In the past year, several states have struggled with a resurgence in baby turtle sales, which are illegal. Health officials are concerned—the baby turtle craze in the 1970s was blamed for thousands of cases of salmonellosis, some of which were lethal.
"They were such a popular pet in the '70s and there was a reason for that. They are cute. They are little. The pet stores want to make money and the people want to buy, so it has just kind of bloomed again," said Dr. Jamie Snow, a state public health veterinarian at the Wyoming Department of Health, who has been dealing with the problem in her state.
In 1970, the Food and Drug Administration prohibited the distribution and sale of baby turtles with shells four inches in length or less, after a quarter million infants and small children developed turtle-associated salmonellosis. Salmonella organisms can be found on the skin and shell surfaces of turtles, posing a risk of infection for those handling turtles without properly washing their hands after contact. Turtles with shells smaller than four inches are more dangerous because children can put them in their mouths.
The most commonly sold baby turtles are red-eared sliders. In Wyoming, Dr. Snow says she discovered several pet stores getting in on the action. Local health officials attempted to stop them, but the stores were using a loophole in the law that allows the sale of baby turtles for educational purposes.
"They were having the people who were buying them sign a form that said they were only going to use them for educational purposes, so there wasn't much we could do," Dr. Snow said. It wasn't until salmonellosis cases were linked to the turtles that officials were able to use a public health order to put a stop to the sales.
Dr. Snow also says that the law is old enough that many people don't know that selling the reptiles is illegal. Dr. Patricia Fox, an epidemiologist with the Wisconsin Division of Public Health, agrees.
This past summer, Dr. Fox found a plethora of souvenir shops in tourist areas in her state selling baby turtles. "Many of the people that run those are not aware of the legislation, particularly if they are younger, or don't remember it," Dr. Fox said.
Dr. Fox says that after learning about the legislation and the risks involved, most sellers voluntarily stopped selling the baby turtles. In some cases, however, people didn't quit, and the agency took further action.
"We used a public health order, because at that point, we had confirmed cases (of salmonellosis) that were linked," Dr. Fox said.
Reports of problems in other states have also surfaced. In New York City, for example, baby turtles are frequently sold in Chinatown markets. In Houston, they've been sold at kiosks in malls. Lori Green, director of Turtle Homes USA, one of the largest turtle and tortoise rescue operations in the United States, says a large portion of the turtles that come through her agency are a result of baby turtle sales in New York City's Chinatown, and Myrtle Beach in South Carolina.
Health officials are urging owners who wish to remove turtles from their home to contact the seller about returning them or contact their local humane society. In states where the turtles are not native, such as Wisconsin, wildlife officials are urging owners not to release them into the wild, because they could be harmful to the environment.
Individuals can also contact reptile rescue groups such as Turtle Homes USA to find a home for an unwanted turtle. Green estimates that in September, this nonprofit agency had between 400 and 500 requests from people who were looking for homes for a turtle. Many individuals, she says, were duped into buying the turtles by sellers who assured them that the animals would remain small if kept in a small container and would be easy to care for.
Dr. Fox says that most of the turtles are being bred and purchased from Southern states, such as Louisiana and Florida. In Louisiana, some producers are using a method of production that results in Salmonella-free baby turtles. The state provides a health certificate to these producers certifying the turtles' Salmonella status. Although the turtles can be sold throughout the world, they are not supposed to be sold in the United States because of the risk of a later infection.
"One of our producers has actually provided a document from a veterinary diagnostic lab that shows that this huge batch of turtles, from which his came, was Salmonella-free," Dr. Fox explained. "He had his own turtles tested from that batch and, sure enough, every single one tested had salmonella."
Education and vigilance will be key to combating the problem.
"We are going to certainly start early next spring in the tourist areas again and check on some places, just to make sure," Dr. Fox said.