Bill Seeks to Lift Ban on Baby Pet Turtles

A tiny turtle held in a human hand.

hide captionIn the hands — and sometimes the mouths — of their child owners, baby turtles quickly spread the salmonella they carried, often causing severe intestinal illness and sometimes even death.

William Gottlieb/Corbis
From Canaries to Rocks: A Hardy Pet Is a Good Pet

  

Affectionate and relatively indestructible – those historically have been key qualities of a good starter pet.

  

Katherine Grier, author of Pets in America, talks about pets of choice — good and bad — over the decades.

  

Read that story.

Tiny pet turtles often lived in plastic aquariums like this one.

hide captionTiny pet turtles often lived in plastic aquariums like this one.

Katherine Grier
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poster on reptile pet safety. i i

hide captionA Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poster provides safe-handling instructions for reptile owners.

CDC
A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poster on reptile pet safety.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention poster provides safe-handling instructions for reptile owners.

CDC

Baby turtles as pets may be ready for a comeback. The Food and Drug Administration banned virtually all sales of tiny turtles in 1975 after the animals were linked to salmonella infections in children. But a bill passed by the Senate last week includes an amendment that would lift that ban.

Ruth Hanessian, owner of the Animal Exchange in Rockville, Md., doesn't sell turtles in her pet shop. But if the ban on baby turtles is lifted, Hanessian says she knows they would sell.

"Give me some baby turtles, and I'm back in it in a heartbeat," she says. "I will do it the first day that it's legal."

She says those turtles that are banned — the ones less than 4 inches long that can live nicely in those little plastic turtle lagoons — are perfect starter pets now more than ever.

"Today, with both parents working, we need pets that don't require huge amounts of effort on the part of the parents, that can be successful for the kids," she says.

Still, Hanessian freely acknowledges that there were health problems with the little turtles before the ban.

"I had one friend who was bringing into Maryland 10,000 little turtles a week," she said. "And these were the 2-inch red-eared sliders bred in the lakes in Louisiana, albeit near the sewage outflow, so they were fairly well contaminated by the time they came through."

And in the hands — and sometimes the mouths — of their child owners, the turtles quickly spread the salmonella they carried, often causing severe intestinal illness and sometimes even death. Earlier this year, a four-week-old infant in Florida died of salmonella that was traced to a pet turtle in the family's home.

After a lengthy campaign by public health officials and humane societies, in 1975 the FDA banned the sale of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long — that size was picked so that overly affectionate kids could no longer fit the animals into their mouths.

Stephen Sundlof, who heads the FDA's center for veterinary medicine, says that at the time, the salmonella threat from the baby turtles was serious.

"There were approximately 280,000 cases of salmonellosis in the U.S. each year directly as a result of those turtles," Sundlof says.

After the ban was imposed, salmonella cases traced to reptiles dropped dramatically. Even though bigger turtles are just as likely to carry salmonella as smaller ones, bigger turtles didn't prove as popular as a pet.

"A 4 ½- inch turtle is a mess to take care of," says pet store owner Hanessian. "You're talking roughly $150 of equipment to take care of. It ain't going to fit in this (little turtle) bowl, for one thing."

Meanwhile, back in Louisiana, turtle farmers were working to literally clean up their industry. Working with scientists at Louisiana State University, they've spent the past three decades trying to find ways to minimize, if not eliminate, salmonella from their hatchlings.

The Concordia Turtle Farm in Wildsville, La., is one of those facilities. It now calls itself the world's largest producer of salmonella-free farm-raised turtles. Owner Jesse Evans says the process they use is elaborate. It starts with a bleach water bath for the eggs. Then the eggs are loaded into a custom-made egg-cleaning machine, which he says "does a jam-up job on cleaning the eggs. We don't have a speck of dirt on the egg, it's pearly white when we get through with it."

The process isn't perfect, but it does push down the salmonella infection rate in baby turtles from about 30 percent to less than 1 percent. Given that, says Mark Mitchell, a veterinarian and one of the scientists who helped develop the cleaning system, the outright turtle ban is no longer fair.

"It seems to be a bit of a discriminatory governmental regulation," Mitchell says, "because if we just look at the rest of the captive reptile species, those can also harbor salmonella and serve as a source of exposure to human beings."

But the FDA is not yet convinced the ban should be lifted. The FDA's Sundlof says even turtles that leave the farm clean are unlikely to stay that way — especially if they're fed raw hamburger or chicken.

"The problem here is that... they can pick it up from their environment even if they were totally devoid of salmonella once they were sold," Sundlof says.

And there's a reason that only baby turtles are subject to the outright ban.

"In the case of other reptiles, it's true they are just as likely to carry salmonella as baby turtles, but in most cases they are not marketed to very young children," Sundlof says. And when children get salmonella, they tend to get sicker than adults. Plus, when adults buy reptiles, they're more likely to take precautions, such as handwashing, that can prevent the spread of salmonella.

The House is expected to consider the bill that includes the turtle ban in June. When it does, members could face arguments over things other than salmonella. Some say that allowing the sale of farmed turtles is good because it decreases the number of animals taken from the wild. But many animal-welfare groups say reptiles in general are inappropriate pets, particularly for children.

From Canaries to Rocks: A Hardy Pet Is a Good Pet

Canaries, budgies and cockatiels perched together.

hide captionCanaries, budgies and cockatiels perch together. Birds have long been popular pets in the United States.

Hans Reinhard/Zefa/Corbis
A canary perches on top a cat's head.

hide captionA canary perches on a cat's head. The marketing of cat litter after 1945 helped bring cats in from the cold.

Bettmann/Corbis
Small pet turtles called plastic aquariums like this one "home" in the 1950s.

hide captionSmall pet turtles lived in plastic aquariums like this one in the 1950s.

Katherine Grier/Pets in America Virtual Exhibit
U.S. Admiral Sampson's steward holds a pet iguana, circa 1893.

hide captionU.S. Admiral Sampson's steward holds a pet iguana, circa 1893.

Detroit Publishing Company, 1893 – 1901; Library of Congress
A turn-of-the-century New York City sign advertises "rat catcher and ferrets." i i

hide captionA turn-of-the-century New York City sign advertises "rat catcher and ferrets."

George Grantham Bain/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
A turn-of-the-century New York City sign advertises "rat catcher and ferrets."

A turn-of-the-century New York City sign advertises "rat catcher and ferrets."

George Grantham Bain/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Affectionate and relatively indestructible – those historically have been key qualities of a good starter pet. And a healthy appetite is good — but within limits. Take, for instance, a certain pet groundhog owned by historian Katherine Grier's grandfather. The groundhog was booted outside for chewing on the wallpaper, and then most likely met its demise at the end of a neighbor's shotgun. Stories of unusual pets — with sometimes unfortunate endings — filled Grier's childhood, and she recently wrote a book tracing the nation's relationship with pets, Pets in America: A History.

A pet's appeal is easy to understand, says Grier, a University of Delaware professor. We like the company, she says, and at times, pets are just easier to get along with than members of our own species.

Here, she talks about Americans' pets of choice over the decades — good and bad:

According to your book, Pets in America, songbirds, especially canaries, were the pet to have in the 1800s. What made the canary so prized?

Americans lived in silent households really until the radio came along, and caged birds of all kinds were sort of the ambient sound in homes. In fact, cages were designed so that people could carry them from room to room, so they took the bird with them almost like a transistor radio.

Were songbirds ultimately good pets?

If you knew how to care for them, they were very good pets. Canaries in particular are surprisingly hardy; they seem to be able to tolerate the kind of uneven living conditions found in homes.

Why did songbirds eventually fall out of fashion?

They're still around in significant numbers. There are an estimated 15 million to 17 million birds kept in American households today. But, per capita, they're less popular. And I really think it's because, as their role as background sound fell away, they weren't needed any more.

What has replaced them as most favored pet?

Cats and dogs – it's estimated now that there are about 88 million owned cats and 75 million owned dogs in the United States. Those are the single most popular group at this point, unless you count the ubiquitous goldfish.

When did turtles become popular?

Turtles were not popular really until the mid-20th century. Maybe as early as the 1930s, you would see ads for those small green water turtles. As a child of the 1950s, I had one, too, in a little plastic aquarium with a fake palm tree. They were common dime-store pets, they were easy to raise, and they shipped pretty well. But the life spans of those animals were not too long, and I would have to say their lives were probably not very happy. The children who bought them didn't really know how to care for them. They could buy canned turtle food, but the turtles had other kinds of problems, from inadequate exposure to daylight to water problems. Then it was discovered that they were carriers of salmonella, and that was sort of the end of the small green turtle as a dime-store pet.

Did your turtle have a good life?

My turtle, I tried to take good care of him. I enjoyed watching him and making an obstacle course and sort of trying to play with him, but ultimately he didn't live to be an adult animal. ...

That's a big part of having a pet — learning about death.

Yes, for children, pets have always been a way to learn about the realities of death.

OK, you're a historian, and I realize this is a little beyond your professional expertise, but what, in your opinion, makes a good starter pet?

You want an animal that's pretty hardy. I would suggest freshwater fish. I also think that rats are incredibly good starter pets. I know that people will go, "Yuck!" But rats are hardy, they're affectionate, they're pretty clean, they can tolerate a lot of handling. They really are friendlier than some of the other small mammals, like hamsters. People can carry them around in their pockets, and rats really do seem to get to know their owners.

I take it you would want to get your rat from a pet store?

Yes — don't catch your own pet rat.

(Editor's Note: Veterinarians advise that rodent pets aren't for everyone and should be spayed or neutered. Rodents can be prolific breeders.)

Why are we so crazy about pets?

I think people get a lot of different things from pets. They get companionship, and I think you have to look at pets and their association with our leisure. People like to walk their dogs; it's a chance for us to get exercise. Some people keep pets as status symbols — you see that especially these days, with fashions for the really small dogs. Though I think some of those dogs may have a tough life, because it's hard on them to be carried around the way they are.

So it's hard to be tiny and pretty and pampered?

Yes, in fact, those small dogs are fragile and have health problems; some of them are hypoglycemic because they're so small.

Are inanimate pets still popular — you know, pet rocks and Tamagotchis?

Those seem to have fallen away. The pet rock was a joke from the 1970s. The Tamagotchi is an electronic pet that is often sold in small little units you can carry around like key chains. I'm not quite sure I understand them, I find them sort of creepy. You can't cuddle it. And it's this computer pet that if you don't care for it, it will die. I suppose there's a lesson there, but because it's not a real creature, I don't know how meaningful that lesson is.

Over the years, what sorts of animals have turned out to be huge mistakes as pets?

I wouldn't use the word "huge," but there are exotic animals that should never be made into household pets. You'll probably get mail from people saying, "I love my monkey," but I'm not sure that primates should be kept as household pets. And a lot of reptiles have problems as pets. It's hard for them to thrive, and they take a very long time to die, so people don't even realize they're not treating their reptile well until it's at death's door.

You also want to think long and hard about where an exotic animal has come from – was it captive-bred in a farm setting or was it caught in the wild? That is not a good thing — wild-caught animals sometimes die in large numbers before they reach pet stores.

Katherine Grier is a professor at the University of Delaware's department of history, and she is curator of the traveling exhibition Pets in America. The exhibition is currently at the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Mass.

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