All God’s Creatures Deserve Careful Consideration, Including Turtles
Over the years as a medical intuitive, I have done readings of animals of all sorts: cats, dogs, horses, goats, donkeys. I have great compassion for animals because they are not able to speak directly to their human caretakers or ask specifically for what they need.
Just this week, a friend of mine was down in Florida visiting his buddy. The buddy’s dog had lost half her body weight, dropping from 4 lbs. to 2 lbs. My friend called to ask my advice. “Her kidneys are shutting down and she needs IVs for at least four or five days,” I said immediately. “She is very frightened. She can’t eat because she feels so bad. You know how you feel when you are so sick you can’t even eat?”
The owner took her to the vet the very next day. The vet said her kidneys had shut down and gave her an IV and asked her to come back again today for another one. If the IVs don’t work, the vet indicated there is nothing else he can do.
Most of us can relate to our cats and dogs rather easily, as they are our constant companions, but all God’s creatures deserve our careful consideration.
I personally respect all people who go out of their way to care for animals – all the veterinarians, all the people who volunteer at rescue shelters.
One person I appreciate very much is my former high school biology teacher, George Sellers.
When I was growing up, I had a natural interest in science, partly because I had such a great science teacher in Mr. Sellers and partly because my grandfather was an inventor, and he and I did science experiments together.
Not only did Mr. Sellers spark my interest in everything scientific, he also spurred my desire to excel academically. He had plaques in his school room of every student of his who went on to earn Phi Beta Kappa. I remember sitting there, looking up at those plaques, and I decided that I too wanted to earn Phi Beta Kappa. I did just that when I graduated from Brown University. I even gave the Phi Beta Kappa speech to my graduating class.
Mr. Sellers has become an advocate for turtles, who you don’t often read about.
I wanted to publish his article about turtles here, and encourage you to think twice whenever thinking about purchasing one for a pet.
Please join me in giving thanks for Mr. Sellers, for all those who care for God’s animals creatures and all those who speak up for those who don’t have their own voice.
This article explains why the purchase of turtles is bad for turtles and also bad for children’s health. Please read this article and warn your friends. You can reach Mr. Sellers with comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Myrtle Turtles: The Shell Game
By George Sellers
“Shameful sales of disposable pets.”
There is one tradition that needs to stop: the sale of hatchling turtles in tourist areas.
There are federal regulations banning the sale of hatchling turtles to the public because, while any reptile can carry salmonella, “baby” turtles are often purchased as children’s pets, and children, besides having weaker immune systems, often put their unwashed fingers in their mouths.
Yet in late May and early June of 2009, a total of 96 hatchling red-eared sliders were confiscated from two street vendors who were illegally selling the turtles on the streets of Baltimore.
A Maryland Natural Resource Police officer explained to a reporter that this is an ongoing problem. In addition to illegal turtles sold by Baltimore vendors in recent years, over 1,000 hatchling red-eared sliders were confiscated in Oregon in 2008, and 200 hatchling sliders were confiscated from tourist stores in Myrtle Beach, SC, in 2004 and 198 again in 2012 in Myrtle Beach, SC.
Shortly after the Baltimore seizure, the turtles were turned over to a local turtle rescue. Most of the hatchlings had very soft shells, including some that would bend like tissue paper. Despite the fact that the turtles were given proper care after confiscation and were eating readily, there was 65% mortality among this group of turtles up to six months after confiscation. The remaining turtles grew much slower than expected, and all had died within the year.
This is an all too common problem with turtles that are mass-produced for the pet trade, and their poor health and lack of vigor is a direct result of a common marketing strategy, in which newly hatched turtles are forced into so-called artificial refrigerated “hibernation”. The practice is inhumane by any standard, and it is unfair to the purchaser as well as the animal.
The key to understanding the turtles’ health issues is their size. These turtles, bred in massive southern “turtle farms”, were all red-eared sliders, a turtle native to the Mississippi river system. The turtles being sold on the streets of Baltimore in May were nearly a year old, yet in size they were within the normal range of fresh out-of-the egg hatchlings. Their weights told the real story.
Newly hatched turtles typically weigh about 8.2 grams each, while the weights of these individuals averaged only 12.9 grams even after feeding for several days after confiscation. The turtle farms and the distributors of the pet turtles are overrun with hatchlings by mid-summer, and the market is soon saturated. So tens of thousands of the turtles are piled into waxed boxes and put under refrigeration with humidity levels much lower than they would be in true hibernation.
In the case of the Baltimore turtles, they were apparently maintained this way, depending on their actual hatch date, for 7-10 months.
Even at cool temperatures, when kept out of water for extended periods, the turtles slowly dehydrate. Because they are dormant, mortality is extremely low during refrigeration.
Visible health issues are not noticeable until several weeks after the turtles are removed from the refrigerators. By then they are in the hands of retail dealers–in this case illegal ones–or the customers. Individual turtles can languish for months prior to succumbing to their failing health. The upper and lower shells of all the turtles from this seizure were soft, actually mushy, and flexible, unlike the hardened shells of healthy turtles of this size class. Under normal conditions in one year, even with several months of natural hibernation, these turtles should have nearly doubled in size.
In the mid 1990’s, a number of the large commercial turtle farms were visited in an attempt to find hatchling-sized specimens of various species to photograph. The half dozen specimens of the types of freshwater turtles that were made available to photograph were being stored under refrigeration. In nearly every case, even while being fed and kept under ideal conditions, these hatchlings died within a few months after they were removed from their cold storage. The few that managed to hang on did not grow and died within 6-8 months. The physiological damage of long-term dehydration seems to be irreversible.
Turtles shipped soon after hatching have a much better chance of survival, but even then the industry standard includes high shipping mortality as hundreds of hatchlings are packed into boxes that look like they were designed for pizzas and sent over night by UPS. The freshly hatched turtles are still living off energy reserves absorbed from their egg yolks, and the turtle farms tell their retail customers that they can go for about five weeks without food.
While this is true, with tens or even hundreds of thousands of turtles hatched at a single farm, no one is keeping track as to when individual turtles actually hatch, so many of the hatchlings are shipped long after the five week period. From the commercial aspect, these turtles are just low-end commodities, selling wholesale for 40-50 cents each when purchased in units of several hundred at a time.
Frankly, carrots on the grocery store shelves get better treatment.
The retail distributors can afford the high mortality rates as they are selling the turtles at $10-15 a piece. The thinking is that most of them end up being flushed down a toilet in six months or so anyway because most of the retail customers have no idea of their husbandry needs. It’s a disposable pet market, and it’s a large one. Over 200,000-farmed pet turtles are sold in this country, and nearly 10 million are shipped to pet markets over seas each year.
Red-eared sliders are the most frequently sold turtle in the pet trade, due to their bright colors and small size as hatchlings as well as their fecundity for the breeders. By the 1960s there were over 150 turtle farms operating in the United States. In most cases these farms were not self-sufficient, and thousands of adult sliders were removed from the wild each year for breeding stock.
This practice seriously depleted native populations in many areas of the South. In the mid 1970’s the US Food and Drug Administration banned the US sales of turtles under four inches, because they found the turtles often transmitted salmonella to small children.
This was at first devastating to the turtle farmers. Their solution was overseas sales and finding markets in the US in states where the regulations were not well enforced. For almost every attempt at the subsequent regulation of the industry, there was a successful counter move by the farms or the dealers. There was no regulation against giving the turtles away, so this led to the practice of buying the aquarium and other turtle paraphernalia and the customer receives a free turtle. The release of unwanted pet turtles has resulted in red-eared sliders becoming an invasive exotic that competes with native turtles. Because of this the European Union banned the importation of red-eared sliders, but the turtle farmers circumvented the regulation and cross-bred them with yellow-bellied sliders and shipped their customized genetically designed young turtles to Europe.
Florida recently stopped the sale of red-eared sliders because released pet turtles were becoming established and were likewise competing with native species, so the turtle farms stocked up on different species to produce young turtles for the market. In time they, too, will become problems. Baltimore, of course, is not the only city to have street vendors selling illegal pet turtles to the public.
Health officials in Philadelphia, PA, issued a health warning in October 2008 when salmonella cases spiked in the city from street vendors selling hatchling sliders. Let’s not overlook direct on-line sales; the trade in wildlife over the Internet has become a huge industry in the last two decades.
Two years ago a massive investigation involving undercover work in nine eastern states and one Canadian province documented the illegal sales of large numbers of protected reptiles and amphibians. Most of the issues involved animals for the pet market, but the investigation also uncovered turtles being sold for food. Thousands of native turtles were laundered through a Louisiana turtle farm and then shipped illegally to China where there is an increasing demand for turtle meat. Others went directly to a meat processing plant on the eastern shore of Maryland. In addition to state and federal wildlife laws, there were also violations of the Lacy Act, as the sales represented illegal interstate commerce. Altogether the illegal trafficking in turtles resulted in 14 felonies, 11 misdemeanors, and dozens of violations.
As recently as mid-December 2009, U.S. Global Exotics, a distributor of exotic pet turtles and other animals, was raided and 27,000 creatures, over 4,000 of them dead and dying, were seized from their Arlington, Texas, warehouse. The reptiles and other animals that were confiscated were taken because of the deplorable conditions in which they were kept. One of the examples cited was boxes of live hatchling sliders intended for the pet market that had sat for weeks unopened on shipping room floors.
The owners of the Texas animal warehouse had an interesting defense. They pointed out that they were operating within the standards of the exotic pet industry. One witness for the defense noted a study documenting that often as many as 70% of the animals die before reaching their ultimate purchaser. Such informative statements, while sad, are unfortunately probably true. Perhaps the oddest aspect of all this is that it is the people who love animals and want to own a little turtle named Myrtle or Shelly that are directly driving this disposable ‘living/dead’ pet marketing scheme.
L. George Sellers, Ware Shoals High School, Ware Shoals, SC email@example.com
D. S. Lee, Tortoise Reserve, Inc., White Lake, NC www.tortoisereserve.org