Champion free diver Tanya Streeter has become the public face of the World Society for the Protection of Animals’ campaign to highlight concerns about the welfare of turtles at the Cayman Turtle Farm.
Ms Streeter, who was in Cayman last week with the animals rights group to hand to government a 144,000-signature petition calling for an end to sea turtle farming, admitted that coming out in condemnation of conditions at the Turtle Farm was a difficult decision.
The diver – born in Cayman to parents Jim and Sandra Dailey, who had been involved in the earlier iteration of the Turtle Farm when it was called Mariculture Ltd. – has supported the WSPA on other campaigns, but when the group called her about this one, it took her by surprise.
“It was a very, very hard phone call for me to take. I probably sent those guys on a flat spin because when they stopped talking, I was in floods of tears,” she said.
“I’m proud of Cayman’s history and culture … It’s hard to hear that things are not OK anymore. It’s hard to hear the truth and it’s particularly hard because of the involvement [in the farm] with my family, but I’ve been dithering for several months now [on] what is greater – my passion for my home or my passion for animals and I grew up an animal lover,” she said.
Growing up in Cayman, Ms Streeter, who now lives in the United States, was a regular visitor to the farm and returned there last April and again last week with WSPA representatives. “Looking at it through the eyes I now look at it through, as somebody who was once terribly proud of the Turtle Farm and now has learned from reputable resources and scientific evidence … it’s impossible to deny that it’s an inappropriate way to keep an animal that should be solitary and should be diving deep and should be travelling great distances,” the diver said.
On her recent visits to the farm, she said she did not see any of the larger turtles without skin lesions and many had a build up of moss and growth on their shells. “That’s not something you see in the wild,” she said.
During her stay in Cayman last week, she swam and was photographed with wild turtles in local waters to help publicise WSPA’s campaign. “It’s truly the way to experience them, in the wild, exhibiting their natural instinctual behaviour,” she said.
Ms Streeter argues that sea turtles are not domesticated animals, nor have they been genetically bred to withstand captivity.
Some online comments in response to Ms Streeter’s involvement in the campaign have accused her of selling out and “having it in for Cayman”, bringing up that the diver has represented another country in setting her free diving records.
“I’m not immune or blind to the comments that are made … It’s really unfortunate that when I started free diving, my government chose not to support me … I did not choose to dive for another county until my country refused to support me,” she said, adding that she was an ambassador for the Turks and Caicos Islands for a while simply because Turks and Caicos supported her at a time when the Cayman Islands government did not.
She insisted she is not calling on Caymanians to stop eating turtle meat, but is asking them to look more closely at how the meat they’re eating is farmed and consider it in the same way they might choose whether to eat battery-farmed chicken as opposed to organically raised chickens, or grass-fed beef rather than intensively-farmed cattle.
“I wonder what people would think about eating a turtle that clearly has skin lesions all over it?”, she asked.
She also wants to see an “independent, non-biased survey of what the demand for turtle here is”.
Ms Streeter supports WSPA’s highly critical report of how turtles at the farm are treated at the farm. “There’s a massive welfare issue and we want to stop the farming of turtles because you can’t do it while prioritising the welfare of the animal because of the nature of the animal,” the diver said.
The WSPA is recommending that the Turtle Farm transforms from a farm into a dedicated sea turtle research and education centre, similar to Kélonia Observatory of Marine Turtles in Réunion Island.
“I personally believe very strongly that what WSPA proposes as a transition is something that is appropriate within the realms of our culture, that it’s appropriate to shoot for and I think I know it is something that would allow many Caymanians, as myself, to go back to being fiercely proud of the Turtle Farm, and with good reason,” she said.