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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

The Illegal Teeny Turtle Trade


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!

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

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