Tiny-turtle sales prompt criminal investigation

  • Dawn Clayton, store manager of Pet Club in Santa Rosa, holds up a young red-eared slider turtle that an individual turned over to her. The individual purchased the turtle hatchling from a man illegally selling the turtles, and turned it over to Clayton when the turtle became sick.

    (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)

A man in a white van has been going around Sonoma County recently, selling tiny red-eared slider turtles as pets, in violation of a 1975 federal rule that bans the sale and distribution of turtle hatchlings because they can carry salmonella.

According to reports, the man, who has been described as either Latino or Asian in his mid-50s, has sold the turtles, barely a few weeks old, to people in Santa Rosa shopping centers, downtown Cotati and the Sebastopol flea market.

Turtles and other reptiles often can carry strains of salmonella on their bodies, and the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1975 banned the sale of turtles less than 4 inches long because of the tendency for children to put them in their mouths.

Dawn Clayton, the manager of the Pet Club store on Santa Rosa Avenue, said she's seen about 10 cases within the past two weeks where people have brought the tiny turtles in, seeking help and advice for how to care for them. In some cases, the turtles were dying, and Clayton said she has taken it upon herself to confiscate some of the the baby critters.

"I've had two surrendered to me because the people had no idea," Clayton said.

Employees at other pet stores, including Village Pets & Supplies on Montgomery Drive, also have received reports from people who have purchased the turtles from a man in a white van.

Karen Holbrook, Sonoma County's deputy public health officer, said her department and local state Fish and Wildlife officials have been alerted and are investigating.

Fish and Wildlife officials are "looking for this guy," she said. But the information about the street vendor has been vague.

"We would really love to get more specific information like a license plate, a name," she said.

Holbrook said salmonella — a diarrhea-related illness — has been associated with both amphibians and reptiles, including toads, frogs, snakes, lizards and turtles. Illness from salmonella varies from mild to severe, and in some cases it is life-threatening, she said.

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