Scores of turtles slipped off their feeders and disappeared under the water as Keith Boudreaux approached his turtle pond near Ponchatoula, La.
“We feed them Purina Turtle Chow,” Boudreaux says of the estimated 10,000 turtles in the 2-acre pond.
Each of the pond’s female turtles will lay a clutch of eight to 10 eggs about three times from April through July. Each morning, the farmer harvests the eggs and incubates them until they hatch in about 60 days.
Boudreaux operates one of the 72 turtle farms licensed by Louisiana. Those licenses allow producers to sell baby turtles throughout the world because the state certifies them as salmonella-free. But they can’t be sold in the United States.
In the 1960s the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta documented that American children were being infected with salmonella, and they estimated that as much as 14 percent of the infections were from pet turtles. As a result in 1975, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned the U.S. sale and interstate transportation of turtles with shells less than 4 inches across. But Louisiana-certified turtles have found a market internationally.
The certification process, which isn’t accepted by the FDA, came as a result of work by Ron Siebeling, a professor of immunology with the LSU AgCenter. Siebeling, who died in September 2002, spent nearly 30 years helping turtle farmers overcome the salmonella problem. He developed a way to treat salmonella in baby turtles, using funding from the state legislature administered by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry (LDAF). Now, Louisiana turtle producers use the results of Siebeling’s research to treat turtle eggs with disinfectants and antibiotics to kill salmonella in the eggs. When the baby turtles emerge, they are salmonella-free.
“We can’t eradicate, but we can decrease the problem by proper hygiene,” Boudreaux says.
Because of the Siebeling method, Louisiana laws and licenses allow producers to export baby turtles because they’re certified salmonella-free . Certification rests with the LDAF, which sends samples of baby turtles to a state-approved laboratory. If the turtles test salmonella-free, the department issues documentation and health certificates that allow them to be shipped to overseas markets. Boudreaux says the market is now primarily Asia, where baby turtles are sold as pets or raised to about 1 pound for meat, shell and medicine.
In 1969, about 75 turtle farms in Louisiana were selling nearly 15 million baby turtles a year. The FDA ban and subsequent loss of the domestic market put many farms out of business as production dropped to about 2 million turtles a year by 1975, and farms dwindled to 21. Now, Louisiana producers annually ship about 12 million to 13 million turtles, says Boudreaux, who ships about 1 million a year.
The Louisiana producers still would like to see the domestic market reopened to turtles as pets, and they’re working with researchers at the LSU AgCenter and the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine in their continued quest for FDA approval. Although the state certifies them as salmonella-free, the baby turtles still don’t satisfy the federal government.
“The FDA wants something other than antibiotics because of potential bacteria resistance,” says Dr. Maxwell Lea, the state veterinarian. He says the federal agency is also concerned about re-infection. That’s where the current LSU AgCenter and veterinary researchers come in. They’re working with turtle producers to improve the process.
“Instead of chemicals, we’re using biological agents to rid turtles of salmonella,” says Randy Gayda, a molecular biologist in the AgCenter’s Department of Biological Sciences. “We’re using specific bacteria viruses we call bacteriophage. Phage means to eat.”
Gayda says the bacteriophages attack bacteria, and they’re safe for human contact. He’s designing what he calls a “cocktail” to kill specific bacteria and knock out about 99.9 percent of salmonella.
“We’ll feed the cocktail to turtles and see how long they stay salmonella-free,” Gayda says. “Phages naturally occur in the environment. We want to find the ones that work on specific bacteria.”
Dr. Mark Mitchell of the LSU School of Veterinary Medicine, who is working with the Louisiana turtle industry, says the FDA has established an absolute-zero tolerance policy in pet turtles – but not in any other animals.
“Currently, nine million reptiles are imported into the United States each year without restrictions or quarantines,” says the veterinarian, who specializes in exotic species. “Reptile husbandry and reptile medicine have changed since the 1970s. The markets have changed, too.”
Researchers and producers all agree that while pet turtles aren’t suitable for small children, they can be ideal pets for city dwellers who want to have pets but aren’t in a position to have a cat or dog.
“You can create a human-animal bond with reptiles – pets don’t all have to be fuzzy,” Mitchell says.
The turtle industry could be an “economic windfall” for Louisiana if the restrictions were lifted, Mitchell says. “This is a legitimate agricultural industry in our state.”