Local farmers see ray of hope in domestic pet turtle act

Published 12:01 am Thursday, January 10, 2008

VIDALIA — Jonesville turtle farmer Eddie Jolly has been fighting hard for the turtle industry, and after recent congressional action, he thinks he might see a glimmer of hope for the future.

The sale of pet turtles — turtles less than 10.2 centimeters in diameter — has been illegal since 1975 due to health concerns, largely because they may carry salmonella.

That ban is unfair, Jolly said, because other reptiles and even rats that can carry the disease are on the market, and in the years since the ban, turtle farmers have developed a way to eliminate salmonella from the turtles.

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The sale is still illegal, and a story in Monday’s edition of The Natchez Democrat contained incorrect information.

Though the ban has been in effect for a long time in the United States, until recently there was a thriving overseas market for the turtles.

“The turtles used to go for $1.40 a turtle, but right now the price is $0.19 a turtle,” Jolly said. “We know that if we open the U.S. market we can get $2 a turtle.

The cost of producing a turtle is between $0.25 and $0.30, Jolly said.

Walter Davis, a Natchez-based turtle producer who has lobbied congressmen to lift the ban, agreed lifting the ban would serve farmers well.

“A lot of turtle farmers are really hurting right now,” he said.

The U.S. Senate recently passed a farm bill with the “Domestic Pet Turtle Equality Act” attached, which will either open the market to pet turtle sales or close the market to all reptile pet sales.

The amendment to the farm bill was added in the Senate, however, and a joint House-Senate committee has to work out a final version of the farm bill to send to the president for signing.

If the amendment survives the committee and the president signs the bill, within 60 days the Food and Drug Administration will be required to test all of the salmonella-related pets on the market.

If pet turtles test within a 10 percent prevalence of salmonella among the other animals, the Secretary of Agriculture will have to conduct a study about how turtles can be sold safely as pets.

Once that study is competed, the Secretary of Agriculture has only two options, to either lift the turtle ban or to ban the sale of other salmonella-related animals.

Jolly, who served as a consultant for the drafting of the amendment with Sen. Mary Landrieu and Sen. David Vitter’s offices, is confident the turtles will come out clean.

“The Louisiana certified salmonella-free pet turtle is the cleanest reptile in the world,” he said. “I’m not advocating it, but you could take the turtle out of the aquarium and put it in your mouth and not catch salmonella.”

Information from the Center for Disease Control says salmonella is naturally occurring with turtles, and that just because a turtle has a negative test one day does not mean it will be clean the next.

Because of this and because of shipping and care methods of the turtles, Beth Preiss, Director of the Exotic Pets Campaign for the Humane Society of the United States, said she opposes a lifting of the ban.

“The Humane Society of the United States applauds children’s love of animals, but turtles are pets children can and — for the sake of their health and the animals — should do without,” she said.

But Jolly said with the proper chemical treatment, a quaternary ammonia blend similar to that used in swimming pools and already in use at most turtle farms, the disease will be eliminated from household tanks.

But before he gets geared up to take his turtles to market, Jolly says he has a sense of realism about the passage of the amendment.

“We had three failed attempts at passing similar legislation last year,” he said. “This is a long shot on ‘we might get to sell turtles.’”