Turtles make better movie stars than pets

08/08/2014 12:38 PM

08/13/2014 12:34 PM

As the much-anticipated, new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie rolls into theaters this weekend, young fans are expected to clamor for plastic swords, blue bandannas and (foam) throwing stars.

Some, perhaps many, also will want a turtle. A real pet turtle.

While these glassy-eyed creatures may look cute, harmless, and like a fun and easy family pet, experts warn that turtles require a surprising amount of care and they carry harmful germs that can make people very sick. The American Tortoise Rescue is pleading with parents, asking them to fight the temptation to get their children real turtles after watching the new “TMNT” movie.

An open letter from the California-based nonprofit says after the first movie was released in 1990, hundreds of thousands of live turtles became pets. Most of them were water turtles called red-eared sliders. Children quickly realized these were not ninja turtles. They don’t soar, jump or even like pizza.

Children lost interest. The organization believes as many as 90 percent of these turtles were dumped into rivers, lakes or Dumpsters, flushed down toilets or sent to turtle rescue organizations.

The bigger problem, the organization reminds parents, is turtles carry salmonella. People can get salmonella from contact with a pet turtle or its environment, including the water from containers or aquariums where they live. Salmonella can cause serious, even life-threatening infection in people even though the bacteria don’t make the turtles sick.

Hundreds of people have become ill in several ongoing, nationwide salmonella outbreaks linked to small turtles, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most victims are children under 5 years old. From May 23, 2011, to May 6, 2013, the CDC received reports of 391 salmonella-related illnesses in 40 states and the District of Columbia; most of those ill were children. There were no deaths, but 63 people needed to be hospitalized.

The investigation showed that shortly before most of the people became ill, they were exposed to a turtle by touching, feeding, cleaning the habitat or changing the water in the tank.

The CDC urges families with children under 5 to avoid keeping reptiles or amphibians as pets, noting kids’ immune systems are still developing and they are more likely to put their fingers in their mouths after touching the pet. The American Tortoise Rescue does not recommend live turtles or tortoises for children under 13, in part because the organization says kids lose interest almost immediately.

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