For 200 million years, much longer than the dinosaur, turtles have roamed the earth in search of food, a protective habitat, a safe place to hibernate and, of course, love. These gentle creatures have hardly changed in their journey across the millenniums, but something deadly is creeping up on them.
Because of habitat destruction, the exotic food demand and the relentless pet trade, biologists and others who study reptiles predict their disappearance in 50 years or so. It’s hard to imagine that this incredible survivor will be gone without a trace.
Jeffrey E. Lovich, National Biological Service, examined population trends in the U.S. He notes that there are few long-term studies. But of the 55 native turtle species in the United States and its offshore waters, 25 (45%) require conservation, and 21 (38%) are protected or are candidates for protection under the Endangered Species Act.
Of the remaining 46 turtle species (aquatic and semi-aquatic forms), 16 (35%) require conservation action. The percentage of U.S. turtles requiring conservation action (45%) is similar to that of the world (41%).
Of course, we can blame overpopulation and global warming and all the other ills affecting our planet. Those in turtle conservation point to a more economic threat to the world’s turtles, especially in Asia. A workshop on the Asian Turtle Trade was held in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in December 1999. One of the recommendations was that all Asian species of freshwater turtles should be considered for listing on at least Appendix II of CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora).
Why Asia? Many Asians eat turtles and think that they have sexual or medicinal powers. So millions of U.S. turtles are being exported for food since, I like to say, the Asian nations have eaten all of theirs.
According to an article in the Houston Chronicle April 15, 2007, writer Shannon Tompkins recently visited China where she was offered, live and otherwise, turtle in various dishes. This trip peaked her interest in the turtle trade. She discovered something those of us in the turtle rescue business have known for years…tens of thousands of Texas turtles are ripped from the wild and shipped to Asia.
Texas Parks and Wildlife Department which handles the permits for these transactions, said that each year about 95,000 wild-caught Texas turtles are being collected for food and for the pet trade. Snapping turtles, red eared sliders, softshells and others are the most popular for the live food markets. According to Tompkins, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said that “256,638 Texas turtles were exported through the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, alone, from 2002-05” and the majority were destined to end up on a plate.
This same humungous harvest goes on in the southern states, Mexico and elsewhere every day throughout the year so it is no wonder that we will not see any more turtles in the years to come.
But turtles are not just being eaten in Asia. Live food markets exist in major U.S. cities and current “immigrant bashing” sentiment prevents enforcement of existing laws or confiscation.
With the burgeoning immigrant population in the U.S., many of whom do not or will not shed their third world ways, we are seeing live food markets springing up throughout the U.S. in every major city as well as small ones where there are concentrations of Asian immigrants. Based on the idea that fresh is better (Hello? Refrigerator anyone?), the demand for fresh killed turtles is on the rise throughout the U.S. further depleting the supply.
At the markets, turtles are upside down, with no water or food, often the hot sun. Children are seen touching them risking salmonella, or hitting them with sticks. Cities with cruelty laws don’t enforce them even though this is obviously a violation.
Some cities require that the turtle be killed on site at the market but this is not enforced which means that the turtle will suffer in the hands of the buyer. They are hard to kill quickly. While American Tortoise Rescue and other groups have been aggressively working to put an end to this barbaric practice, we have been thwarted by the inaction, and in many cases disinterest of government bodies that are supposed to conserve wildlife not throw it to the lions.
What can you do? Sign every petition that aims to protect wildlife. Protest at Fish & Game and U/S. Fish & Wildlife meetings. Report cruelty if you happen to see it. Don’t buy turtles at pet stores – adopt instead. Volunteer. Be loud and vocal and relentless in the fight.
"The turtles which outrun the hares are learning machines. If you stop learning in this world, the world rushes right by you." ~ Lucas Remmerswaal
The slow, funny, cunning shell-guy. That's the picture most of us carry in our minds about the tortoise--no thanks to the stories we were told as kids☺. I can hear someone ask, in this high-speed; high-tech world, why do we even need a slow tortoise around us? Why do we even go as far as dedicating a day to it on the international observance? Yes, I've got someone who has answers to all these and more questions you might have about the turtle and tortoise.
The American Tortoise Rescue (ATR) was founded over 2 decades ago by a couple, Susan and Marshall, their love for each other added to their passion for wildlife conservation has motivated them to save and re-home over 3000 turtles, as well as campaign for the protection of turtle habitats around the world. In their bid to take their project to the world, ATR has been sponsoring World Turtle Day since year 2000 and the global response both offline and online has been massive.
In course of our stroll, Susan shared her passion; the work ATR is into; and also some practical steps each and everyone of us can take to protect the tortoise and turtle for posterity. Here's my stroll with the American Tortoise Rescue; I hope you get 'edutained'.
Ebenezar: Thank you for having this stroll with me Susan.
Susan: You're welcome Ebenezar, the pleasure is mine.
Ebenezar: When I told my friend about World Turtle Day, the first thing she asked was, "Why should we have an observance for turtles?" Well, I tried my best to explain but I'm sure she wasn't convinced. So can you help me out here... why is it important that we observe World Turtle Day?
Susan: Many people view reptiles including turtles and tortoises as less important because they are not warm and fuzzy like dogs and cats. Typically many people donate to warm and fuzzy animal sites leaving turtles in the lurch. Turtles have outlived the dinosaurs and are a bell weather for our own future. Biologists predict that if we don’t do more to save our planet, turtles and tortoises may be gone in 50 years or less. So save their habitat from destruction and do everything you can to save them from extinction.
Ebenezar: What exactly is causing this habitat disappearance?
Susan: Typically it is habitat destruction, taking turtles and tortoises from the wild for the pet trade, buying an animal as an impulse buy at the pet store and then having it languish and die in a tank, smuggling of endangered species where many of them die from stress en route, long net fishing without turtle extruders, the cruel live food markets in the U.S. and other countries where demand for turtles exceeds hundreds of millions of turtles each year.
Ebenezar: Okay, the American Tortoise Rescue was founded 20 years ago and World Turtle Day has been observed for over a decade. What are some achievements we've recorded so far?
Susan: We were founded 24 years ago and since then have re-homed more than 3,000 turtles and tortoises to forever homes, educated people around the globe with World Turtle Day which is now celebrated everywhere from Borneo and Australia to Pakistan and the UK. We have more than 166,000,000 results on Google. That's a lot of people finding out how to save turtles and tortoises.
Ebenezar: Wow, that's awesome Can you share some practical steps individuals around the world can take to help support the vision of World Turtle Day and ATR?
Susan: Adults and children do a few small things that can help to save turtles and tortoises for future generations: Never buy a turtle or tortoise from a pet shop as it increases demand from the wild.
Ebenezar: Okay? No pet turtles...
Susan: Yeah, Never remove turtles or tortoises from the wild unless they are sick or injured. If a tortoise is crossing a busy highway, pick it up and send it in the same direction it was going – if you try to make it go back, it will turn right around again.
Ebenezar: (haha) Very wise creature ☺
Susan: Yeah, extremely wise. People can also write letters to legislators asking them to keep sensitive habitat preserved or closed to off road vehicles, and to prevent off shore drilling that can lead to endangered sea turtle deaths.
Report cruelty or illegal sales of turtles and tortoises to your local animal control shelter. Report the use of tiny turtles as prizes at carnivals and other events. It’s illegal. Report the sale of any turtle or tortoise of any kind less than four inches. This is illegal to buy and sell them throughout the U.S.
Ebenezar: Wow, thanks for that insight into what we can all do to contribute to the cause. Also, ATR was founded by you and Marshall, your husband, and I'm just wondering how come you guys have a mutual love for this animal...
Susan: I was a cat rescuer for many years and then Marshall mentioned he loved turtles. Before I knew it was a bad thing to do I bought two for his birthday many years ago. Then we started reading up on how was a bad idea as they take them out of the wild for pet stores. Then we learned there was no national turtle and tortoise rescue and a lot of animals just got dumped so we decided to start a small local rescue which grew to an international one very quickly. We became a nonprofit about six years later and the rest is history.
Ebenezar: Okay, and I'm just curios too, is it the turtle that brought you guys together in love? (Haha)
Susan: No comment ☺
Ebenezar: Awwww, I think we all know what that means (haha). The Tortoise was always a super hero in the stories and fables I was told as a child. I'm a student of Biomimicry, and I believe there are lessons we can learn from plants and animals around the world. What are some virtues you think humans can copy from the Tortoise/Turtle?
Susan: Well unfortunately the reputation as a super hero (like the popular Ninja Turtle movies) has caused many problems instead of being a good thing. Children demand that their parents buy them a turtle and then are disappointed when it doesn’t fly or do acrobatics. Then the turtle just sits in a tank and ultimately dies or is dumped.
No turtle should ever live in a tank – it’s like you or me being confined to a bathtub the rest of our lives. And no child should have a turtle as a pet until they are old enough to responsibly care for it – 13 and up. Many of these animals can easily live 100 years...
Ebenezar: Wow, that's real longevity.
Susan: Yeah. So when you adopt a turtles or tortoise remember that you will have to put their care in your will.
Ebenezar: (Haha) And many people never do that. Okay, What are the future goals of the American Tortoise Rescue? Do you plan to expand? Perhaps start similar organizations on other continents?
Susan: We already facilitate education and adoption in other countries and have for years – the internet made that happen rather early in our existence. The goal is to expand our social media outreach on Facebook and twitter so that we can educate many more people. Google is already helping us a lot.
Ebenezar: Happy World Turtle Day Susan, thank you so much once again for speaking with me.
Susan: Thank you Ebenezar, Happy Turtle Day.
For more about the American Tortoise Rescue and World Turtle Day click here
It's really sad to hear predictions like, "This animal will go extinct in the next 50 years if nothing is done", or "that animal is the last of its specie...". It creeps me out. With the way things are going will there even be zoos in the future? We all have a responsibility to protect wildlife. Save a turtle/tortoise today. Till my next stroll on June 5th--World Environment Day--when I'll be strolling with Robert Swan( UN Goodwill Ambassador, Environmental leader, and first person to walk to the North and South pole); be good. Jesus Loves you
"The righteous care for the needs of their animals..." (Proverbs 12v10, NIV) Posted by Wikina Ebenezar at 5/23/2014 12:55:00 pm
Susan M. Tellem, RN, BSM
When Peter Mitchell* bought a quarter-size green turtle from a Los Angeles street vendor for his young son Danny, he had no idea he was bringing home a tiny package of life that packed a big wallop of a disease. Within days, Danny ended up in the ICU with severe vomiting, lethargy and fever. He almost died from Salmonella. An infant in New York City, admitted to the hospital with vomiting, chills and fever also was diagnosed with Salmonella. Although there were no reptiles in the child’s household, her babysitter passed along Salmonella from her pet iguana. In Texas, an HIV positive, 45 year old pet store employee who routinely handled reptiles, was treated for severe Salmonella sepsis (a serious illness that results when Salmonella enters the blood stream).
All over America, men and women, adults and kids are unknowingly trading, buying and giving “the gift” of Salmonella, a infection that can kill. Reptiles, like iguanas and water turtles are purchased at pet stores, as well as * not his real namefrom the black market, private reptile breeders and swap meets. Many reptile sellers do not post warnings about the dangers of Salmonella even though state and federal laws require it.
What is Salmonella?
According to the New York Department of Health, 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. Symptoms generally appear one to three days after exposure. It is spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or by contact with infected people, animals and reptiles.”
Reptiles are more popular than ever. According to the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council, there are between seven and eight million pet reptiles owned in about three percent of America’s households. Reptile ownership is on the increase. U.S. Fish and Wildlife reports while about 27,000 iguanas were imported in 1986, the figure increased to almost 800,000 in 1993. Upwards of 80 percent of the imported iguanas carry Salmonella, according to Richard Evans, DVM, Chief of Veterinary Services, Veterinary Public Health, Orange County (Calif.) Health Agency. “If you bought an iguana, you bought the wrong pet,” he says emphatically. “There is no known treatment for Salmonella in the iguana (or turtle). Even if you treat the Salmonella in your pet, it returns.”
While most healthy adult owners show no symptoms of Salmonella even if they are infected, Dr. Evans says children under five, pregnant women and the elderly as well as those whose immune systems are compromised such as those with AIDS, kidney transplants or people undergoing treatment for cancer are at risk of serious illness or even death from Salmonella infection.Dr. Evans warns teachers that reptiles (and other animals like chicks that also carry Salmonella) are not appropriate for classrooms. “Show them pictures,” he says.
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 he says.
During the 1970s, millions of tiny baby turtles were sold throughout the United States as pets. By the mid-70s, a quarter of a million children and infants were diagnosed as having turtle-associated Salmonella. In 1975, the Food & Drug Administration, in an effort to stop the problem, prohibited the sale of any turtles under four inches in length. This law still stands but is poorly enforced.
According to American Tortoise Rescue (ATR), Los Angeles, and the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, throughout the country, tiny turtles called red-eared sliders are being sold by vendors on street corners, in shopping malls, in front of museums and even at pet stores. Typically ranging in price from $2 to $10, turtles imported from Mexico and harvested from Louisiana are often infected with Salmonella. “Buyers tell us that none of the black market vendors ever issued a health warning with the sale of the turtles,” says Marshall Thompson, co-founder of ATR.
Unsupervised children are frequently at risk with these small turtles because they can easily put them in their mouths. “We’ve been in pet stores where illegal turtles were for sale,” says Thompson. “As we watched, children under five fished out the turtles from the tank where they were for sale and never washed their hands afterward.”
According to national reptile specialist, Walter Rosskopf, DVM, who runs the Avian & Exotic Animal Hospital in Hawthorne, Calif. “Reptiles can be kept by responsible people who take strict precautions.” He is opposed to children owning reptiles because of the health hazards.Says Dr. Rosskopf, “Salmonella, in my experience, is seen most commonly in water turtles, boa constrictors and iguanas. The infected reptile frequently shows no symptoms, and culturing stools to identify Salmonella is a hit and miss proposition.”
Dr. Rosskopf gives good advice for those who currently have reptiles as pets or plan to purchase one.
Although it might be tempting, Dr. Rosskopf also warns, “Do not kiss your reptile.”
Want to Know More?
The Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta publishes a free brochure on Salmonella. Write to CDC, MMWR MS (C-08), Atlanta, GA 30333.
For free information on Salmonella, contact American Tortoise Rescue at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author: Susan Tellem is a registered nurse and executive director of American Tortoise Rescue in Los Angeles. She founded the nonprofit sanctuary with her husband, Marshall Thompson, in 1994. Together, they rescue and rehabilitate all species of turtles and tortoise. Neither has ever had Salmonella.
For your fact checking:
Richard Evans, DVM 714-935-6931
Walter Rosskopf, DVM 310-679-0693
Marshall Thompson 213-934-0336
Allen Salzberg 718-275-2190
Think Before You Leap