Reptiles can make children and adults very ill.
In September, school bells start ringing all over the United States. And so do our phones. Teachers are calling American Tortoise Rescue asking if they can have turtles or tortoises for their classrooms, most commonly red eared sliders, a water turtle, or a Russian tortoise, a land tortoise (pictured).
Our answer is always the same. Absolutely not.
Why? Because having one in your classroom or the schoolyard can be fatal to both your child or the turtle or tortoise for several reasons.
1. Reptiles of all kinds can carry a disease called Salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterial infection that generally infects the intestinal tract and occasionally the blood stream. Symptoms include mild to severe diarrhea, fever and occasionally vomiting. While healthy adults may show no symptoms of Salmonella even if they are infected, children under five, pregnant women and the elderly are at risk of serious illness or even death from Salmonella infection. This is immediate red flag to nursery school and grade school teachers considering turtles or other reptiles for their classrooms. An exotic pet veterinarian told us that a teacher is a sitting duck for a lawsuit should any of the children in the classroom get infected. “Teachers know the risks, so if a parent were to sue for a million dollars (much more if the child dies), the parent will win.” It is not worth the risk.
2. Turtles and tortoises are quiet wild animals that prefer not to be in the company of humans, especially lively young children who shriek, over-handle and chase animals. Even when children are closely supervised, accidents can and do happen. Turtles get dropped, stressed out or die.
3. A turtle or tortoise or any wild animal confined to a tank is living a miserable existence – it’s a death chamber. It’s like you or me living in a bathtub for the rest of our lives. Tanks are for fish.
These creatures are used to living outside where they can get the sun and food they are used to.
Most people have little factual knowledge about turtles and tortoises even with the Internet – in fact the Internet has so much incorrect information it is often confusing to someone who is trying to do a good job caring for these animals.
What is very disturbing to us is that many schools already have turtles and tortoises as classroom "pets." Turtle are wild animals, not pets. Even after we educate principals and teachers about the risks to the children and the animals, turtles remain in close contact with the children. When there have been cruelty complaints filed with us about the poor housing and living conditions of turtles and tortoises in schools, educators still have refused to relinquish the poor animals…cases in point - several well-known preschools schools and one children’s workshop in Southern California.
So please, parents, persuade your teachers to relinquish the turtles and tortoises to a responsible turtle rescue. Don't let them expose your children to a serious illness. It can be a matter of life and death.
American Tortoise Rescue is a nonprofit founded in 1990 for the protection of all species of turtles and tortoises. We have rescued more than 4,000 since our inception. Foundlings that cannot be adopted because of ill health remain in the care of ATR for the remainder of their lives. ATR acts as a clearinghouse for information about turtle care. We work to abolish “live market” slaughter of turtles in the US, the sale of reptiles on sites like Craig’s List and the cruel importation and exploitation of a variety of species. Celebrate World Turtle Day every year on May 23rd!
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Myth 1: Turtles are easy to care for – just buy a nice tank.
False: Turtles are wild animals. They have territories that can be many miles wide. Putting them in a tank is cruel. Think of it this way: it’s like spending the rest of our lives in the bathtub. A turtle needs a large habitat or a pond to approximate nature, not a tank.
Myth 2: Turtles usually live about five years.
False. In captivity, a well cared for turtle can live 25, 50 or more years. These animals have been on the earth for 200 million years, longer than dinosaurs. They might have to be in your will and maybe even your children’s will.
Myth 3: Turtles do not need veterinary care like dogs and cats.
False! The problem with turtles is because of their very slow metabolism, they do not show signs that they are sick until the illness has progressed. The signs and symptoms you should be very aware of include: Closed and swollen eyes, loss of appetite, sitting in one place looking miserable, daily pattern changes and runny nose and eyes. If any of these are observed, see a vet immediately.
Myth 4: It is best to buy turtles and tortoises at a pet store.
Absolutely false. Pet stores should sell pet supplies not pets. Pet stores might buy their turtles from cruel trappers. About 90 percent die in transit. Get your turtle the same place as a dog or cat. Go to the nearest animal shelter or find a reptile or turtle rescue online.
Myth 5: Turtles hide under plants to hibernate.
Some do, like box turtles. Some hibernate under water like red eared sliders and cooters. Each species has its own habits. Whichever it is, your turtle should be healthy and heavy before it is allowed to go to sleep for the winter.
Myth 6: Turtles hiss like snakes when they are mad.
While it is true that the sound a turtle makes sounds like it is hissing, it is not. When a turtle is afraid or picked up quickly, it pulls its head in really quickly and this action forces the air out. It is biological, not deliberate.
Myth 7: Turtles can eat just about anything
False. Turtles are carnivores that must eat live food like snails, fish and worms. You can also feed them prepared turtle food from a pet store. They should not be fed hot dogs, raw hamburger and cat food - stuff that they would not normally find in the wild. Water turtles can only eat under water.
Myth 8: Tiny water turtles stay that size.
False! Those small green water turtles that you see in plastic containers with fake palm tress are hatchlings that will grow up to be any where from six to 12 inches. It is illegal to buy or sell them in the US while they are under four inches.
Myth 9: Washing a turtle gets rid of salmonella.
False. Assume that every turtle no matter how clean is carrying salmonella. It is important to wash your hands after handling the turtle or its water, keep turtle things away from the kitchen and keep turtles out of homes where children under six live.
Myth 10: Turtles can live happily with artificial light.
False. Turtles need real sunlight to be able to grow normally and to have strong bones. Turtles deprived of sun get a condition known as metabolic bone disease where their bones disintegrate. A basking turtle in the sun is a happy and healthy turtle.
For more information, visit www.tortoise.com .
American Tortoise Rescue is a nonprofit founded in 1990 for the protection of all species of turtles and tortoises. We have rescued more than 4,000 since our inception. Foundlings that cannot be adopted because of ill health remain in the care of ATR for the remainder of their lives. ATR acts as a clearinghouse for information about turtle care. We work to abolish “live market” slaughter of turtles in the US, the cruel importation and exploitation of a variety of species and protecting the desert tortoise.
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