Study addresses visitor health concerns at Turtle Farm

Humans at focus of water quality findings

A scientific review of the potential health threats to humans of interacting with sea turtles indicates that handling turtles could lead to people becoming infected with pathogens. 

A report by Clifford Warwick and Catrina Steedman of the Emergent Disease Foundation and Phillip Arena from the Murdoch University in Australia published in the United Kingdom’s Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine website this week includes a case study of the Cayman Turtle Farm and outlined the results of water samples taken from the turtle touch tanks at the farm. 

Those samples showed a variety of bacteria and pathogens were present in the water and the authors state that this poses a threat to the health of cruise ship visitors to the farm who are encouraged to pick up and touch the turtles. 

“Farmed turtles may constitute a significant reservoir of potential human pathogen and toxin contamination, and visitors attending a facility may be exposed to artificially raised risks of acquiring disease as a result both of captive sea turtles and their water, intermediary surfaces and the available consumable products,” the report states. 

The World Society for the Protection of Animals funded the research by the scientists. Their findings were also included in a damning report into the welfare of turtles at the Turtle Farm which WSPA released late last year. 

 

No reports 

The Cayman Islands Turtle Farm managing director Tim Adam insists the Farm’s track record of zero reports of visitors being infected with any pathogens or getting sick after handling turtles at the Farm proves that the touch tanks are not making people sick. 

“These latest allegations are another clear effort by the WSPA to undermine the business of the CTF in WSPA’s on­going goal to shut down our operations, since their campaign thus far has been unsuccessful in achieving that aim,” he said. “WSPA told us from the outset that they want to stop people being able to touch or hold turtles, and they want us to stop farming turtles to supply the local demand for turtle meat. Apparently WSPA has funded a report hoping it will help them achieve those objectives.” 

Mr. Adam, in an interview with the Caymanian Compass last week following a meeting with WSPA representatives at the farm, said all turtles are natural reservoirs of pathogens like Salmonella, so it is not surprising that such pathogens were found in the touch tanks. However, he insisted that by the use of hand sanitisers and verbal and written instructions to visitors handling the turtles, the chances of people becoming sick were low. 

“Turtles typically are carriers of salmonella and so what we have done is put in place precautions that ensure that it doesn’t get transmitted from the animals to the visitors. In all the 40 years the Cayman Turtle Farm has been operating, we don’t have even one confirmed case where this has happened,” Mr. Adam said. 

 

Could be visitors 

In a press release issued Wednesday in response to the latest report in the medical journal, Mr. Adam said that there had also been no reports of staff at the farm falling ill from handling the turtles on a daily basis. 

The report authors argue that as symptoms of infection may not become apparent until after a tourist leaves Cayman, the possible link between the visitor’s illness and his or her handling of turtles at the farm “blur” the possible link. 

“Because both direct and indirect transmissions are well established routes for reptile-borne pathogens, the entire publicly accessible arena of the farm environment should cautiously be regarded as potentially contaminated,” the report states. 

Following the WSPA report last year, the Turtle Farm instigated a review by four marine experts who carried out their own investigation of the farm. That report described the water in the public touch tanks as appearing “very clear”, but the water in those tanks was not lab tested to determine the levels of pathogens in the water, Mr. Adam admitted, but added that the farm regularly checks the quality of the water in all the tanks. 

He insisted the farm follows and enforces “safe turtle handling protocols” in line with US Centres for Disease Control and Protection guidelines. 

The latest report is published in an offshoot of the medical journal, called “Short Reports”, in which authors submit reports to the editor for inclusion, which are then sent for open peer review and published for a fee. 

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Thousands of tourists visit the Cayman Turtle Farm every week. – PHOTO: JEFF BRAMMER
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7 COMMENTS

  1. Clearly these people are on a witch hunt to destroy the turtle far. However I am going to watch and see how many men and women too, that we have in Cayman Islands to stand up to these people, or if we have only men samples. Someone privately took away a toy from Streeter that for sure. Eventually we will find out what it was.

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  2. Here we go again! Are you serious!

    How long have people been visiting the Turtle Farm, how long have people been touching the turtles there?

    Now tell me what the facts are..not supposition, FACTS!!

    How many people have gotten ill from interacting with the turtles?

    NAME ONE INCIDENT OF SOMEONE BEING INFECTED, OR GETTING SICK?

    How many of us have been there and touched turtles and come away with a decease or infection?

    These are more scare tactics to get us to comply with interfering busy bodies who have nothing better to do than use donated/sponsorship money to go on vacation.

    Leave our turtles alone. We have NEVER gone to another man’s country and started a campaign of telling other nations how to run their country one way or another.

    Do a study on why the aboriginal, immigrant community and is being mistreated by the Australian govt and you do gooders.

    That is a study you should do. We are dealing with our turtles in CAYMAN. LEAVE US ALONE!!

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  3. I’m a retired dive instructor I have taken 5-6 tours per week for 25 years .I have licked and kissed the heads of sea turtles in the farm and have never got any diseases. I am a tour guide and have taken bus loads of tourists and will gladly do the tour for you in front of a media camera on the island for proof . Are you willing to take the challenge?????? Show the world that you are not lying and prove your statement or prove mine. signed Dave Miller snr.

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  4. Well, this newspaper is printing information about studies implicating bacteria and pathogens found in the turtle farm water that can affect cruise ship passengers. Has this newspaper also investigated the possibilty of turtle farm employees that would clearly be more at risk than tourist. How many have been or are sick due to those bacterias and pathogens? Thanks for you future answer.

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  5. It appears that Clifford Warwick and Catrina Steedman are oblivious to several key facts, namely:

    Over nearly a half century, millions of visitors have been interacting with turtles at the Turtle Farm. Total number of reported cases of medical problems associated with Turtle Farm interaction ZERO

    They say the water they tested showed a variety of bacteria and pathogens yet neglect to include any specific levels or strains of bacteria, rendering that data completely useless.

    Their ‘scientific’ report fails to compare the pathogenic strains of bacteria found at the Turtle Farm with the levels existing in the open ocean.

    They are seemingly unaware of the fact that A SINGLE DROP of seawater contains over ONE MILLION bacteria. Of these, over 10,000 are vibrios.

    The lack of any control and comparison data; and failure to identify specifically the levels and strains of bacteria they found, make their ‘scientific report’ meaningless.

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  6. It seems to me this health warning is being used totally out of context by WSPA.

    More than 20 years ago (1990 in fact) I was involved in stories in the UK relating to a country park that had a petting farm and a zoo that had a petting zoo.

    Both facilities had in place a hygiene regime to combat clearly identified health risks involved in human interaction with other species that included everything from chickens to Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs. Although this involved land-based creatures the basic risks were exactly the same as descibed in this story and well understood.

    The way the WSPA investigation reads this is all something new and previously unknown (shock, horror!!!) and that in itself shows that much of this study, and possibly the whole campaign, is just re-packaging old information to fit a new agenda.

    I regard myself as fairly neutral on the whole for and against CTF issue but what I don’t like to see is this turning into a trendy bandwagon exercise rather than a proper scientific study.

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  7. It is widely known that handling of turtles is unhealthy to humans and turtles. It is a practice that must cease now if we want to keep the turtles healthy. How many people wash their hand after holding the turtles.

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