Souvenir shops in a number of states would appear to be unconcerned about a repeat of this health disaster: They are offering baby turtles to the public. By doing so, they are not only posing a threat to the public, they are also violating federal law. The sale or distribution of turtles with a carapace (shell) under 4 inches in length is a violation of a 1976 federal law created to protect consumers, in particular children, from the threat of reptile-associated salmonellosis.
The Baby Turtle Craze in the '70s
During the 1970s it became something of a fad to buy baby turtles—usually red-eared sliders—about the size of a silver dollar, along with a small water bowl and plastic palm tree. Many people contracted reptile-associated salmonellosis through direct and indirect contact with these baby turtles. Children were prone to placing the turtles in their mouths or ingesting bacteria left on their hands after handling the turtles.
In 1976 the Food and Drug Administration, on the advice of the Association of State and Territorial Epidemiologists, took drastic action to curtail the reptile-associated salmonellosis outbreak. It banned the sale or distribution of turtles with a carapace length under 4 inches.
The measure worked very well: In the years immediately following the ban, there was a 77% reduction in the annual number of reptile-associated salmonellosis cases reported in the United States. Baby turtles got a break as well; experts believed that they suffered a 100% mortality rate within one year of purchase because of improper care, neglect, and abandonment.
Illegal Turtle Sales
There has been a recent surge in the illegal sale or distribution of baby turtles—red-eared sliders remain the turtle of choice, though map turtles, painted turtles, and pond turtles are also sold—at vacation spots in Wisconsin, Kansas, South Carolina, Arkansas, and Texas.
Local law enforcement and health officials are working with federal officials with the FDA to take action against the merchants and distributors of the turtles. Health authorities have traced at least two recent salmonellosis cases in children back to the baby turtles obtained at a Wisconsin vacation spot.
Since the scare of the '70s has receded in most memories, the FDA restrictions on the sale and distribution of baby turtles has become difficult to enforce; the turtles are, after all, easy for merchants to obtain and very cheap. In addition, many, including law enforcement officials who do not understand the impetus for the 1976 FDA restrictions, consider the law frivolous and do not bother to properly enforce it.
Baby turtles are often used by merchants as a cheap gimmick to lure customers into purchasing a tank and supplies for the pet reptile. The merchants don't tell consumers about the health threats, nor do they explain how to care properly for the turtle or that the turtle, if he survives, will soon outgrow the tank and will require a larger, more expensive one. Why mess with a good thing?
For merchants, baby turtles certainly are a good thing. According to the American Pet Product Manufacturers Association, in one year, U.S. pet turtle owners spend an estimated $42 million on products for a pet that, on average, costs a mere $23.
When the baby turtle grows into an adult and the novelty wears off, owners often become overwhelmed and relinquish the animal to a shelter or simply turn the animal loose into the wild, where he will likely perish. (If the turtle survives, he may become a menace and, possibly a disease threat, to local wildlife.) Reptile rescue groups report that many turtles relinquished to them were obtained as baby turtles at vacation spots.
State by State
The following is a breakdown of the state cases of which The HSUS has been made aware:
Wisconsin: In August police in the vacation area of Wisconsin Dells ordered five businesses to stop distributing baby turtles to the public. The animals were being "given away" with the purchase of supplies such as a tank and turtle food. An investigation was launched after tourists contacted the Columbia Humane Society and the police to complain about the violation of federal law.
The merchants were given a deadline to remove the turtles from sale and humanely euthanize them. All but one merchant complied, demanding his turtles be tested for Salmonella bacteria. The tests were carried out, even though veterinary and health officials dismiss the Salmonella culture tests as meaningless since turtles (and all reptiles) can harbor Salmonella bacteria without detection and shed it intermittently in their feces. Still, the Salmonella tests came back positive. According to one count, this merchant had 900 turtles on the premises. Fines for violating the regulation could run up to $1,000 per turtle.
Next, the Wisconsin Department of Health and Human Services contacted local humane organizations to ask for their assistance in taking in turtles that people wished to relinquish. The state agency was concerned that people would dispose of the turtles in inhumane ways or release them into the wild. According to the federal ban, the FDA must witness or perform the humane euthanasia of the turtles if the animals cannot be placed in a proper home out of contact with small children.
South Carolina: In July police raided five beach wear stores in Myrtle Beach, and seized 200 red-eared sliders. The shops were also offering frogs for sale, which is a violation of local law. The turtles were turned over to a nearby commercial reptile exhibit.
Texas: In December 2003 the FDA warned a merchant in a Houston mall against selling young turtles. The merchant immediately complied with the order and sent the remaining 166 turtles to a Texas turtle sanctuary.
New York and California: In both states there have been numerous reports of a bustling market for baby turtles in the local Chinatown. Witnesses have estimated that a single merchant may sell as many as five turtles every 15 minutes. In these areas there seems to be no enforcement of the restrictions on the distribution of these reptiles.
The Internet Connection
It's not uncommon for online dealers, such as www.turtlesale.com, to give away baby turtles if customers spend a set amount on other products. Other online reptile dealers such as this oneattempt to skirt the FDA restriction by offering baby turtles for "adoption." They may also ask customers to sign a paper stating that the baby turtles will be used for bona fide scientific, educational, or exhibition purposes.
While these retailers clearly make an effort to protect themselves from legal recourse, they seem less concerned with protecting humans from the threat of Salmonella or turtles from the dangers of shipping and handling.
A Dangerous Business
Baby turtles are shipped from farms in flimsy cardboard boxes, in which many die from rough handling, temperature extremes, and neglect. Historically, the mortality of baby turtles has been of little importance to dealers because turtles are relatively cheap.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it is likely that more than 90% of reptiles (snakes, lizards, turtles, and crocodilians) are asymptomatic carriers of Salmonella bacteria. Reptile and amphibian contacts are estimated to account for 74,000 (6%) of all Salmonella infections reported annually in the United States.
Salmonella infection causes fever, abdominal pain, and severe bloody diarrhea. Patients usually recover in several days, but may require antibiotics to fight the illness. Certain individuals are considered high-risk for salmonellosis, such as those with weakened immune systems, pregnant women, the elderly, and particularly children aged 5 years and younger.
For these groups a bout with salmonellosis may be devastating, leading to blood infections, meningitis (infection of the brain or spinal cord membranes), osteomyelitis (infection of bone), miscarriage, and possibly death. For this reason, the CDC recommends these individuals, in particular children 5 years and under, have no contact with reptiles.
What You Can Do
U. S. Food and Drug Administration
5600 Fishers Lane
Rockville, MD 20857-0001
Michelle Jacmenovic is a former research associate in The HSUS's Wildlife section..