Baby turtles are just about as cute as they come. They're also illegal to sell. But that's not stopping some people from making roadside sales all over southern Colorado.
According to a local pet store, baby turtle vendors have been selling on street corners in Pueblo all summer. They showed up around June and just keep coming back. One of the biggest problems, besides their illegal activities, is the fact they aren't telling buyers about the health risks associated with the new baby turtle. And since June, hundreds of them have been sold.
For decades, it's been illegal to sell turtles of any species that are less than four-inches long. Children like to put things in their mouth and that includes potentially, baby turtles. More likely, kids will handle the baby turtle and not wash their hands before eating food. The problem with this is, turtles are a carrier for salmonella. Baby turtles, tend to shed and spread the bacterial more so than larger turtles, according to the health department.
Currently, the Pueblo City-County Health Department is investigating a case that may tie a baby turtle to one case of salmonella in the area.
Meanwhile the Pueblo Police Department says, there is little they can do about the problem. According to the police, the federal agency responsible for following up on cases involving the illegal sale of baby turtles is the USDA. But there is concern the agency has bigger fish to fry and doesn't have or won't commit the resources to prosecuting the crime.
Instead, police look for other ways of sweeping the operation out of town. One of the ways is to enforce vendor licensing through the city. Recently, police showed up at a location where the vendors had all the right paperwork for a roadside license. However, they did not have water inside a tub with more than a hundred turtles they were planning to sell. This oversight could cost the vendors, as they now have to show up in municipal court on animal cruelty charges.
Cruelty has been seen in yet another area with the vendors who attempt to convince buyers to make a purchase by promising ways to keep the turtle small. Emma Mitchell, a zoology student with Colorado State University works at a pet store that has taken in several of the baby turtles from people who couldn't take care of them. Many have shared the story of how the turtle came into their position with her. "They bought a $10 little turtle they expected it would be the easiest thing," says Mitchell.
But it wasn't easy at all. Mitchell says, the buyers were told that if they kept the turtle in a small four-by-six plastic cage it would stay small. What the vendors neglected to tell the buyers is that practice can deform the turtle causing its shell to develop a hunchback. She says, they also neglected to tell the buyers that turtles need a 50-50 water-to-land habitat, special food, water, and light. The intentional bad information about how to keep the animal small and the lack of instruction on how to care for it properly, appalled her.
Many parents have come to the pet store seeking information about how to properly care for the turtle and have been surprised to find that it will cost them well over $50 just to get started with the animal. And they're even more surprised, if not angry when they find out about the health risks.
Here is some advice from the FDA if you have a turtle, young or old, or plan to get one in the future:
- Don't buy small turtles for pets or as gifts.
- If your family is expecting a child, remove any pet turtle (or other reptile or amphibian) from the home before the infant arrives.
- Keep turtles out of homes with children under five years old, seniors, or people with weakened immune systems.
- Do not allow turtles to roam freely through the house, especially in food preparation areas.
- Do not clean turtle tanks or other supplies in the kitchen sink. Disinfect a tub or other place where turtle habitats are cleaned.
- Always wash hands thoroughly with soap and water after touching any turtles, their housing, or anything (for example, food) that comes in contact with a turtle or its housing.
- Be aware that Salmonella infection can be caused by contact with turtles in petting zoos, parks, child daycare facilities, or other locations.
- Watch for symptoms of Salmonella infection, such as diarrhea, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting, fever, and headache. Call your doctor if you suspect that you or a member of your family may have Salmonella.
The threat of serious illness from baby turtles is very real. In 2007, a four-week old baby in Florida died from a Salmonella infection linked back to a small turtle. The DNA of the Salmonella from the turtle matched that from the infant.
From May 1, 2007 to January 18, 2008, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention received 103 reports of Salmonella infection in people from 33 states. 24 of them were hospitalized. Two teenage girls became ill after swimming in an unchlorinated in-ground pool where the family's pet turtles had been allowed to swim.