On dangerous ground

It’s October and school bells are ringing all over Southern California. And so are our phones. Teachers are calling American Tortoise Rescue asking if they can have turtles or tortoises for their classrooms. Our answer is always the same. No. Why? Because having one in your classroom or the schoolyard can be fatal to both your child and the turtle for several reasons.

1. Reptiles of all kinds can carry a disease called Salmonella. Salmonella is a bacterial infection that generally infects the intestinal tract and occasionally the blood stream. Symptoms include mild to several diarrhea, fever and occasionally vomiting. While most healthy adults show no symptoms of Salmonella even if they are infected, children under 5, pregnant women and the elderly are at risk of serious illness or even death from Salmonella infection. This is an immediate red flag to nursery school and grade school teachers considering turtles or other reptiles for their classrooms. A veterinarian told us that a teacher is a sitting duck for a lawsuit should any of the children in the classroom get infected. “Teachers know the risks, so if a parent were to sue for a million dollars (much more if the child dies), the parent will win.” It is not worth the risk.

2. Turtles and tortoises are quiet wild animals who prefer not to be in the company of humans, especially lively young children who shriek, overhandle and chase animals. Even when children are closely supervised, accidents can and do happen. Turtles get dropped, stressed out and die.

Most people have little factual knowledge about turtles and tortoises. What is very disturbing to us is that many schools already have turtles and tortoises as classroom “pets.” Turtles are wild animals, not pets. Even after we educate principals and teachers about the risks to children and the animals, turtles remain in close contact with the children. When there have been cruelty complaints filed with us about the poor housing and living conditions of turtles and tortoises in schools, educators still have refused to relinquish the poor animals. Cases in point – several Montessori schools in West Los Angeles and one school right here in Malibu – the preschool at Point Dume – Children’s Creative Workshop.

We pointed out to the workshop director the poor living conditions of an ornate turtle and a desert tortoise (endangered, by the way). They are housed with rabbits on sand, a living arrangement described by our vet as filthy and very dangerous to the turtles’ health. There is no groundcover under which to hide. Moreover, the director admitted that she had no state permit for the desert tortoise. More upsetting, the turtles had no water, a condition she said was “an oversight.” No water an oversight! If someone refused to give her water she probably would describe it in more drastic terms. We still do not have those poor turtles. We determined that the ornate was hideously miserable. They hate being exposed without grasses and placed to hide in pens.

So please parents, persuade your teachers to relinquish the turtles and tortoises to a responsible sanctuary like American Tortoise Rescue. Don’t let them expose your children to a serious illness. It can be a matter of life and death.


Susan Tellem

Marshall Thompson

Founders, American Tortoise Rescue

The Malibu Times is the first newspaper in Malibu, serving the community since 1946.

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