Herp Queries: The 4-Inch Turtle Law
Question:Has the old 4-inch turtle law been repealed finally? I see baby turtles for sale everywhere and have always wanted to have a couple. Why did such a stupid law ever happen to begin with anyway? I’ve known how to care for them since childhood, and I am aware of the possible dangers around children. Can I legally have some now?
Mrs. B. Hamilton, Ithaca, N.Y.
Answer: That law went into effect in 1975, during the Salmonella scare concerning small children putting baby turtles into their mouths and contracting the disease. Many consider it a gross over-reaction to a minuscule threat—the kind the U.S. has run amok on many times before. The 4-Inch Turtle Law is still on the books of the Food and Drug Administration to this day. It is misunderstood and misinterpreted often.
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The law is aimed at curtailing commercial sales of small turtles, which often end up as pets of small children. As the law states, it is not applicable to exchanges of live specimens “for bona fide scientific, educational or exhibitional purposes, other than use as pets.” It also does not prohibit private ownership of any size turtles.
The unintentional consequences of the law have put significant stress on larger turtles by the pet trade on top of already severe pressure as food and "medicine" from Asian markets. It’s also discouraged breeding efforts of rare species by hampering trade in juveniles until they’re 4 inches long or larger.
Most people aren’t even aware of this law at all, and others simply choose to ignore it. You see baby turtles for sale so often largely because complaints are seldom received on the issue. There’s also the matter of not enough enforcement personnel being available to follow up on every pet seller as a regular part of their duties. By the way, it has long been rumored that the reason the law ever got passed at all is due to the propaganda and financial backing of humane groups that were motivated by compassion issues involving small turtles mistreated as pets, not disease.