Live Freshwater Turtle and Tortoise Trade in the United States

(The following is a brief summary of a report published by the Humane Society of the U.S. and the Humane Society International in November 1994. Its purpose is to present information on the domestic and international trade in turtles and tortoises, and to attempt to assess the impact of this trade on these species.)

The Inhumane Turtle Trade

Wildlife inspectors in the U.S. and abroad are the sources of horror stories of what happens to turtles being shipped into and out of the U.S. For instance, in March 1991, a shipment was stopped at the Schiphol airport. It contained 511 pancake tortoises and 307 leopard tortoises from the United Republic of Tanzania, en route to the United States. The tortoises, of different ages and sizes, were packed on top of each other in six crates weighing an average of 450 kilograms (about 1000 lbs.) each. Fifty of the tortoises were dead upon arrival. Most of the survivors were near death from starvation, serious dehydration, or cracked shells. Some gravid or egg-bearing females on the bottom of the boxes bled to death. Egg shells had pierced their internal organs when the eggs were crushed by the weight of the tortoises above. Other tortoises were found with their pelvic bones sticking up through their carapaces.

During the summer of 1994, every week, thousands of North American box turtles were shipped out of the New York City’s JFK International Airport to supply the European pet trade. Most were sick, exhibiting swollen eyes and ears, covered with mites and ticks, and feather-light form not being given food or water. Crates have been inspected in which the turtles were packed so tightly they couldn’t move or even open their shells.

What is behind all these atrocities is a multimillion dollar trade in turtles (and other reptiles) that supports an ever-growing market for pet turtles. There are highly profitable markets for turtles in the U.S., Europe, Japan and Korea.

Although some exotic turtles are now protected by the Endangered Species Act and by CITES regulations, many are not. In the United States, some states restrict collection of endemic species, but often collectors bypass this by claiming to have collected the specimens in an adjacent state with no restrictions. The only written regulations covering the humane treatment of turtles are the international shipping standards set by the IATA (International Air Transport Association), but this is a self-regulatory organization, so there is little muscle behind the guidelines. For example, when a dealer has a permit to ship a certain number of animals, if there is any room, the dealer will add as many animals as possible to the box. Technically, if caught, the entire shipment must be confiscated, but usually the excess animals are just taken, the dealer gets off free, and gets to keep the remaining “legal animals.” When fines are levied, they are usually minimal, and are simply part of the cost of doing business. With odds like these, it pays to take the chance. There are no guidelines for humane shipment of turtles within the U.S. Local anti-cruelty laws can sometimes be called into play, but the U.S. Animal Welfare Act does not cover reptiles, so anyone can ship or keep for sale a reptile in any manner they wish and no Federal officer can stop them.

Sources of Turtles for the Pet Trade

The turtles that supply the pet trade come from any one of four sources:

1) They are caught directly from the wild. Unfortunately, dealers will often not ship turtles until they have enough for a large order. The turtles often wait in tight quarters, and are rarely fed or watered between the time they are taken from the wild and the time they reach the pet shop. This practice also devastates turtle populations in the wild and may even damage the habitat. Turtle collectors have dug up tortoise burrows looking for gopher tortoises, destroyed rock crevices where pancake tortoises once lived, and ripped apart bogs looking for bog turtles. This can affect entire ecosystems. Known as keystone species, turtles including the gopher tortoise and Russian tortoise create complex tunnel systems that are used by multiple other species for food and/or safety. Thus, entire ecosystems are being destroyed to power the pet trade.

2) Some turtles are “ranched”, meaning that wild-caught turtles are either raised to a marketable size in captivity, or their eggs or offspring (usually produced in the early stages of captivity) are sold. The largest numbers of ranched species are the millions of baby red-eared sliders raised for export on farms in Louisiana. The reason that breeding stock must be taken from the wild is that at least ten percent of all adult turtles at these so-called “farms” die annually due to overcrowded conditions. The average pond, with a surface area of 1.5 acres, contains up to 13,000 adults.

3) The term “captive-bred” turtle usually means that the animal is a long-term captive and that animal was mated and laid eggs in captivity. Today, most captive-bred turtles are land tortoises bred from long-term captive breeding stock, not second-generation animals born in captivity. These animals are most often bred by individuals or small retailers, who sell the turtles through the mail or through specialty turtle stores. A few water turtles are also being captive-bred.

4) The last course of pet trade turtles is turtle farming. This means that the breeding stock itself was born in captivity. At the present, there is no record of turtles being farmed for the pet trade on a large scale. Many turtle ranchers incorrectly promote themselves as turtle farmers.

The largest numbers of turtles sold in pet stores either come directly from the wild or from turtle ranches that call themselves farms. Few pet stores, outside of those specializing in reptiles, carry captive-bred turtles. In addition, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service records show that almost all turtles imported into the U.S. are wild caught.

Turtle Survival Rates in Captivity

Almost anyone who has ever kept a pet turtle will attest to the fact that their animal died. How? It baked in the sun, got out and was never found, its shell got soft, its eyes got swollen, or it never ate.

Research supports the common consensus that during the height of the American baby turtle craze (from the 1950’s to the mid 1970’s), 99% of all American hatchling turtles sold throughout the world died within two years. This low survival rate holds true for many species. It is caused (at least partially) by the way most turtles are marketed, and by the level of available pet care advice. Many pet stores market turtles as “low-maintenance”. This unfortunate image leads people to ignore both the needs of the animal, and any signs of illness it may display until it’s too late.

Over 100 turtle societies exist across the United States and Europe. Most provide hot lines, educational meetings and care sheets. Excellent material on turtle care is now available. Unfortunately, the most basic questions are still being asked, indicating that although good information is available, not much of it is getting through to the general public. The 1994 APPMA (American Pet Products Manufacturers Association) survey indicates that the reason for this is that veterinarians and pet stores are highly regarded by the average turtle owner for advice on turtle care.

Vets can be great sources of health information. But they rarely give free advice over the phone. Someone who pays $15 for a pet turtle will likely be reluctant to spend $20-30 for a vet visit. It is, after all, cheaper to replace the turtle that dies. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s “1992 Companion Animal” survey shows that only 6.85% of turtle owners seek vet care for their turtles. Of those that do, many vets report that most turtle health problems stem from ignorance – the turtles are fed the wrong diet, kept in the wrong habitat, or given no basking platform or place to hide.

So most people ask pet shops for advice. But if the conditions in which turtles are kept by pet shops are any indication of the level of pet store advice, one doubts that the 99% mortality rate cited previously has improved. Overcrowded tanks, dirty water, and water turtles exhibiting fungus and shell rot are common sights in pet stores, many of which keep turtles incorrectly housed and fed. Turtles are often sold with inadequate information about housing or diet.

Knowledgeable turtle keepers sometimes try to teach pet store owners proper care, with mixed results. Many pet shop owners are indifferent to expert advice. Andy Highfield of the Tortoise Trust in Great Britain surveyed purchasers of American box turtles. 65% of respondents reported that their turtles had experienced feeding difficulties, in fact because the diet suggested by the pet shop was incorrect. 43% characterized the advice they had been given as “poor” or “very poor”, while 29% felt it was positively misleading. Finally, a startling 68% of respondents reported experiencing veterinary problems with their turtles, mostly ear and eye infections. These are common infections in stressed turtles and turtles subject to incorrect environmental conditions. Thirty percent of all respondents reported that their box turtles died. These figures become truly depressing considering that the survey was only given to members of turtle societies in Great Britain, many of whom did seek veterinary care. The figures for “impulse” buyers or “average” purchasers are not available, but are probably more gloomy.

Conclusions and Suggestions

It has become increasingly evident that the turtle trade as it now exists, cannot continue without devastating effects on individual turtles, entire species, their habitats, and possibly even human health. On simple humane and environmental grounds, the trade must change. If it doesn’t, it faces its own extinction, either as a result of public outrage at its cruelties, or simply because – eventually – dealers will run out of turtles to sell. The following list of suggestions would vastly improve the current state of the turtle trade, making it more humane and less of a detriment to wild populations. These ideas, like this report, are meant to make people both aware of the problems, and of the fact that positive action is possible.

1) The pet industry should be discouraged from selling turtles collected from the wild.

2) All taxa of turtles traded internationally should be placed on CITES Appendix II, at a minimum.

3) Turtle collection from the wild and export should be carefully monitored and monitoring mechanisms improved.

4) Retail turtle dealers should provide fact-based care sheets with each turtle sold.

5) National and local anti-cruelty laws should be broadened to cover the treatment of turtles by collectors and dealers.

6) Turtle breeders should develop industry standards and develop a method to ensure compliance.

7) Regulations for the humane and healthful transport of live reptiles to the United States must be promulgated as already required under the U.S. Lacey Act.

8) Air carriers should abide by the Live Animals Regulations of the International Air Transport Association, which sets standards for turtle shipment.

The source of this summary is a report produced by the Humane Society of the U.S., 2100 L Street NW, Washington DC, 20037. (202)452-1100