Scientists find guests at risk from handling turtles
(CNS): Although the Cayman Turtle Farm insists that the handling of their captive turtles is safe for visitors, research published by the Royal Society of Medicine has found otherwise. According to the scientists, while it may be safe to handle wild turtles, the captive animals can expose tourists to toxic contaminants and zoonotic pathogens that can jump from animals to people. Symptoms from these bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites don’t always show themselves immediately and on the surface can seem like gastrointestinal disorders or flu, but seriously affected people can suffer from septicaemia, pneumonia, meningitis and acute renal failure. (Photo by Michelle de Villiers)
The research by the London based medical journal contradicts claims by the CTF that there is no risk to visitors, a point it has been at pains to stress after the cruise lines, which send a significant number of passengers on trips to the farm when calling on Grand Cayman, had raised concerns about the risks to their customers.
The scientists confirm findings by the animal activist charity, World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), which is campaigning for the CTF to transition towards a conservation facility. The biggest bacterial culprits are E.Coli and Salmonella, although there are some lower infection threats from viruses such as Vibrio.
Holiday experiences that expose tourists to sea turtles may allow people to pick up the animals from confined pools, although some even allow tourists to eat turtle meat raised in intensive farm-like conditions.
The paper included a case study from the Cayman Turtle Farm (CTF) in Grand Cayman, which is unique as the only facility in the world to rear sea-turtles as meat available to the public, as well as being open to the thousands of tourists which pour off the cruise ships onto the island every day. The intensive and cramped conditions which the farm works under – in both the production and front of house tourist areas – can serve to concentrate these pathogens and increase risk to those people visiting the farm, the research revealed.
Clifford Warwick of the Emergent Disease Foundation, the lead author of the report, warned that the distribution of visitors exposed to the turtle farm presented opportunities for contaminants to spread through tourist hubs, including cruise ships and airline carriers.
Warwick expressed concerns that awareness of the potential human health threats posed by facilities such as the CTF may not be well understood by healthcare professionals and public awareness may be even lower, stating that overcoming this would be key to prevent and control the spread of sea turtle-related diseases.
Due to this low awareness people rarely trace back or attribute their illness to a recent experience handling wild sea turtles. This, along with the often generic nature of the symptoms, makes it hard to track the full distribution of these pathogens.
The WSPA’s campaign leaders said the charity was not surprised by the scientific findings.
“This independent peer reviewed scientific paper demonstrates that the recent assessment of the Farm’s operations is inherently flawed,” he said “We hope that the Cayman Turtle Farm recognizes that the only real way to completely remove the human health threat will be to end the ‘unique wildlife encounter’ currently at the facility and takes steps to do so, which will also immediately improve the lives of the turtles in their care.”
The CTF, however, has on a number of occasions denied any risk to its visitors by handling the turtles. Following an inspection commissioned by the farm in December the CTF management said the inspectors confirmed there were no health or injury concerns with regard to guests handling turtles, either for the turtles or for the humans interacting with them.
In a short comment on Tuesday morning, which a spokesperson for the CTF said would be followed up with a more comprehensive statement, officials said the allegations were misleading and sensationalised.
"The Cayman Turtle Farm follows and enforces strict turtle handling protocols that are communicated to its guests through signage and spoken instructions. All turtle handling is supervised, and the established protocols follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the safe handling of reptiles," the spokesperson added.
The farm said the lack of risk to humans was supported as over 40 years millions of guests have handled turtles but there has not been one single known case of transmission of illness or disease.
"This is a clear effort by the WSPA to undermine the business of the CTF in its on-going goal to shut down our operations, since their campaign thus far has been unsuccessful," the CTF stated, undermining comments by the WSPA that during its recent visit with farm management lines of communication had been opened.
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