by Whit Gibbons

November 30, 2014

According to a recent news article, “Tennessee is outlawing keeping turtles as pets in the state because they can harbor deadly bacteria, including salmonella.” State wildlife agencies in most states, including Tennessee, do an outstanding job of connecting the public with nature. So I contacted the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency to see if contracting salmonella was really a concern and learn what other factors might be in play. I was told that one reason for the regulation is indeed to reduce the possibility of someone getting salmonella from turtles.

Salmonella bacteria cause a not-so-pleasant digestive system ailment (salmonellosis). Many salmonella strains exist, and the virulence to humans varies greatly. A person’s health, age, and physical condition are also factors. Few people require medication to recover safely from salmonellosis. Like many other illnesses, it can have dire consequences in extreme situations, but the probabilities of contracting a serious case are slim.

Although turtles often carry salmonella, pet turtles do not head the CDC’s list of probable causes of salmonellosis. The most likely culprits are undercooked poultry, ground beef and eggs. The risk of contracting salmonella from handling turtles, in the wild or at home, is low. Certainly, we should be aware of potential hazards of keeping any animal as a pet, but we ought to also do a risk-benefit analysis. If an animal is healthy and has sanitary living quarters, educational and entertainment benefits often outweigh risks.

Reptiles are no different from other pets, including dogs and cats. Some work out well; some do not. People with chronic illnesses, as well as infants and the elderly, may be more susceptible to salmonella than healthy adults; nonetheless, the risk of contracting salmonellosis is low. Many environmental educators see no problem with children handling pet reptiles as long as standard hygiene practices are followed, such as keeping hands away from the face until they are washed with soap and water. Understanding cleanliness procedures is critical for any pet owner, including the importance of keeping a pet turtle’s aquarium clean at all times.

I caught my first turtle when I was 5. Since then I have handled countless reptiles and have never been afflicted by salmonella. My students and I have dealt with more than 60,000 turtles and snakes over the past four decades. No one has contracted salmonellosis from the animals, presumably because of a combination of relatively low risk and proper health and safety protocols.

I dislike the-sky-is-falling approach of government regulatory programs to most of life’s risks; therefore, I do not support the contention that turtles or other animals are to be feared because there might a slight risk of their having salmonella. People should be educated about potential hazards and precautions, such as always washing their hands after handling an animal. But once the hazards are identified, people should be allowed to decide which risks they and their children will take. I consider these points pertinent with regard to the question of pet turtles in Tennessee.

However, as I suspected, there is more to the story than simply protecting people from disease. Turns out that Tennessee claims to have the highest natural biodiversity of any state without a coastline. To protect this natural heritage, state officials want to restrict the removal of turtles from the wild. In addition, they want to curtail the practice of releasing pet turtles into natural habitats where they do not belong.

Salmonella is an overblown problem. And the issue of unwanted turtles being released into the wild should be addressed through environmental education programs. Like others concerned with protecting our natural habitats and their inhabitants, I am opposed to commercial sales of turtles or other wildlife by people who use unsustainable wholesale collecting techniques. However, kids who catch turtles that are not endangered species aren’t harming the environment. As long as they remember to keep the aquarium clean and wash their hands after touching the turtle, all should be well.

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