Turtle Sales Pose Risks to Human Health and Animal Welfare

The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) cautions consumers not to buy turtles as pets to protect their own health and the welfare of the animals. Turtles and other reptiles carry Salmonella bacteria, which can be transmitted to people and cause serious illness. Because of this risk, federal health regulations have prohibited selling small turtles (with shells less than four inches long) since 1975.

Despite this prohibition, turtles are often sold illegally including over the Internet. A kiosk open for the holidays in a Lufkin, Texas mall reportedly sold 125 small turtles before suspending sales this week. The HSUS also discovered sales of small turtles this week at a Jacksonville, Fla. shopping mall, and alerted the Food and Drug Administration, which enforces the ban.

"Illegal turtle sales may be on the rise," said Beth Preiss, director of the exotic pets campaign for The HSUS. "We get calls from people who buy turtles only to learn the sale was illegal and the animals may pose a health risk to their family. We want consumers to have the facts before they buy."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the ban on small turtle sales prevents 100,000 children from contracting Salmonella each year. The CDC recommends keeping turtles out of homes with children under five, senior citizens, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems, who are most susceptible.

New research published in the December 2006 issue of the journal Pediatrics shows that exposure to reptiles is a significant cause of Salmonella infections in infants under one year old. According to Dr. Timothy Jones, deputy state epidemiologist for Tennessee, who led the study, reptile exposure was second only to international travel as a risk factor in infant Salmonella.

The trade in pet turtles represents depleted wild populations, damaged habitats and the suffering of countless animals. Although they may be marketed as low-maintenance pets, turtles have complex needs that are difficult to meet in captivity. Many turtles die due to rough handing during transport or inadequate care afterwards. If they survive they can easily outgrow their tanks and their welcome. Unwanted turtles released into the wild can spread disease to native turtles or out-compete them for resources.

Selling small turtles is only allowed for bona fide educational and scientific purposes, such as selling to a university. Merely claiming the animals will be used for educational purposes is not sufficient. Similarly, offering pet turtles for free with the purchase of accessories is prohibited since the FDA regulation outlaws not only the sale of small turtles but also any other type of commercial or public distribution.

"In general, pets should not be impulse purchases," added Preiss. "Last minute holiday shoppers should certainly avoid buying turtles who can live for decades and require specialized care."

Consumers who see illegal turtle sales can report them to the FDA. Contact information is available at www.fda.gov/opacom/backgrounders/complain.html\ The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization with nearly 10 million members and constituents. The HSUS is a mainstream voice for animals, with active programs in companion animals, disaster preparedness and response, wildlife and habitat protection, marine mammals, animals in research, equine protection, and farm animal welfare. The HSUS protects all animals through education, investigation, litigation, legislation, advocacy and field work. The nonprofit organization is based in Washington and has field representatives and offices across the country. On the web at www.hsus.org .
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