Turtle races or derbies are part of many Fourth of July celebrations, but the Maryland Department of Natural Resources cautions that these events pose a health risk to captive turtles, wild turtles and human participants.
Some turtles raced in derbies are collected from the wild and, if diseased, can infect pet or other wild turtles when released. A particular concern is Ranavirus, an emerging infectious disease that has caused localized die-offs in Eastern Box Turtles, other native turtles, and some frogs and salamanders.
“We hope all Marylanders have a safe and happy holiday, and that they enjoy the wonder of wild turtles and frogs without the health risks associated with these events,” said Jonathan McKnight, associate director of DNR’s Wildlife & Heritage Service. “However, if you are planning to participate, we urge that you help protect Maryland’s wild reptiles and amphibians from disease by using only pet turtles, and not releasing them into the wild.”
Turtles can also spread diseases to humans, especially Salmonella. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently documented eight outbreaks of Salmonella infections in humans, all of which were associated with exposure to small pet turtles. Because of this risk, the sale or possession of turtles with a carapace (topshell) length less than 4 inches has been illegal in the U.S. since 1975. However, turtles and frogs of all sizes are potential carriers of Salmonella.
To prevent Salmonella infection, wash hands thoroughly with soap and water immediately after handling these animals or their cage, aquarium or tank. Children under 5 years old, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are at highest risk for Salmonella infections and should avoid contact altogether.
“Marylanders are reminded that it’s against the law to release any reptile or amphibian into the wild without written authorization from DNR. It is also illegal to release into the wild any reptile or amphibian that has been captively-produced or is not native to Maryland,” said Cpl. Mike Lathroum, a reptile and amphibian enforcement expert with the Maryland Natural Resources Police.
More information on Maryland’s 19 species of native turtles is available online.