can be found here.
- Contact the FDA, asking that it continue the crack down on illegal sales of baby turtles.
- Do not purchase turtles.
- If you already have a turtle and have decided to give up your reptile, contact a local humane society or animal control agency for advice. Do not release unwanted pets into the wild.
- If you choose to keep a small turtle or any reptile in your home, make certain to know and follow the hygiene guidelines of the CDC.
- Ask your local or state government to prohibit sales of turtles.
If you’ve considered the requirements for keeping a turtle and are thinking about adopting one as a life-long pet, try looking at shelters and reptile rescue organizations for turtles who’ve been given up and need a forever home.