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Possible health risk from handling captive sea turtles identified

05/02/2013 12:18:02

Handling captive turtles can be a health risk. Photo credit Michelle de Villiers.

Potential exposure to septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure
February 2013. Tourists coming into contact with sea turtles at holiday attractions face a risk of health problems, according to research published by the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine (JRSM) Short Reports. Encountering free-living sea turtles in nature is quite safe, but contact with wild-caught and captive-housed sea turtles, typically through handling turtles in confined pools or through consuming turtle products, carries the risk of exposure to toxic contaminants and to zoonotic (animal to human) pathogens such as bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites. Symptoms, which may take some time to emerge, can resemble gastrointestinal disorders or flu but people more severely affected can suffer septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure.

The biggest bacterial culprits are E.Coli and Salmonella, although there are some lower infection threats from viruses such as Vibrio. Fungi and parasites represent the area of least concern. 

Statement from the Cayman Turtle Farm

The allegations on the risk to human health are misleading and sensationalised. The Cayman Turtle Farm follows and enforces strict turtle handling protocols that are communicated to its guests through signage and spoken instructions.

All turtle handling is supervised, and the established protocols follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the safe handling of reptiles. The clearest evidence of the lack of risk to humans is that fact that in over 40 years of operation, with millions of guests handling the turtles, there has not been one single known case of transmission of illness or disease. The results of the independent inspection conducted in December 2012 did not find any risk of turtle handling to the health and safety of CTF guests.

Read their full statement in response to WSPA  

Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman
The review included a case study of the Cayman Turtle Farm in Grand Cayman, which between 2007 and 2011 attracted approximately 1.2 million visitors. CTF sells farmed turtle meat to the public and local restaurants. One of the researchers, Clifford Warwick of the Emergent Disease Foundation, said: "The subsequent distribution of visitors exposed to turtle farm conditions may also involve opportunities for further dissemination of contaminants into established tourist hubs including cruise ship and airline carriers."

The turtles can be kept in cramped and dirty conditions. Photo credit World Society for the Protection of Animals.

The turtles can be kept in cramped and dirty conditions. Photo credit World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Warwick added that awareness of potential threats may be modest among health-care professionals and low among the public. "To prevent and control the spreading of sea turtle-related disease, greater awareness is needed among health-care professionals regarding potential pathogens and toxic contaminants from sea turtles, as well as key signs and symptoms of typical illnesses."

The study was funded by the World Society for the Protection of Animals. Warwick said: "Significantly, the captive farming of turtles arguably increases the threat to health, in particular from bacteria, due to the practice of housing many turtles in a relatively confined space and under intensive conditions."

Food risk
Warwick concluded: "People should avoid food derived from sea turtles and perhaps also other relatively long-lived species regardless of their role in the food chain as all these animals potentially have more time in which to accumulate hazardous organisms and toxins and present an increased risk of animal-linked human pathology."

World Society for the Protection of Animals
After hearing concerning reports over the level of care of some 9,000 endangered Green sea turtles at CTF, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) ran an investigation and produced a scientific assessment of the Farm last year.

The global animal welfare charity, who funded this research, has been attempting to work with the facility to raise awareness of sea turtle welfare and to raise standards which will ultimately mean a transition away from the intensive commercial production of these endangered animals.

Dr Neil D'Cruze, WSPA Wildlife Campaign Lead said: "WSPA is unsurprised to hear that the handling of captive Green sea turtles poses a potential threat to the visiting public. This independent peer reviewed scientific paper demonstrates that the recent assessment of the Farm's operations is inherently flawed."

Conntact between turtles and humans should halt
Clifford Warwick expressed concerns that awareness of the potential human health threats posed by facilities such as the CTF may not be well understood by healthcare professionals and public awareness may be even lower, stating that overcoming this would be key to prevent and control the spread of sea turtle-related diseases.

Due to this low awareness people rarely trace back or attribute their illness to a recent experience handling wild sea turtles. This, along with the often generic nature of the symptoms, makes it hard to track the full distribution of these pathogens. 

Dr D'Cruze added: "We hope that the Cayman Turtle Farm recognizes that the only real way to completely remove the human health threat will be to end the ‘unique wildlife encounter' currently at the facility and takes steps to do so, which will also immediately improve the lives of the turtles in their care."

Statement from the Cayman Turtle Farm

Cayman Turtle Farm: counters latest WSPA smear tactic: Farm does not pose risk to human health
Contrary to recent allegations made by the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), the Cayman Turtle Farm (CTF) says that handling of captive turtles at the facility is not a threat to human health, the farm's track record confirms that, and that a recent independent expert assessment of the Farm categorically backs up that statement.

The CTF says it is very disappointed that, despite its recent meeting with the WSPA and listening to their concerns, WSPA continues their smear campaign based on a WSPA funded and biased "short report" released just days after the WSPA and CTF stated that they remain committed to dialogue.

In a recent press release, WSPA states that a case study found people interacting with captive turtles risk health issues, but CTF Managing Director Tim Adam says that such allegations are misleading and sensationalised.

"These latest allegations are another clear effort by the WSPA to undermine the business of the CTF in WSPA's on-going goal to shut down our operations, since their campaign thus far has been unsuccessful in achieving that aim," he states. "WSPA told us from the outset that they want to stop people being able to touch or hold turtles, and they want us to stop farming turtles to supply the local demand for turtle meat. Apparently WSPA has funded a report hoping it will help them achieve those objectives."

Mr Adam further states: "The Cayman Turtle Farm is a leading facility in turtle research and conservation and follows and enforces safe turtle handling protocols. These protocols are communicated to our guests through signage and spoken instructions. All turtle handling is supervised, and the established protocols follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the safe handling of reptiles."

Mr Adam goes on to say that in over 40 years of operation at the CTF, there has never been a single known recorded case of illness or disease transmitted to any of its visitors (who number over two hundred thousand each year and millions in total) through contact with the turtles, even though most guests will directly interact with the animals. Nor indeed has there been any recorded case of turtle handling causing illness for staff members, many of whom have worked at the Farm for several years with daily close interaction with turtles.

"The CTF sees literally hundreds of interactions per day between guests and turtles, with guests of a range of ages," he confirms. "The fact that we have never seen any cases of disease transmission is supported by the instructions and education we give to our guests on the property regarding the safe handling of turtles - both for the comfort and safety of our guests and also for the welfare of the turtles in our care."

Last year CTF upgraded signage, hand-washing and sanitising facilities, and the level of supervision at the very popular "turtle touch tanks." In December last year the CTF voluntarily committed to a review of its operations by an independent inspection team of internationally recognised turtle experts and while the report highlighted some areas for improvement in the non-public "production" side of the facility, several areas of the review applauded the CTF for its work.
Specifically, the results of the independent inspection did not find any risk of turtle handling to the health and safety of CTF guests. The report categorically states with regard to the handling of animals by guests (including safety of both animals and guests): "Given changes to operating practices where handling is supervised and hand washing is offered and encouraged, the panel had no concern in this regard." The full report can be found at 

By contrast, the CTF states that the methods WSPA used in its case study are incomplete, as their research in Cayman was very limited and conducted as part of an "undercover investigation" without the cooperation of the CTF, so they did not have the full access that the independent inspection team had. In addition, despite repeated requests from CTF the WSPA has refused to share its research with CTF prior to releasing it to the media. CTF points out that contrary to what was stated in at least one news item, the research was not conducted by the Royal Society of Medicine.

The research paper was produced by a team of three authors funded by the WSPA and published on an online journal which is a ‘Short Reports' website associated with the Royal Society of Medicine Journal. The site is an online free access sister site to the main journal, and requires authors to pay a fee to have their work published. It should also be noted that the paper's lead author, Clifford Warwick, has been affiliated with the WSPA and is cited in its "investigative" reports on the Cayman Turtle Farm, yet both Mr Warwick and the WSPA have consistently refused to release his research to the CTF despite repeated requests.

Conversely, the CTF has openly supplied the full independent inspection report to the WSPA. "We have released the full report in its entirety," Mr Adam says. "We are frankly disappointed that the organisation continues to misrepresent the situation at the Cayman Turtle Farm in order to damage our reputation and impede our work."

The CTF interacts with and educates over 200,000 people each year about marine life, especially Green Sea Turtles, underscoring the vital role it plays as an internationally recognised research and conservation organisation. The CTF has enabled some 150 scientific papers that have been either published or presented over the years. In addition, the CTF receives requests each year for educational internships and research partnerships and has on-going research partnerships in place.

The CTF has overseen the release of over 31,000 turtles into the wild since it first began operations and there is collated evidence of increased numbers of turtles returning to the Cayman Islands to nest.

"At the Cayman Turtle Farm we are committed to the health, safety and wellbeing of both our guests and our animals and we continue to strive for the highest standards in all aspects of the work we do -­‐ conservation, reproduction, display and education," Mr Adam says. "The independent inspection of our operations confirms that because of the steps we have taken, there are no safety concerns for humans interacting with turtles at the CTF and we look forward to continuing our work and attracting guests so as many people as possible may have the opportunity to learn more, enjoy and better appreciate these magnificent creatures."


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