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Tiny pet turtles could make a comeback

If you were a kid in the 1960s or early 1970s, you probably had a red-eared slider as a pet — or at least one of your friends did. The baby turtles with dark-green shells, striped legs and faces marked by a red streak behind the eye were the “it” pet for a generation of kids until the Food and Drug Administration banned their sale.

Now, the pocket-sized turtles may be ready to make a comeback.

The sale of turtles with shells smaller than 4 inches was banned in 1975 because the sweet-faced reptiles harbored a dirty little secret: They shed salmonella. Kids became infected with the dangerous germ after putting their turtle-tainted fingers — or the turtles themselves — in their mouths. Regulators figured by banning turtles smaller than 4 inches, they’d curb the pet’s popularity, and at least bigger shells wouldn’t be able to fit into kids’ mouths.

Salmonella poisoning strikes kids particularly hard, and can cause vomiting, diarrhea, joint aches, headaches, and in some cases even death. A 4-week-old infant in Florida died earlier this year from salmonella acquired from a pet turtle, says Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine.

Before the ban went into place in 1975, an estimated 100,000 cases of salmonella sickness occurred each year as the result of baby turtles and other pet reptiles, Sundlof says. Since the tiny-turtle prohibition, that number has gone down by about a quarter.

Help in high places

Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana believes it’s time to lift the baby turtle ban. Arguing that new technology developed in her home state makes turtles safer to keep as pets, she introduced an amendment to the FDA Revitalization Act to once again permit their sale.

The Siebeling method, developed at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, disinfects turtle eggs so baby turtles can emerge salmonella-free. Landrieu’s amendment calls for states in which turtles are raised — primarily Louisiana and Mississippi — to issue a certificate of sanitization signed by a federally certified veterinarian to ensure that turtles offered for sale have been treated by the Siebeling or a similar method.

The Senate passed the bill containing Landrieu’s amendment last month, and the House is expected to vote Thursday. Will it pass? “I think we have a pretty good chance,” Landrieu says.

But while the Siebeling method can drastically reduce the presence of salmonella in turtles, it doesn’t eradicate it. That’s because turtles can continue to shed salmonella throughout their lives even after treatment.

“The bacteria is in their intestinal tract. Sometimes they shed it, sometimes they don’t, so it’s not easy to tell when the animals are perfectly salmonella-free, even following treatment,” Sundlof says.

Despite their dirty reputation, the little turtles would likely become a big hit with kids and parents if the ban were lifted, says Helen Ogaldez, an assistant manager at Fairwood Pet Center in Renton, Wash.

“I think if they were made legal, people would learn more about them and be able to purchase and care for them properly,” she says.

The Humane Society of the United States would like to see the ban remain in place. “In addition to the health risks, selling small turtles threatens animal welfare and the environment,” says Beth Preiss, director of the society’s exotic pets campaign. Preiss says many turtles die from poor shipping conditions and improper care. People who tire of them often release them into local ponds or lakes, where they wreak environmental havoc. Released turtles can spread disease and parasites to wild turtles.

Long-term, costly commitment

Veterinarians are concerned that most people aren’t prepared to care for the baby turtles. Sure, red-eared sliders start out looking like a little toy, but they can grow to be 10 to 12 inches long and could potentially live for 50 to 70 years, given good care.

The semi-aquatic turtles need water deep enough for swimming, a dry spot where they can get some sun or warmth provided by a heat lamp, full-spectrum light and a water heater, as well as a filtration system and weekly partial water changes to prevent the buildup of waste products, says Scott H. Weldy, a veterinarian at Serrano Animal and Bird Hospital in Lake Forest, Calif. The cost of an indoor setup can run up to $200.

Inadequate care is a concern, Landrieu acknowledges. “We have some language in the bill about care of the turtles and appropriate ways to raise them so it’s done in a safe and humane way. Also, I think there’s a trend in the pet industry toward responsible pet ownership and how to raise and care for animals in their proper habitat.”

Ginny Guidry of Spring Valley, Calif., had baby turtles as a kid and would love to get one for her 11-year-old son, but says she'd teach him to take better care of his turtle than she did. “My younger brother and I bought them at Woolworth’s,” she says. “They were cute and we loved them, although that wasn’t enough to keep them alive for very long. They usually died after a few months, probably because we kept them in glass bowls with a bit of water and a rock.”

As far as salmonella fears, she’s not worried because parents should just teach kids to wash their hands after handling a turtle just like after going to the bathroom.  “Frankly, I'm more concerned about an E. coli infection from a salad than salmonella from a turtle.”

Kim Campbell Thornton is an award-winning author who has written many articles and more than a dozen books about dogs and cats.  She shares her home in California with two Cavalier King Charles spaniels and one African ringneck parakeet.