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The Illegal Teeny Turtle Trade

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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High-ticket items at my local 99¢ store endanger lives. For $6 a pop (or 2 for $10) a child brings home a baby turtle hardly larger than a quarter. They’re deceptively deadly pets for kids who put the bitty creatures in their mouths, or who neglect to wash their hands after touching the turtle. In 1975, the US banned the sale of turtles less than 4 inches long, after epidemiologists linked outbreaks of Salmonella to the reptiles.

Despite the ban, human infections of the strain of Salmonella associated with turtles seem to be on the rise, says Janell Routh at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to a report recently posted on the CDC’s website, 132 cases occurred last year. Of the people who suffered from the infections, which cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever and cramps, 93% of those interviewed reported that they owned a tiny turtle. Salmonella can be lethal to young children and the elderly if it’s not treated promptly with antibiotics. In 2007, Routh says a 4-week old child died of Salmonella, soon after a baby turtle was placed playfully in the child’s crib.

Responsible pet store employees explain why it’s so important to wash your hands after handling reptiles. But that’s unlikely to happen at my dollar store, on a sidewalk in Chinatown, or at other outlets for the baby turtle black market, where unknowing parents can purchase a living toy for their toddlers for just a few bucks. “The ban is the most effective way to prevent Salmonella related to small turtles,” says Routh, “but the regulation of the ban is not so effective.”

I asked Routh who to contact to tattle on the dollar store near my block, where two dozen baby turtles wallow in cheap plastic containers. Eager to help, she sends a link to FDA phone numbers, and suggests that I file a complaint with the New York State Department of Health. Both leads go nowhere, and no one I reach seems to know how to handle a teeny turtle alert. If you have a better idea, please comment away!

Amy Maxmen About the Author: Amy Maxmen [] is a Brooklyn-based science journalist whose work appears in Nature, The Smithsonian, Nova/PBS and other outlets. This post derives from a trip sponsored by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting []. Follow on Twitter @amymaxmen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. pyam 4:46 pm 02/13/2012

    The New York Turtle and Tortoise Society might have some suggestions—although red-ear sliders have become so ubiquitous that the society no longer accepts them for adoption (

    It’s unfortunate that stores illegally sell baby red-ear sliders decades after their sales ban—unfortunate for both the potential Salmonella cases and the turtles themselves, most of which end up dead from poor care. Too many children grow bored of their turtles and start ignoring their needs, which are simple but exacting: clean water, UV light, heat, a basking area and a good diet. Turtles also live a long time, so an owner must be prepared for a long-term commitment (my own red-ear turns 35 later this year).

    Simply put, turtles do not make good pets for small children, and parents should resist the urge to purchase the baby reptiles for them.

    Link to this
  2. 2. BrianSchmidt 1:31 am 02/15/2012

    I suggest you file a Code Enforcement Complaint with your city’s Planning Office. Make sure to list the specific law/regulations banning the turtles together with the health reasons you specify in this post. Give a copy of the complaint to your city’s public health bureau. Also copy your City Council member. Wait 3 weeks and then contact Code Enforcement to ask what’s been done to resolve your complaint. If nothing, then go to your Council member and health department.

    Link to this
  3. 3. AmyMaxmen 4:38 pm 02/16/2012

    Thanks for the tips! I’ll post an update in a couple of weeks.

    Link to this

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