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Selling Small Turtles No Small Crime

Increased enforcement puts turtle sellers on notice

The Humane Society of the United States

The past year has brought a wave of enforcement actions against individuals involved in illegal turtle sales and renewed attention to the potential risks the trade in these animals poses. Federal regulations prohibit selling turtles less than four inches long as pets to help prevent Salmonella, a bacterial infection that turtles carry that can cause severe diarrheal illness in humans and may be life-threatening. 

"These decisive actions against illegal turtle sales put the industry on notice: stop selling small turtles or face the consequences," said Beth Preiss, director of the exotic pets campaign for The Humane Society of the United States. "They also alert consumers that buying a turtle puts their own health at risk, along with the animal's welfare."

Jail time in Illinois

In November 2008, a man was sentenced to a year in prison for selling or offering to sell undersized turtles at an Illinois reptile show in 2005.

He was linked to more than 300 turtles, making the crime a felony. Another man will serve two years on probation with nine months in home confinement.

Street vendors arrested in Maryland

City police officers in Baltimore, Md., seized 96 small red-eared slider turtles from street vendors and arrested two men, one in May and one in June 2009. They were charged with selling the turtles illegally and vending without a license. Maryland law prohibits sales of small turtles, and in the city of Baltimore both the sale and possession of the animals are illegal.

Thousands of turtles seized in Florida

Federal officials in July 2008 announced the unprecedented seizure of nearly 7,000 undersized turtles and tortoises from a Hollywood, Fla., business. The company was required to pay a $5,000 fine and was placed on probation for two years. Federal prosecutors, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service collaborated on this case.

Florida's illegal turtle sales had tragic consequences in 2007, when an infant died after contracting Salmonella from a pet turtle. The turtle had been bought at a flea market and given to the family. The flea market is being sued.

Arizona county warns of health risk of small turtles

The Yuma County, Ariz., Department of Public Health warned residents last year that small turtles are illegal to sell as pets and can transmit Salmonella. The department observed roadside vendors selling small turtles in the county.

A 2008 Arizona law prohibits selling any animals on or adjacent to public streets and parks in the state's two most populated counties—Maricopa and Pima. Maricopa County reported 11 cases of turtle-associated Salmonella infections in children in 2007.

Effects of turtle sales on turtles, the environment

The trade in pet turtles threatens turtles' health and their environment, too.

Countless turtles in the pet trade die from poor shipping methods and inadequate care. When turtles outgrow their tanks, sometimes their owners release them outdoors, potentially harming native species.

In Oregon, for example, where escaped or released red-eared sliders (popular in the pet trade) are out-competing native species for nesting areas and suitable habitat, it is illegal to possess the species.

People who see small turtles for sale illegally can report them to the USDA here.

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