Buying, rather than adopting, a dog, cat or rabbit from a pet store has been prohibited in Montréal since January 1, 2020. This is a first step in the right direction, but the bylaw should have gone further and completely banned the sale of exotic animals in pet shops, putting aquatic turtles at the top of the list.
Despite the Montreal SPCA’s recommendations to this effect during the 2020 review of the municipal bylaw on animals, the sale of turtles is still permitted in Montréal. This was a missed opportunity to solve a recurring problem and a significant threat to animal welfare, public health and biodiversity in Quebec.
A compromised quality of life
Commonly sold in pet stores, red-eared and yellow-bellied sliders have a very long life expectancy, living between 40 and 50 years. They can reach the size of a cantaloupe and they have very specific needs. Keeping these animals in captivity limits the expression of their natural behaviours and threatens their physical and psychological well-being.
An unsuitable environment or a deficient diet can cause serious consequences for turtles’ physical health. For example, a few years ago, the Montreal SPCA’s Investigations Division was alerted to a turtle for sale in a pet store. Extremely weak, the animal had large ulcers on her shell. One was so deep it exposed one of the animal’s lungs. Due to these severe and painful injuries, the turtle unfortunately had to be euthanized immediately, and the pet store employee who had custody of the turtle was convicted of negligence. To our knowledge, this was the very first criminal conviction for cruelty to a reptile in Quebec.
According to scientific literature, reptiles are capable of experiencing at least eight emotions and psychological states: fear, anxiety, stress, distress, excitement, frustration, suffering and pain. And they often experience chronic stress in captivity. One study shows that turtles exhibit an increased heart rate even when handled gently, an indication of their emotional stress that does not necessarily manifest itself behaviourally. A person handling a turtle is probably completely unaware of the stress they are causing.
A threat to the environment and to public health
Since it is difficult to meet turtles’ basic needs and ensure them a good quality of life in captivity, it is not uncommon for turtles to be released into the wild when their guardians tire of them or can no longer care for them. It also happens that turtles who have access to the outdoors escape and end up in our waterways.
Once in the wild, they become invasive and threaten native species and Quebec’s biodiversity. Indeed, they compete with other turtles for food and habitat, like nesting and sun basking sites. Invasive turtles can also spread disease and parasites to native species and even alter the very structure and composition of the habitat. For instance, reptiles, including turtles, naturally carry Salmonella, bacteria that can be transmitted to humans and can cause salmonellosis, an intestinal infection. According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, pregnant women, children five and under, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems are at high risk of infection when handling reptiles or any item that a reptile may have come into contact with. For this reason, it is not recommended that households with these individuals adopt a reptile.
How to help
Pet store sales only increases the presence of turtles in unsuitable locations and, therefore, exacerbate the problem. Furthermore, the number of sanctuaries and specialized resources that meet the needs of abandoned turtles is very limited—a further challenge. If you are very familiar with the special needs of turtles and are willing to take on the responsibility and commitment that come with their care, the SPCA recommends adopting or fostering one instead.
The SPCA also encourages citizens concerned about this issue to make their views heard and contact their elected municipal, provincial and federal officials. Let’s make it clear to decision-makers that, to protect and ensure animal welfare, public health and biodiversity, the sale of turtles and exotic animals has no place in 2021 and should therefore be banned.