Officials crack down on illegal prize at Mid-State Fair: tiny turtles

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comJuly 25, 2013 

A ball-toss carnival game at the California Mid-State Fair ran afoul of federal health laws Thursday, resulting in a public warning and the seizure of 65 illegal baby turtles offered as game prizes.

The young critters, which naturally carry salmonella bacteria in their droppings, are illegal to distribute in the United States until their shell lengths exceed 4 inches.

While all turtles pose the risk of spreading salmonella infection to humans, the babies are considered more of a health risk because they’re typically handled more frequently. The bacteria is commonly found on the outer skin and shells and in the turtles’ water.

Salmonella infection can lead to illness, hospitalization and death in humans. The infection poses “serious health risk to infants, small children and adults with impaired immune systems,” according to a statement by San Luis Obispo County Public Health Services.

County public health officials encourage anyone who received a turtle prize at the Paso Robles fairgrounds to bring it to the county’s Division of Animal Services in San Luis Obispo.

The red-eared slider turtles from the carnival are estimated to be about 2 weeks old, with some not larger than the size of a quarter, county officials said.

As of Thursday evening, “The Buoy” game — in which players throw pingpong balls into small rings floating in water — remained open, sans turtles.

The game vendor reported having 100 of the baby turtles to distribute, according to the county. They were given as prizes “in small homes” along with care instructions that the vendor had printed out from the Internet, said John MacCallum, spokesman for the fair’s Fontana-based carnival operator Davis Enterprises.

“We thought it was OK,” MacCallum said. “… They (the game vendor) thought they had gotten the right ones … and then it was pointed out these were below the size (allowed).”

The turtles were kept out of sight in 5-gallon plastic buckets at the game booth, county health super visor Laurie Salo said.

“Not in little individual tanks but a large bucket where they were all co-mingled,” she said. “They were very small, maybe smaller than a 50-cent piece.”

The state “didn’t write them up, but there could potentially still be legal action,” she added. A call to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife wasn’t immediately returned Thursday afternoon.

The county was tipped off to the issue about 4:30 p.m. Wednesday by a public complaint, Salo said.

On Thursday morning, the county visited the fair with the state wildlife agency. The state agency seized the baby turtles, which are now being cared for at county Animal Services in a large trough outfitted with water, aquarium logs and rocks.

“We’re asking people to bring them to us, and then we’ll transfer the whole lot of them to a turtle rescue,” Animal Control Lead Officer Odie Cawley said as she scooped up one of the teensy turtles onto her finger, its little head cautiously coming out of its shell to look around. Afterward, she carefully placed it back and promptly washed her hands.

The sale and distribution of baby turtles with shell lengths less than 4 inches has been banned in the United States since 1975, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At the time of the ban, the turtles had been linked to 280,000 cases of salmonella infection, county officials said.

RETURN THE TURTLES

San Luis Obispo County officials are encouraging anyone who has received a turtle from the fair to take it to the Division of Animal Services, 885 Oklahoma Ave. in San Luis Obispo, so it can go on to the local turtle and tortoise rescue organization. The turtle drop-off hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays.

Watch a turtle in action

These turtles were among 65 seized by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife from a carnival game at the California Mid-State Fair on Thursday. The turtles are being held at county Animal Services until they can be taken to a turtle rescue group.

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