An international animal rights group handed a 144,000-signature petition to the Cayman Islands government Tuesday calling for an end to intensive turtle farming.
Members of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which issued a damning report on the Cayman Turtle Farm late last year, along with Cayman’s world record holding free diver Tanya Streeter, delivered the petition to the government administration building.
The group is in Grand Cayman this week to meet with Turtle Farm management, government officials and members of the local media and public.
After a visit Tuesday to the facility in West Bay, which has said it is taking on board recommendations made by marine and sea turtle experts on conditions within the turtle tanks, the WSPA said greater action is needed to protect the welfare of turtles at the popular tourist attraction.
Reacting to the finding of an investigation carried out by four marine and sea turtle experts in December, as well as an earlier investigation done by the farm in July last year, the WSPA said those reports confirmed their own findings about the state of health of the confined turtles.
The Turtle Farm had earlier described the WSPA’s findings as “unfounded, erroneous and sensationalised”.
“Shockingly, the reports … reveal that the CTF has been aware of animal suffering, overcrowding and disease for more than six months, yet repeatedly made public denials to the contrary,” a statement from the animal welfare group read.
The results of an earlier investigation done at the Turtle Farm in July, revealed through a Freedom of Information request filed by the WSPA, showed that the farm was already aware of injuries related to overcrowding of the animals in tanks. That report also addressed the impact on young turtles of people picking them up and handling them.
A second assessment, done in December and released on Friday, 25 January, found that there were severe injuries in a “notable proportion of animals”, including deep ulcerations to the shoulder, forelimbs, head and hind limbs, skin lesions and high mortality levels in younger turtles.
That report confirmed the WSPA findings that stocking densities are high and several turtles appeared “moderately emaciated”. It recommended that the farm hire a veterinary surgeon, which farm managing director Tim Adam subsequently said was being done.
WSPA wildlife expert Neil D’Cruze said: “The assessment of the farm in July, and then again in December closely matches our own investigation, proving that the farm knew our findings were true from the outset. Yet, instead of taking us up on our offer to work with them to find a solution, they accused us of sensationalism.
“While both reports vindicate our concerns and finally recognise the serious issues we have been raising for months, we fear that their recommendations will, sadly, do little to improve turtle welfare in the long term,” he added. “We were expecting a detailed report based on hard evidence but instead we received a topline summary with no data to prove that any of the recommendations made within it will actually solve the extensive problems at the farm.”
The Turtle Farm’s Mr. Adam, however, insisted the report was based on evidence and that while the WSPA group was willing to accept its negative findings – in relation to tank overcrowding and lesions – it was “duplicitious” of the group to cast doubt on the report’s positive finding, such as the quality of water in the public tanks and the conservation benefits of the farm.
The WSPA report stated it had produced scientific evidence showing E. coli, salmonella and other harmful pathogens were found in the water in the turtle touch tanks. The experts who carried out the December investigation said in their report that the water quality in the touch tanks appeared “very clear” and posed no health issue to visitors. However, the report states that the water in some of the tanks for larger juvenile turtles on the production side were “quite turbid”.
Mr. D’Cruze said he was surprised that the December report found “no health concerns” relating to visitors handling turtles from the touch tanks, as there did not appear to be any data in the report showing that the water had been tested in a laboratory. “It seems to be based on observation alone,” he said.
Mr. Adam acknowledged that the experts did not take samples for lab testing from the touch tanks, saying turtles are carriers of salmonella, so it’s reasonable to find salmonella in tanks containing sea turtles.
The WSPA say the December report is flawed in that it compares the Turtle Farm to intensive production practices rather than as a conservation facility, which is how the farm markets itself to tourists. The group also criticised the report as showing a lack of understanding about welfare and only recommending to reduce diseases and injuries rather than addressing how to improve standards for the turtles’ welfare, such as reducing overcrowding.
The group said the December report also did not acknowledge that sea turtles are wild animals with “complex behavioural needs” that involved swimming thousands of miles across the world’s oceans and diving to great depths. “The report does not acknowledge that turtles are non-domestic animals”, the WSPA said.
One of the animal welfare group’s main gripes with the December report is its lack of detail. The report that was made public last week is seven pages long and the authors state that their findings are based on three days of observations and interviews.
“We don’t know what scientific methods were used, if any, and no results have been provided to back up the conclusions, for example, water was not lab tested. We were expecting a fully comprehensive scientific report based on hard evidence,” Mr. D’Cruze said.
Humane Society International recently joined the World Society for the Protection of Animals in its stand against the Cayman Turtle Farm.
Amanda Mayhew, manager of ecotourism and international trade policy at Humane Society International, said: “In spite of the significance of tourism to the economy of the Cayman Islands and the popularity of the Cayman Turtle Farm as a tourist attraction, the farm is operating at a loss. As more and more travellers factor animal welfare concerns into their vacation plans, the farm’s reputation will be key to its future success.
“By transitioning away from commercial production and improving the conditions for its resident turtles, the Cayman Turtle Farm would demonstrate its commitment to its conservation mandate, teach the public to value and respect these beautiful creatures, and set an example for sea turtle conservation worldwide,” she added.