Flickr user Jim, the Photographer
This red eared slider may be aesthetically beautiful, but he and other turtles have the potential to carry drug-resistant bacteria that could be deadly. “I dare you,” he says.
“Going in your shell” is an expression for self-protection, but it’s not keeping Louisiana turtles safe. Have you ever turtled? Bet you didn’t even know the word “turtle” could be a verb. It means “to hunt turtles.” More than sixteen million wild-caught turtles were exported from Louisiana in the past five years, according to The Center for Biological Diversity and the Gulf Restoration Network. These species include the red-eared slider, snapping, and softshell turtles.
One likely future for these turtled turtles is a dinner table in the Far East. While nearly all species of sea turtle are endangered and illegal to kill, some cultures still hunt them for meat. The Chinese culture subscribes to the myth that the turtle’s longevity will bring long life and health if turtle meat is included in one’s diet. The softshell turtle shows up often in soup. Sea turtle eggs, with their purported aphrodisiac qualities, were, and still are, considered a delicacy in some countries.
But along with jail time, you might be risking a nasty infection should you indulge in any sea turtle product. “All reptiles and amphibians have the potential to be carriers of Salmonella,” said Vic Boddie II, Ph.D., a consumer safety officer in the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine. Turtles are no exception. This gram-negative bacteria—meaning it puts up a fight against several drugs and most antibiotics—is normally found on the skin and outer shell of turtles though it doesn’t cause harm to them. While human stomach acids can kill off a certain amount of Salmonella, the ingestion of too many will lead to salmonellosis poisoning, an infection with symptoms of diarrhea, fever, vomiting, and abdominal cramps. Most people recover on their own without medical treatment. However, in some cases, especially with the very old and very young, symptoms may be fatal.
In 2013, 386 school children in China’s Sichuan Province had to be hospitalized for Salmonella poisoning. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) investigated and found the source to be improper washing of cooking utensils that were used to cook raw meat. Perhaps it was turtle meat; but undercooked pork, chicken, beef, and eggs can have the same effect.
As a child I was fascinated by turtles; it was just a part of my DNA. Like many other children growing up in the late ‘fifties or early ‘sixties, I had pet turtles, namely baby red-eared sliders. They were tiny, like the size of the silver-dollar pancakes my father made. Their carapace (shell) was smaller than three inches, and you could buy them for twenty-five cents at Woolworths. They were irresistible, and I got a new one every time I was diagnosed with tonsillitis, which unfortunately was often. My parents had the good sense to reward me with a visit to the dime store and a turtle after the nasty penicillin shot. No one knew these new pet turtles were making the pediatricians work overtime.
Children typically don’t wash their hands unless forced to do so; and fingers, among other things, often find their way into mouths. Like most kids, I took my turtle out of its home, the plastic bowl with a fake palm tree, and showed him/her off to family and friends, not knowing that I now had bacteria all over my hands, and therefore in my mouth. Until I grew out of the pet turtle stage, I had chronic, doubled-over stomachaches for years. My mother thought it was a ploy to get out of chores and school.
In 1975, selling hatchling turtles or selling those with shells smaller than four inches (apparently the perfect size for children to put in their mouths) was outlawed. While turtles of all sizes can carry Salmonella, larger turtles aren’t as appealing to the pet turtle trade. (The average pet turtle can live anywhere from ten to eighty years, with larger species living longer than that. According to Guinness World Records, sea turtles have the longest lifespan, up to 152 years. Some Leatherback turtles have weighed in at 1,543 pounds.) The CDC estimates that 100,000 cases per year of reptile-associated salmonellosis were prevented with the ban.
And I now know I wasn’t a hypochondriac growing up.