Monday, October 11, 2004

The Great Turtle Recall

Pond turtles grow to the size of a dinner plate and live as long as a mortgage. So you don't want to buy a turtle as a souvenir.

Acording to our vet, some unwise entrepreneur in Wisconsin Dells imported 40,000 red-eared sliders from the Carolinas this past summer. These turtles were undersized (Federal law requires that turtles must be a minimum of 4" long before they can be sold), and the turtles received inadequate housing and vet care. The Wisconsin Dept of Natural Resources forced a turtle recall after a large number of children contracted salmonella from the turtles. Not exactly the kind of souvenir you want from your trip to The Dells!

As part of a home school project some years ago, we required our daughters to research and create a habitat for a pet. We discovered that a legal sized turtle cost $40 and the proper setup for a turtle could cost $150, which we didn't have; so we started an aquarium instead (The aquarium fish came to grief when #3 daughter, then a preschooler with zero impulse control, decided she wanted to pet the fish).

Turtles are messy, and their water requires a heavy duty filter. Without a filter, their water turns the color of week-old coffee, and it reeks of swamp gas. With a filter, you still have to wash out the tank regularly, and make sure that the turtle has rocks to climb on, so he can get out of the water and dry off. So an inexpensive souvenir turtle suddenly costs a lot more than you expect!

For the last two years, we've had a red-eared slider named Leon, whom we adopted when his original owner found that, oops, a souvenir turtle from Myrtle Beach was a bit more than she bargained for. From her description, Leon was also undersized and therefore illegal when she got him. He may have been confined with a rubber band, or so we deduce from an anomaly on his shell. Our friend had him in a one gallon bowl, from which he escaped easily. In our care he graduated first to a ten gallon aquarium and more recently to a small horse trough, mounted on concrete blocks, next to our laundry room.

Leon is now as large as my husband's hand. Leon is grumpy and unfriendly. God did not originally intend for turtles to be domesticated, and so He did not equip turtles with winning personalities and anything resembling intelligence. But Leon's beady eyes and perpetual frown make him good comic relief; and he is a remarkably well designed creature. If turtles weren't wild caught, I'd be glad to recommend them as pets. Given the scale of the pet turtle industry, however--such as the 40,000 to that bonehead in the Dells--I cannot recommend that a turtle be taken out of his native habitat for any reason. Get a corn snake. An albino "snow corn" and a semi-albino "Ghost corn" have to be captive bred; they'd never survive in the wild. And a knowledgable pet shop will not sell reptiles to anyone under 18, and they'll make sure you know what you're doing before you buy. The shop we do business with works on that plan, and we're grateful for it.

I am sorry to report that, when Leon's filter conked out, we delayed too long in getting a replacement while we counted costs. Our older daughters had gotten too busy to care for their reptiles, so they had started paying their younger siblings to tackle the nasty job of cleaning out the coffee-colored bilge from Leon's tank. #3 daughter became quite adept at cleaning algae and grunge off Leon's shell with an old toothbrush. On this occasion she suddenly called out, "Mom! Leon's bleeding!" Turns out it wasn't blood, but reddish algae in ulcers on his plastron (chest shell). James looked up "diseases red-eared sliders" on the web, and per the info he downloaded we replaced Leon in a clean tank with no water and called the vet.

The vet used a razor to scrape samples from Leon's shell and showed me the results under the microscope: fungus and bacteria both. She also had to inspect Leon thoroughly to rule out any other ulcers. When she checked his mouth, I held the turtle while she gently pulled Leon's head out of his shell. Leon panicked and fought but we held on. He would NOT open his mouth for anything! OK, time for plan B. The vet reached for a light with her free hand, held it in position, and let go of his head. He jerked it into his shell and HISSED! long enough for her to get a good view of his mouth. Prescription: betadyne and an antibiotic and GET A NEW FILTER!

Vet bill:$80. New habitat: $80 for the horse trough, $80 for the filter, $11 for the water treatment chemicals; fortunately we got to the pet shop on a special occasion, 10% off everything. $5 or so for the concrete blocks. (Ack...)

So now #2 daughter gets to paint Leon with betadyne every night. He sits in the bathroom sink (he's not quite big enough to escape it yet) while the betadyne dries: "Please do not wash your hands over the turtle!" We all crack up when we hear her admonishing him--"Bad Turtle!"--when he doesn't cooperate with his medication regimen.

So Leon has room to crawl, a place to hide, good lighting, clean water, and all the turtle pellets and dried shrimp he could ask for. He still tries to bulldoze his rocks around. They weigh ten times what he does, but he can still shift them a little.

I always wanted one of those cute little fountains, for the sound of rippling water. Leon's trough isn't elegant, but I now have my fountain sound. And a grumpy face that always makes me laugh on a day when I need it.

Mrs. James

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