Unfortunately, animal abuse is a serious and surprisingly common problem in the USA. The applicable laws vary from state to state, and it can be difficult to determine which agency is responsible for enforcement. Regulatory agencies are often under-funded, so many rely upon citizen complaints. It is important, therefore, that concerned people learn how to proceed when they suspect that animal abuse is taking place. This is especially true where reptiles and amphibians are concerned, as they draw less interest than mammals, and mistreatment is difficult to detect by the inexperienced. Please be sure to post your own observations below, and let me know if you need help in deciding how to report a problem.
Animal abuse is a crime every state in the USA, and most aspects of the problem are controlled by state law. This results in a confusing array of widely differing statutes and enforcement policies. Details, such as what constitutes abuse and how the laws are actually enforced, vary from state to state. Until recently (July, 2012), for example, an Indiana “festival” that allowed participants to twist off the heads of turtles for public amusement was held not to violate state law (please see below)! In some states, live Tiger Salamander larvae are legally used as fish bait (please see this article), while in others they are protected as an endangered species.
Adding to the confusion is the fact that various situations, such as pet store neglect or abused private pets, may be handled by different agencies within the same state. Fortunately, the ASPCA provides a list of enforcement agencies for in all 50 states.
The federal Animal Welfare Act governs the operation of breeding facilities, zoos, circuses and research labs. You can learn more about this law, and how to report violations, here.
Common Reptile/Amphibian Abuse Situations
Many people cannot recognize reptile and amphibian abuse. The input of experienced hobbyists is, therefore, very important. Following are some of the most common abuse scenarios that I’ve encountered:
Inappropriate housing of hatchling Red-Eared Sliders: The sale of turtles under 4 inches in length is illegal in all states (please see this article). However, enforcement is spotty because these turtles are usually sold by street vendors rather than through pet stores. Since the turtles are inexpensive, they are treated more as disposable items than live animals, and very little effort is expended on their care.
Food market turtles and frogs: The USDA classifies live food market turtles and frogs as “seafood”, and permits them to be displayed on ice and held in abominable conditions. During my years with the Bronx Zoo, I often took charge of confiscated food trade turtles and American Bullfrogs. The animals invariably suffered from a variety of diseases and injuries, and few survived.
Years ago, I spearheaded a study that investigated mercury levels in Florida Soft-shelled Turtles in NYC markets. Although high levels of mercury and atrocious conditions were documented, I was unable to make any changes in the applicable laws.
Hoarders and Rescuers: These usually well-meaning folks sometimes become over-extended, and wind up doing more harm than good. I’ve assisted the police in some unbelievable situations, including the confiscation of 5 adult Spectacled Caimans from a NYC apartment, and the investigation of several Iguana-filled Manhattan apartments. Animals removed from such situations are often in poor health and difficult to re-home.
Pet Stores and Animal Displays
Conditions are generally improving in these areas, but much work remains to be done. Under-funded “reptile zoos” still pop up from time to time. I helped to investigate several of these, and in most cases state/local authorities acted quickly. However, even where professional herpetologists stand ready to testify, red tape has sometimes resulted in numerous animal deaths.
Thankfully, the Indiana “Snapperfest” mentioned earlier is not a common scenario, and “rattlesnake roundups” are fading fast. But the fact that large crowds will cheer as grown men pull the heads from living turtles (as in Indiana) is, to me, very scary. Upon watching a video of this horror show, I was shocked to see that the audience contained numerous young children accompanied by their parents!
Fortunately, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society and other groups became involved, and the spectacle has now been abolished. Please see this article.
Other Sources of Information
Animal shelter staffers can often answer questions concerning the most effective means of reporting animals in distress. The ASPCA’s Nationwide Animal Shelter Directory is a valuable resource.
Police departments are required to assist in emergencies involving animals if people are at risk (dial 911) and can also advise you on how to proceed in non-emergency situations.
In addition to helping animals, reporting animal cruelty can save human lives. Studies show that animal abusers are likely to engage in violent crimes against people as well. For this reason, however, police officers advise those witnessing animal abuse not to take action themselves, but rather to dial “911”.
What’s Next…What Can I Do?
Please post any questions you may have concerning abuse or related topics. I’ll do my best to guide you to local assistance.
By becoming involved with a responsible reptile/amphibian club or society, you’ll stay informed and be better equipped to influence local policies. Please check out the website of my favorite such organization, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society, for examples of how much can be accomplished by dedicated, well-informed people.
Reptile Abuse (Incidents, Reports)
Red Eared Slider hatchling info
“Snapperfest” (turtle killing “festival”)
PetAbuse.com: links to useful resources
Live turtles in Asian market image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Vmenkhov
Live baby turtles in Asian market image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Krotz
Their long claws are superb adaptations for this lifestyle.
Kale, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, and brussel sprouts are
some of the most common foods that contain goitrogens.
Impaction in iguanas occurs when the intestine becomes blocked with indigestible
Someone I know has been painting their snakes for photoshoots. Paints can be toxic to snakes. I don’t really know what to do about this. Can I report them for animal abuse?
States vary regarding interest in reptile abuse, but if it were reported I believe it would be cosidered a violation in most places, Best, Frank
When I was in NYC a shop in Chinatown was selling baby RES turtles, 2 for $10. I cannot for the life of me ever be able to say the exact location other than a side road in Chinatown (close in area to the Manhattan Bridge and was not any any part that had a lot of English shops.) They had no source of heat, not UVB lights, no water, and were being sold in tiny little containers with a small bottle of rubbish turtle food. I asked the guy selling them how big they got and he said “No bigger than a dinner plate” and pointed to one he said he had for three years. It was about the size of a medium sized hand and he had it in a small 5-10 gallon tank with no heat or lamps, little water, and IN A COLD WINDOW! He then said they were great for putting in with fish and goldfish. Which is untrue because they will eat the fish and make the water deadly for them from all their waste they put off! He was profiting off of tourist’s ignorance of the bred and either knowingly lied about what he knew about the bred or was ignorant himself. Either way he was selling them illegally, and they were not being taken care of.
When I was in NYC a shop in Chinatown was selling baby RES turtles, 2 for $10. I cannot for the life of me ever be able to say the exact location other than a side road in Chinatown (close in area to the Manhattan Bridge and was not any any part that had a lot of English shops.) They had no source of heat, not UVB lights, no water, and were being sold in tiny little containers with a small bottle of rubbish turtle food. I asked the guy selling them how big they got and he said “No bigger than a dinner plate” and pointed to one he said he had for three years. It was about the size of a medium sized hand and he had it in a small 5-10 gallon tank with no heat or lamps, little water, and IN A COLD WINDOW! He then said they were great for putting in with fish and goldfish. Which is untrue because they will eat the fish and make the water deadly for them from all their waste they put off! He was profiting off of tourist’s ignorance of the bred and either knowingly lied about what he knew about the bred or was ignorant himself. Either way he was selling them illegally, and they were not being taken care of
Thanks for your interest and concern. It’s a difficult situation…hatchlings have been outlawed for sale since the 1970’s (please see here) but enforcement varies from year to year…depends on budgets, other law enforcement concerns, etc. Complaints to the authorities linked in the article sometimes bring a response, but not always. Speaking with sellers is of absolutely no use, unfortunately, as the trade is long established and the sellers very aware of what can and cannot be done, legally. Best regards, Frank
My son is doing a report on reptile abuse and is tasked with a call to action to bring more awareness to this problem. He is a reptile lover and wants all reptiles to be protected. Any advice on what his call to action could be?
Perhaps he can publicize the contact numbers for local animal protection groups, such as the ASPCA (choose only reputable groups, some local ones can be quite extreme, and do more harm than good) and for the appropriate state agencies; ask folks to visit pet stores and report potential problems? If need be, please send me further details about what he’s required to do. best, Frank
Thanks Frank! That is a great suggestion to list animal protection groups. He is also going to create a petition to stop rattlesnake roundups in Sweetwater, Texas. He plans on having his classmates and others at the school sign it and then send it to State and Government officials in Texas. Our school is an International Baccleoreate school and This project is their 5th grade exhibition project. Each fifth grader is tasked with researching an issue and bringing it to the attention of the school and classmates. For example, one student researched child abuse and created a pinwheel garden at school to bring awareness to the issue. Some are raising money by swimming laps or running for certain charities, etc…. Being a lover of reptiles, my son wants the world to love them too:)! He is very disturbed by the round ups, so we thought a petition would be a good call to action! Your blog has provided him with some good information for his report and presentation! Thanks!!!!
Thanks for the kind words. I’ve been a teacher , and no how wonderful such projects are for children’s development, and for the environment as well…sounds like a fantastic school. I’ve been taking my 6 year old nephew out in the field and to see my contacts at zoos and museums at least weekly since he was an infant. Sorry..can’t resist – you can see the little guy here (your son may enjoy the article anyway!).
Please let your son know he can post anytime and I’ll get right back to him…articles need not be directly on point, most impt thing is for him to ask questions, etc.
The following articles may be helpful. The ASIH is one of the leading herpetological organizations in the world; CBD very active in roundup issue. There have been major changes lately, most in GA stopped I believe…of course, “Don’t mess with Texas” may have an influence there!…but trend is towards no-kill type roundups, etc.
Please keep me posted, best, Frank
My school science teacher has two turtles and they are a little smaller than a dinner plate, they have a 30 gallon tank, too much water and no where to bask, little to no light, they also have retained shed ive told her she needs to help them but she brushes it off her shoulder. im afraid they have shell rot. I want to report her but not sure if that’s considered animal abuse. please help!
Semi Aquatic turtles (most in classrooms are red-eared sliders) do need a dry place to bask, with a temperature of 85-90 F (at the basking site) and exposure to UVB light. Here’s an article that covers their needs; your teacher can post questions or send me details of their care for review if she wishes. What you describe is not at all the care they require, but unfortunately most states would not consider this to be abuse…best to go about this diplomatically, perhaps let your teacher know you’ve contacted a Bronx Zoo herpetologist for info on care and that he would be happy to provide information….I admire your concern, but mentioning “abuse” might do more harm than good, in terms of convincing her to ask for help, best, Frank
That turtle “festival” is appalling. Who would call that entertainment?
I’ve seen quite a bit over the years, but that was shocking…especially that little children were present, cheering and having fun – scary! Thankfully, that one has been shut down due to public pressure. Best regards, Frank
I was working at a pet store for four years everything from puppies to birds and reptiles. Over those years I fell in love with reptiles. I have a bearded dragon. I’m in desperate need of an answer. This petstore is located in florida and the reptiles are in terrible conditions. First the euro mastic is in a tank that is 2 gallons he is full grown and the temperature is in the 70’s in the tank there is no lighting at all. Getting fed lettuce and seed you can see the extra skin. Also same as bearded dragons the baby’s are fed large crickets not pins and always seem to die. The lighting is terrible and I honestly still cry from thinking about it. I called the humane society but no one knew anythig about reptiles I need an answer who do I call
Try contacting some of the groups linked below…I’ not familiar with various counties, etc. in Fla and so am not sure which would be best, but whomever you contact should be able to refer you to the appropriate organization, best, Frank https://www.google.com/search?q=florida+animal+abuse+reports&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8
This morning I found a red-eared slider turtle wandering on my driveway. I was informed by one of my neighbors that the turtle belonged to another neighbor of mine down the street. So as I was carrying the turtle in a box back to the neighbor’s house I noticed a long fishing wire sticking out from one corner of his mouth and the side of his neck on the other side. When I told the neighbor about this he said he had put the fishing wire there so he could dangle the turtle in front of his kids when they are playing with the turtle! I was so shocked by what he said that I was speechless. I’m not sure if he owns other turtles or just that particular one. I feel so bad that I’ve returned the turtle back to such a cruel person! Is Animal Control the best agency that I should report this abuse to? I live in Los Angeles County.
Yes, that would be best, or a local Humane Society chapter; California has a number of active Turtle and Tortoise Societies as well; these would be worth contacting if these organizations are not helpful,, best, Frank