Booming Baby Turtles
The laws on selling baby turtles are clear and specific, and responsible pet retailers need to understand those parameters and how to operate within them.
The sale of baby turtles, and particularly baby red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), has a long and controversial history in the United States. Knowing the ins and outs of how to operate within the strictures of the law, and basic ethics are key for any herptile retailer. After all, the goal should be to cater to customers in a way that both promotes the well-being of the turtles themselves and allows families to have positive and fulfilling experiences raising these wonderful creatures.
What is commonly known as “the four-inch law” has been around since 1975, and to this day, it elicits confusion and worry in the minds of pet shop owners and the general public. In short, the law bans commerce in turtles under four inches in length due to the potential spread of salmonella-related illness. Here in California, we are required to post a warning about possible salmonella contamination and an abbreviated version of this law in our stores. Even if your state does not have this provision, I recommend you get ahead of potential problems and post a similar warning.
That said, it is important to know the facts. Salmonella is a waterborne and foodborne pathogen that can be spread by water turtles, as well as chickens, eggs, other animals such as dogs and cats, and contaminated kitchen surfaces. With a minimum of hand washing, and a strict policy of not kissing your turtle—or, tempting as it may be, drinking its water—a person is pretty unlikely to pick up the pathogen from a pet. In fact, water turtles are bearing the unfair burden of incrimination for the spread of a common and vector-rich health issue.
Still, the law is the law, and it applies not only to water turtles, but to all turtles in the size range. The size is based on the notion that a four-inch turtle is too large to be fit into a child’s mouth. A so-inclined child could never fit even a little bit of a five-inch turtle in his or her mouth; thus, danger averted. Right? To summarize, the law is based on false premises, and misapplied to animals for which it has little to no bearing. And yet, I fundamentally support the law, and here’s why: the turtles themselves have had a long and institutionalized history of abuse at the hands of misinformed and misguided segments of the pet industry, and this law has provided an admittedly imperfect block to trade in baby turtles. To this day, there are unsuitable and wholly inadequate turtle enclosures on the market.
When the law first came to be, virtually the only options offered in which to raise baby turtles were inappropriate. The housing offered no access to proper diet, heat, light or filtration—poor filtration and cleanliness being the number-one cause of salmonella blooms—therefore, babies rarely lasted longer than a few weeks. It was shameful and cast a dismal light on our industry. The enactment of that law did have a frosty effect on the baby turtle trade. Unfortunately, there are still vendors in flea markets and the like that sell such insufficient setups, and frankly, the law is not often enough thrown at them. Fortunately, most of us who strive toward an ethical and professional business have left those days far behind us—and that is not to say that we can’t or won’t sell baby turtles.
It is important to remember that the law applies to all turtles under four inches—baby tortoises and box turtles included. However, the law as written also has exceptions—most importantly for scientific and educational purposes. Those exceptions are written into our signage. When a customer expresses interest in having baby turtles for those purposes, I can and will sell them an animal. If they do not express such interest, they probably wouldn’t have much success in raising them up anyway. If they do, I have my first indication that my baby will go to a caring and appropriate home.
We also make sure that any turtle purchased from us is accompanied by proper caging, light, heat, food and care instructions. Finally, no one purchases an animal from me without being fully cognizant of how big it can get, how long it will live and what it needs to thrive. This, of course, changes the purchase from an inexpensive impulse purchase to a real project, and eliminates exactly the sort of situation that once lead to these animals being considered a health risk in the first place. People tend to pay attention to the care of an animal into which they have made a substantial fiscal investment, and that’s a good thing. Thus, we not only obey the letter of the law, but more importantly we comply with its intent as well.
We have one more in-store strategy for staying both legal and ethical. Of the myriad species available, we almost never carry the most common one: the red-eared slider. We do this for a few reasons. We find that offering less common and more interesting species increases the attention factor I mentioned earlier. Also, and even more importantly, we recognize that sliders represent a very real and devastating ecological impact when they get into non-native habitats. They are incredibly adaptable and are destructive to nearly every environment they happen into. We want no part of that.
My store has a decades-long history of selling baby turtles, and yet, we have a mutually respectful and friendly relationship with law enforcement, wildlife authorities and animal services. We have managed this by working hard in the best interests of our animals, our environment and our customers. I can proudly say that, in 35 years in the business, I have yet to encounter a single case of salmonella poisoning traceable to my store. Frankly, it hasn’t been that difficult to accomplish. It seems more a side-effect of running a responsible, ethical business than a real goal unto itself.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.