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Md. wildlife officials urge public not to buy pet turtles

Monday - 8/4/2014, 4:13pm  ET

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Cpl. Mike Lathroum, with the Maryland Natural Resources police, holds a red-eared slider Monday morning. Wildlife officials encourage parents to avoid buying their children a pet turtle. With the release of a new Tennage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie, officials worry they could see a spike in the sale of baby turtles. (WTOP/Kate Ryan)

ANNAPOLIS - Wildlife officials fear the latest installment of the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" franchise will trigger a pet turtle trade that could threaten children's health and the health of native species.

The sale of turtles smaller than 4 inches is illegal in Maryland. And when movies related to the half-shell heroes have been released in the past, law enforcement officials have seen the sale of of tiny pet turtles spike.

Maryland Natural Resources Police ask parents to buy toy action figures instead of live turtles for their children.

"We may see an increase in these baby turtles being offered for sale," says DNR Police Cpl. Mike Lathroum. And it's a risky business for the turtles.

"They're produced in large numbers in turtle farms down in the South. They're purchased in bulk, they're offered for sale, usually on street corners or out of the trunks of vehicles in parking lots," Lathroum says.

Often the turtles are kept in a refrigerator for six or eight months in a false hibernation to ensure a year-round supply of potential pets.

When DNR police have seized little turtles in the past, they've confiscated shoeboxes full of them with as many as 100 turtles packed inside. Mortality rates can be as high as 90 percent.

Many of the small turtles for sale are smaller than the state's 4-inch standard. Their small size increases the risk of spreading salmonella to pet owners, officials say.

Young children who take the turtles as pets handle them often and then put their hands -- or even the turtle itself -- near or in their mouths, and can contract salmonella.

Lathroum says if the turtles survive the poor conditions of their shipment and sale, they can grow to about a foot long.

He took a specimen out of a box to show reporters. The turtle, a red-eared slider, poked its head out of its shell, and paddled it's broad feet.

When they get that large, Lathroum says many people just release them in a backyard or field...and that's when the trouble starts for native species.

Jonathan McKnight, associate director of Wildlife and Heritage Service at the DNR, says the red-eared slider can take over a pond or waterway.

"It's a particularly tough turtle--when you have a turtle like this, they take over" and that damages the diversity of Maryland's wetlands. Non-native species can harm native turtles like Maryland's emblematic terrapin.

Aside from diseases like salmonella that can affect humans, non-natives can introduce other problems.

Right now, McKnight says ranavirus is taking a heavy toll on frogs, turtles and other wetland inhabitants.

"The truly disturbing thing about ranavirus is -- it's frogs, it's turtles, it's even fish" that are affected, McKnight says. "We need to be really concerned about a disease that can affect that many different creatures."

Although humans may not be directly affected, the damage to the environment has a chain reaction that may affect humans one way or another.

WTOP's Kate Ryan contributed to this report. Follow @kateryanWTOP and @WTOP on Twitter.

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