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Bill Seeks to Lift Ban on Baby Pet Turtles

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.

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