By Tom C

It frustrates me just like it does the next turtle keeper. What I have done below is put together my thoughts on the pros and cons of the 4" law. There are some good points to it, believe it or not, and I will do my best to communicate my thoughts on that as we go along. But like with anything else, if you see a problem and don't offer a solution, then you are part of the problem. We can complain all day long about the law and how it affects us, but if we aren't going to do something or propose a change, ten we're no better off. Just making matters worse. But, by no means do I feel that the killing of turtles is the way to go about the confiscated turtles. This is something that should be handled differently, and I have run into several problems trying to come up with an alternative to killing the animals.


PRO's to the 4" Law

  1. Prevents over-breeding of already over-bred species (RES, yellow-bellies, softshells, red-bellies, etc). If they are deemed illegal and this law is enforced, then they will be fewer demands for them in the pet trade and fewer will be produced. If this law were to be lifted, then pet stores, both small "mom and pop" stores as well as the large chains would get into selling the baby turtles and there would be even more produced to feed the demand that is now placed for them. This would bring about a new set of problems.
  • At present, with hatchlings being more difficult to come by (compared to going to any pet store and getting a hatchling), not as many people have the opportunity to get them. Even so, we still get numerous postings on the forums and countless emails from people that don't know how to properly care for their turtles, hatchlings or otherwise. There is nothing wrong with people not knowing and seeking out information, but how many more would not be interested in researching information on their proper care when baby turtles would be a cheap, small, "it doesn't matter" item that can be purchased on impulse at any local pet shop basis solely on their cuteness. In addition, there are those that run into the problem with the adult size. Even a male, the smaller of the sexes in aquatics, can still be quite large, depending on the species chosen. Once people have their turtle and they find this information out or they find out when their turtles is too large for its enclosure, there is an extremely high risk of people releasing their turtles into the wild. This brings serious complications to the eco system. Sure, there may already be a good number of that species in your area, so the ones you release should make it ok, but what about the survival rate of having that large of a number of that species in that area? People may think that only 1 more isn't going to hurt. That would be fine if you were the only person doing it. But when you get a large group of people that do that, then you have a problem. Face it...there aren't enough people to properly house and maintain and care for the number of hatchlings that are produced each year as it is with the 4" in place and the major chains not selling hatchlings. Where do all of the excess turtles go? Zoos aren't screaming for people to bring in their RES or their Red-Bellies or FL Softshells. As cold as it sounds, Natural Selection has helped us more than we can imagine. (Natural Selection is nature's way of decided what animals are going to make it and which ones are going to die...that is the way nature works and why some animals have so many offspring, because some just aren't going to make it).
  • With large numbers, comes the care factor. When things are produced in mass quantities, there is a high risk of improper care. We see it already with the 4" still intact. Imagine what it would be like if even your local pet store could get them. We already know how little some of these stores care about the health and well-being of their animals. I have been to numerous reptile shows where the turtles are kept in tubs with cold water, half of them underwater because the tubs are so damn full that the ones on the bottom can't get up for air. A lot of them are dead because of this or getting stuck to the filter and the dealers or breeders do nothing. I have countless times seen where I have pointed out a turtle that appears to be dead and the breeder or dealer takes the turtle out, pokes the head with his finger, gets little to no response and then drops the hatchling into a garbage can under their table. Keep in mind, that the numbers are there, so the dealer or breeder really isn't losing much because there are more where that came from. True, but it is still a living animal and should be cared for accordingly. Now, throw in the idea of what things would be like as people gather and package turtles in mass quantities to pet stores if the law was lifted. The abuse and death rate would be unimaginable.
  1. Prevents the over-breeding of turtles that are popular in the pet trade, but not so much so as the already popular and over-bred turtles. A species that comes to mind here is the Ambonia Box Turtle (Cuora amboinensis). These are inexpensive, cute little turtles that are currently in the pet trade in the adult sizes. Every now and again you might someone offering youngsters or even hatchlings. But as they are popular and cheap, it would be a prime target for large pet store chains to go after this species to make it one of their regularly stocked animals. Then we run into a problem as stated above, but this one has a new twist. These aren't from the US. So letting them go would have possible devastating consequences. They could get a foot-hold in certain areas in the wild and possibly starve out the indigenous species of that area. They could also bring about a disease to the wild population. Disease? Yes. Turtles from other parts of the world have different immune systems. They are surrounded by different bacteria and viruses. Some have them as a part of their biology and are completely harmless or they have built an immunity to it. But when this bacteria is introduced into a wild population, or even a captive population, of turtles that are from a  different region, it can be catastrophic because these native turtles do not have the immunity to these bacteria or viruses.
  1. Impulse buying. With the 4" law in place, it is difficult to find pet stores that will offer hatchlings. This makes it extremely difficult to go out and make an impulse buy. Impulse buying is when you don't intentionally go out to buy something, but when you come across it, like a baby turtles, you think it's so small and so cute4 and the misinformed pet store people give you wrong information about the care and size of the animal, so you buy it. Here again, we run into the possibility of people, being misinformed, releasing a turtle into the wild, or the turtle suffering from improper care. another factor that jumps out from improper care is a flashback to the 70's and what initiated the 4" law. People that go along with what they here at some pet stores, and never think twice about researching the true needs of their turtles. Not only is this a danger to the turtle, but also to people. Enter the Turtle Lagoon. Once again, people will be keeping their turtles in these plastic little containers, completely unaware of the needs of their turtles and of the need for proper filtration and personal hygiene. Before you know it, another outbreak of turtle-related salmonella hits the news and once again, we're back at the court system trying to explain why turtles should remain ok for people to have as pets.


CON's to the 4" Law

  1. This prevents people who are in the hobby of keeping turtles, from being able to get hatchlings without having to breed them themselves.
  1. Keepers that keep turtles that reproduce naturally (it's going to happen when you have the proper environment), they have no way to place these newborn turtles. That means that they will have a sudden increase in turtle populations in their captive environments, and may not be able to accommodate them. Then what? Release them into the wild? We've already covered that.
  1. With the 4" law standing and enforced, hatchlings would not be allowed to be sold. Ok, but then what? Are turtles just going to up and disappear from the pet trade or the hobby? Not hardly. There might be a low period for a little while, but then it will pick back up. These things always do. So where will these 4" turtles come from? There are a few possibilities, although some more likely than others. Breeders and dealers would have to keep hatchlings until they reach 4" to be sold legally. What kind of care do you think they are going to have?
  •  The problems with having to raise to the turtles to the 4" law, means that breeders and dealers will have to not only increase their facilities to properly care for the turtles, but also it will require more effort, money and medical treatments for those turtles that get sick. for those that accommodate the needs of these growing turtles over the next few years until they reach the legal size for sale, will have to raise the price on their turtles to cover the costs of raising them. There will be others who do not give the proper care and rely on the strong to survive. Their costs will be less and they will be able to offer the turtles for less, meaning that the good breeders and dealers won't be able to keep up and they will eventually disappear or resort to lowering the quality of their care.
  • It takes a few years in some species before they reach 4". As we discussed above, it will  take time, money and effort to raise these turtles to that size. Most dealers and breeders will not want to do this. Something that might start to occur is the over-feeding of the turtles causing rapid growth so that they achieve a larger size in lesser time than what nature has intended. We have already seen where the wrong diet, or too much of a good diet, can cause rapid growth which brings about not only shell deformities, but also renal failure and other complications later on in the turtle's life.
  • The 4" law encourages WC vs. CB. To cut through the chase and not have to provide for hatchlings until they reach 4", why not go out and get turtles that are already 4" and larger? This is something that I also foresee happening. Turtles being taken from the wild. Sure, there is not going to be a major dent in the RES or Cooter population if people started going out and grabbing these turtles from the least not right away. The Spotted Turtle and Bog Turtle are prime examples on how wild collecting can damage the number of turtles in a given species. They become threatened, endangered, then extinct. Could this happen to all popular turtles in the wild? Maybe. Though their numbers are great now, with a large scale wild collecting campaign and the dwindling of captive breeding, the numbers in the wild will begin decreasing.
  1. The law would also end the legal keeping of certain species that do not even make it to 4". Cagle's maps, for example, are the tiniest map turtles. Some adults don't even get close to 4". Egyptian tortoise are another example. By the time these turtles and other small species can be sold legally, they are old. There is nothing wrong with owning an old turtle, but most keepers want to get a turtle that will live another 40 years or so, not a questionable and possibly deteriorating 5-6 more years.
  1. The law is dated. In the last decade, numerous advances have been made in turtle keeping. We now know about proper filtration, the need for personal hygiene as well as the cleanliness required in respect to our turtles' habitats. Research, advancements in medicines and an overall awareness in the hobby have brought it to a new level. We now know that you can't just get a turtle and put it in a bowl with a rock and some water and feed it biscuits and hot dogs. Times change and the flow of information has exploded, especially with the advantages of the internet.
  1. My last point. Threatened or concerned species. There are numerous breeding programs going on as we speak. Not only are they going on with commonly kept and often-seen species, but also with some that are not. I personally know of a  breeding project going on with the Bog Turtle. Countless people are working with other species from around the world, trying to get a firm hold in the captive population because the wild populations are dwindling either because of habitat destruction, wild collecting or because they are a part of a diet in their local region. Either way, with moving hatchlings around being illegal, there will less of a drive and participation in assisting in the reproduction of threatened species.

    Above are the views of me alone. Everyone is open to their own opinions. Where do we go now? We have several options.

  1. Sit back, shut up and hold on and see what happens.
  2. Come up with a solution and collectively address the forces that be and convince them of the need to change the law as it is written.
  3. Complain and bitch about it, talk about how crappy and stupid the law is and do nothing.

Personally, I would like to be in the #2 grouping. But we need to speak as one voice and have answers and viable solutions to the situations. If not, and the 4" law does indeed get dropped, then we're faced with a whole new set of issues that will most likely haunt us later on.

Below is a copy of the regulation on turtles under 4".

US Regulations on the Trade of Turtles Less than Four Inches

[Code of Federal Regulations]
[Title 21, Volume 8, Parts 800 to 1299]
[Revised as of April 1, 2000]
From the U.S. Government Printing Office via GPO Access
[CITE: 21CFR1240.62]
[Page 647-649]

Subpart D—Specific Administrative Decisions Regarding Interstate Shipments

Sec. 1240.62 Turtles intrastate and interstate requirements.
(a) Definition. As used in this section the term “turtles” includes all animals commonly known as turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and all other animals of the order Testudinata, class Reptilia, except marine species (families Dermochelyidae and Cheloniidae).

(b) Sales; general prohibition. Except as otherwise provided in this section, viable turtle eggs and live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches shall not be sold, held for sale, or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution.

(c) Destruction of turtles or turtle eggs; criminal penalties.

(1) Any viable turtle eggs or live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches which are held for sale or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution shall be subject to destruction in a humane manner by or under the supervision of an officer or employee of the Food and Drug Administration in accordance with the following procedures:

(i) Any District Office of the Food and Drug Administration, upon detecting viable turtle eggs or live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches which are held for sale or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution, shall serve upon the person in whose possession such turtles or turtle eggs are found a written demand that such turtles or turtle eggs be destroyed in a humane manner under the supervision of said District Office, within 10 working days from the date of promulgation of the demand. The demand shall recite with particularity the facts which justify the demand. After service of the demand, the person in possession of the turtles or turtle eggs shall not sell, distribute, or otherwise dispose of any of the turtles or turtle eggs except to destroy them under the supervision of the District Office, unless and until the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition withdraws the demand for destruction after an appeal pursuant to paragraph (c)(1)(ii) of this section.

(ii)The person on whom the demand for destruction is served may either comply with the demand or, within 10 working days from the date of its promulgation, appeal the demand for destruction to the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, 200 C St. SW., Washington, DC 20204. The demand for destruction may also be appealed within the same period of 10 working days by any other person having a pecuniary interest in such turtles or turtle eggs. In the event of such an appeal, the Center Director shall provide an opportunity for hearing by written notice to the appellant(s) specifying a time and place for the hearing, to be held within 14 days from the date of the notice but not within less than 7 days unless by agreement with the appellant(s).

(iii) Appearance by any appellant at the hearing may be by mail or in person, with or without counsel. The hearing shall be conducted by the Center Director or his designee, and a written summary of the proceedings shall be prepared by the person presiding. Any appellant shall have the right to hear and to question the evidence on which the demand for destruction is based, including the right to cross-examine witnesses, and he may present oral or written evidence in response to the demand.

(iv) If, based on the evidence presented at the hearing, the Center Director finds that the turtles or turtle eggs were held for sale or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution in violation of this section, he shall affirm the demand that they be destroyed under the supervision of an officer or employee of the Food and Drug Administration; otherwise, the Center Director shall issue a written notice that the prior demand by the District Office is withdrawn. If the Center Director affirms the demand for destruction he shall order that the destruction be accomplished in a humane manner within 10 working days from the date of the promulgation of his decision. The Center Director’s decision shall be accompanied by a statement of the reasons for the decision. The decision of the Center Director shall constitute final agency action, reviewable in the courts.

(v) If there is no appeal to the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition from the demand by the Food and Drug Administration District Office and the person in possession of the turtles or turtle eggs fails to destroy them within 10 working days, or if the demand is affirmed by the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition after an appeal and the person in possession of the turtles or turtle eggs fails to destroy them within 10 working days, the District Office shall designate an officer or employee to destroy the turtles or turtle eggs. It shall be unlawful to prevent or to attempt to prevent such destruction of turtles or turtle eggs by the officer or employee designated by the District Office. Such destruction will be stayed if so ordered by a court pursuant to an action for review in the courts as provided in paragraph (c)(1)(iv) of this section.

(2) Any person who violates any provision of this section, including but not limited to any person who sells, offers for sale, or offers for any other type of commercial or public distribution viable turtle eggs or live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches, or who refuses to comply with a valid final demand for destruction of turtles or turtle eggs (either an unappealed demand by an FDA District Office or a demand which has been affirmed by the Director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition pursuant to appeal), or who fails to comply with the requirement in such a demand that the manner of destruction be humane, shall be subject to a fine of not more than $1,000 or imprisonment for not more than 1 year, or both, for each violation, in accordance with section 368 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 271).

(d) Exceptions. The provisions of this section are not applicable to:

(1) The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs for bona fide scientific, educational, or exhibitional purposes, other than use as pets.

(2) The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs not in connection with a business.

(3) The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs intended for export only, provided that the outside of the shipping package is conspicuously labeled “For Export Only.”

(4) Marine turtles excluded from this regulation under the provisions of paragraph (a) of this section and eggs of such turtles.

(e) Petitions. The Commissioner of Food and Drugs, either on his own initiative or on behalf of any interested person who has submitted a petition, may publish a proposal to amend this regulation. Any such petition shall include an adequate factual basis to support the petition, and will be published for comment if it contains reasonable grounds for the proposed regulation. A petition requesting such a regulation, which would amend this regulation, shall be submitted to the Dockets Management Branch, Food and Drug Administration, rm. 1-23, 12420 Parklawn Dr., Rockville, MD 20857.

[40 FR 22545, May 23, 1975, as amended at 46 FR 8461, Jan. 27, 1981; 48 FR 11431, Mar. 18, 1983; 54 FR 24900, June 12, 1989; 59 FR 14366, Mar. 28, 1994]