Mid-State Fair game operator faces fine over baby turtle prizes

tstrickland@thetribunenews.comJuly 26, 2013 

A Napa man will face up to a $1,000 fine and possible probation for giving away illegally sized baby turtles as a carnival prize at the California Mid-State Fair, authorities said Friday.

Steve John Lopez, 41, will face penalties in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court for violating state health code, said Lt. Todd Tognazzini with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“We are pursuing this as a criminal complaint,” Tognazzini said, noting that the offense could be filed as an infraction or a misdemeanor. “We would likely file it as a misdemeanor because (the turtles were) distributed in mass to children. The judge will ultimately decide.”

Lopez, who owns “The Buoy” game — in which players throw Ping-Pong balls into small rings floating in water — reportedly told state officers Thursday that he traveled to downtown Los Angeles after the Paso Robles fair began to purchase the small reptiles.

He then brought them back and gave them away as game prizes in 4-by-6-inch terrariums with printouts on how to care for the baby red-eared sliders.

The game vendor, an independent contractor with the fair’s Fontana-based carnival operator Davis Enterprises, reported having 100 of the baby turtles to distribute. He had some collected together in a 5-gallon bucket, some in the small plastic habitats around the game booth and others in his trailer, Tognazzini said. The state seized 65 of the remaining turtles on Thursday.

“He was very cooperative,” Tognazzini said. The game remained open, sans turtles, as of Thursday evening, which is legal, he added.

Those who received the turtles as prizes are not in violation of the law, he added. But officials with San Luis Obispo County Public Health Services are encouraging anyone who received a turtle to bring it to the county’s Division of Animal Services in San Luis Obispo so they can go to a turtle rescue.

Red-eared sliders grow far past their baby size, require special heat lamps and ongoing care, officials at Animal Services said.

It is illegal in the United States to distribute baby turtles with shell lengths less than 4 inches because they’re linked to salmonella infection that can lead to illness, hospitalization and death in humans.

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

At the time of the ban in 1975, the babies were also commonly fed cheap raw chicken meat, which also contributed to the salmonella scare, Tognazzini said.

The turtles Lopez gave away were estimated to be about 2 weeks old, with some not larger than a quarter.

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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