The sale or distribution of turtles with a carapace length of fewer than 4 inches has been banned in the US since 1975 (Title 21 CFR 1240.62). The ban was brought into effect under the Public Health Services Act by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to address the problem of Salmonella infections in children. Before the ban, there were an estimated 250,000 cases of Salmonellosis in children and infants that were associated with pet turtles in the US.
Why 4 Inches?
After all, turtles of all sizes can carry Salmonella. Four inches was chosen with the thought that most young children wouldn't try to put a turtle larger than this in their mouth (of course, putting a turtle in your mouth isn't the only way to be infected with Salmonella). However, restricting turtle sales to those greater than 4 inches probably also helps reduce the incidence of Salmonellosis by reducing turtle sales, since hatchlings are much more irresistible than larger turtles. Also, kids are probably less inclined to play with the larger turtles in the first place. Certainly, the risks of Salmonella are still present with larger turtles, and with any turtle, precautions are necessary to prevent Salmonella infections.
Is the Ban Effective?
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) estimates that the ban prevents 100,000 cases of reptile-associated Salmonella a year. Statistics on prevention are difficult to confirm, but the ban has likely prevented some cases of Salmonella as well as preventing the impulse purchase of turtle hatchlings by unprepared owners.
If nothing else, the ban has helped prevent the mistreatment of baby turtles.
Attempts to Get Around the Ban
There are exceptions available in the ban, such as the sales of turtle hatchlings and viable eggs for bona fide educational or exhibition purposes, and limited sales of turtles not connected with a business (export are also permitted).
However, there seems to be a trend towards trying to circumvent the ban by some businesses, accompanied by a surge in the availability of turtle hatchlings in the US. While the ban specifically prohibits the public sale or distribution of baby turtles as pets ("Exceptions to the ban under 21 CFR 1240.62 permit sales of turtles and turtle eggs for use in bona fide scientific, educational, or exhibitional purposes other than as pets..." - from Sec. 170.100 Turtles - Ban on Interstate and Intrastate Sales and Distribution (CPG 7129.01), there are companies and individuals that will try to get around the ban by some of the following methods:
- "Adopting" a turtle for "free" with purchase of shipping. Incidentally, in one case, shipping was less expensive for each subsequent turtle, thereby encouraging bulk purchases.
- Giving turtles away for "free" with the purchase of a turtle lagoon (i.e., totally inadequate housing).
- Getting the customer to sign a disclaimer that the turtles will be used for educational or exhibition purposes (not acceptable according to the FDA; documentation should be available to support such a claim)
- Stating that the onus is on the customer to make sure the laws are followed.
Such businesses are cropping up in malls, at fairs, and online. Whatever your thoughts on the ban, it is unacceptable to try and skirt the regulations to take advantage of customers that are not aware of the laws, and it is unethical to sell turtle hatchlings without educating owners about the proper care of pet turtles.
The FDA asks that anyone who has knowledge of sales or distribution of turtles less than 4 inches in length to report the location and circumstances of the sales directly to the FDA office nearest their residence. A complete listing of offices can be found here: FDA Regional Office Contacts.
What about Personal Responsibility?
Unfortunately, these companies that try to skirt the regulations are only doing so because there are still lots of people who will buy these baby turtles.
Obviously, it would be ideal that anyone who decides to get a turtle knows what they are getting into. They should also be aware of the risks of Salmonella and take proper precautions to prevent infections, making bans on baby turtle sales unnecessary in the first place. Unfortunately, we do not live in an ideal world. Sites like mine exist to educate pet owners, but a lot of people probably don't look up my information until after they have committed to a new pet. Companies that sell baby turtles in contravention of the ban must know that they are taking advantage of some people who can't resist a baby turtle. (Or whose kids can't resist.) They do not know fully what they are getting into, whether it be the care requirements in the long term or the potential for Salmonella infection.
But I Am a Good Turtle Owner!
There are a lot of good owners out there. And yes, some of the people who get hatchlings before realizing what they have gotten into becoming excellent owners, investing in the equipment their new turtles need as soon as they realize what it takes to raise a turtle properly. Why should good turtle owners be denied access to hatchlings based on the irresponsibility of some other owners? It does seem unfair. But here is a scary statistic: experts estimate that as many as 90 percent of pet turtles die in their first year of captivity. Even if that is a gross overestimate, and only half that number die, it means a shockingly high number of turtles die at the hands of inexperienced owners. If every person that sold hatchlings were honest about the needs of turtles in the longterm, and educated owners about the proper care of turtles (including how to prevent Salmonella transmission), then it would be a lot easier to support the sales of turtle hatchlings. Until the day comes, this law might be a safe compromise.