Science Stories and More ——— From Elizabeth Deatrick
What do you do when someone hands you 1,007 turtles? If you’re the Detroit Zoo, you put them in tubs of water and take care of them until the US Fish and Wildlife Service comes to pick them up.
The turtles in question were confiscated from a Canadian man at the Detroit airport in late 2014. The man, whose identity remains a secret until the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) has finished its investigation and trial, packed the tiny turtles into rubber boots and cereal boxes in the hopes of smuggling them to China. When airport officials discovered the contraband turtles, they contacted the Detroit Zoo and asked them for help. “We’ve held animals for [the FWS] before, but it’s never been of this magnitude. It’s usually single animals,” says Jeff Jundt, Curator of Reptiles at the Detroit Zoo. “We had just a couple of days to prepare.”
Fortunately, the turtles aren’t very large––most of them are hatchlings, about the size of a half-dollar coin. Even the larger, older wood turtles are only 4-5 inches in length. Not all the turtles are native to North America: the diamondback terrapin (of which there were 750 in the mix) is native to the southern U.S., but the smuggler was also hiding African spur-thigh tortoises and Chinese red-necked pond turtles. Given their ages and the range of species, all of them were likely bred in captivity.
The turtles are not on exhibit at the moment; as is standard practice at the zoo, they’re being kept in large tubs of water in a behind-the-scenes quarantine area, to make sure that they don’t spread diseases to the zoo’s existing turtle population.
Why would anyone go to such trouble to smuggle turtles? Most likely, says Jundt, for the international pet trade. In China, owning an unusual or rare pet can be a status symbol, and animals that are relatively common in the midwest of the U.S. can fetch a high price overseas. Unfortunately, importing exotic animals, especially without government oversight, comes with a host of problems. Imported animals can spread diseases and parasites to entirely new parts of the world. If the animals escape or are set free, they can wreak havoc on the local ecosystems (as in the case of the now-common, invasive pythons in Florida). Perhaps most importantly, irresponsible breeding or harvesting operations can destroy local ecosystems by decimating species––simply because somebody wants an exotic pet.
Unfortunately, the smuggling goes both ways. It’s not unheard of for federal agencies in the U.S. to confiscate illegal pets (such as big cats, exotic reptiles, the occasional elephant, and the like) from their owners. Since rehabilitation and release is usually out of the question (especially if the animal was raised in captivity and never learned how to live in the wild on its own), these rescues often wind up being cared for by either specialized care centers, or zoos.
Jundt argues that even the legal pet trade in exotic reptiles could use some reforms: “People are never told [when buying tortoises] that this tortoise will live 150, 200 years and gets up to over 200 pounds as an adult… there needs to be more education placed on adopting and selling of these animals.” He receives 1-2 calls every week from people asking if he can take their reptiles off their hands––but the Zoo is a scientific and educational institution, not a dumping ground for unwanted animals. This sentiment of frustration is common throughout the world of animal care and animal welfare advocates––even People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which is vehemently opposed to zoos and what they stand for, bemoans the pet-trade practices that lead to animals being dropped off at zoos.
Eventually, once the smuggler has been convicted, the Detroit Zoo’s new turtles will leave their quarantine area, and the FWS will take most of them elsewhere to new homes. Until then, however, these victims of wildlife smuggling will be staying in their tubs––and, hopefully, will not be joined by any other rescues.
This blog post was previously published on a prior iteration of the Elizabeth Explains blog.