Shell shock over turtle-riding scheme

In this photograph supplied by former Cayman Turtle Farm trainer Amy Souster, green sea turtles are shown at the farm in 2012.

Shell shock over turtle-riding scheme

After six months working as the head animal trainer at the Cayman Turtle Farm, Amy Souster quit because of the conditions in which turtles and other animals were kept at the West Bay tourist attraction, she said.

The big project the Turtle Farm wanted her to work on, which she said she learned about after arriving on island, was a scheme to train turtles to give tourists rides in the water.

In interviews with the Cayman Compass, Ms. Souster described the conditions of the animals she worked with and how proposals to improve life for the turtles, sharks, fish and birds at the Turtle Farm were allegedly mostly not carried out when she left in 2013.

A turtle named Myrtle 

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Ms. Souster, a U.K. national, replied to an advertisement for the “Cayman Turtle Park,” she explained by phone from Cornwall, where she now works with a gray seal rehabilitation program. She started work at the Turtle Farm in October 2012.

Her former partner had trained green sea turtles in St. Thomas to come to tourists and let them scrub their shells with brushes.

“It’s something they do naturally, and they liked it,” she said. And that’s about what she expected in Cayman – to teach the turtles something simple and fun for tourists that the turtles would enjoy.

She said she discovered that Tim Adam, Cayman Turtle Farm director, and other leaders at the attraction wanted her to develop turtle rides.

“I physically laughed,” she said, “I kept waiting for them to say they were joking.” But they weren’t. A former trainer had already started working on the idea with one turtle, a female with about a 2-foot diameter shell, she said. The turtle’s name was Myrtle.

“I thought it was a ridiculous idea,” Ms. Souster said.

“We had proven that it was possible,” Mr. Adam said in an interview last week. He said earlier training had taught the green sea turtle to approach tourists and allow them to hold on to her shell and give rides.

He said the idea was to have two shows a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, when six visitors could take turns being pulled through the water by the turtle.

The Turtle Farm later abandoned the plan, but Mr. Adam and Ms. Souster gave different accounts of why they stopped working on the turtle ride attraction. Ms. Souster said she pushed to change the minds of people at the Cayman Turtle Farm, citing an investigation at the farm at the time by World Animal Protection, then called the World Society for the Protection of Animals.

Mr. Adam said the program ended because the turtle that would potentially be used for the rides introduced salmonella into the public swimming area, and it became too hard to clean.

“It wasn’t the right time to do it,” Mr. Adam said. Nevertheless, he said, “It was so cool to watch, and the people loved it.”

More than turtles 

Ms. Souster’s descriptions of conditions for animals at the Cayman Turtle Farm have been confirmed through farm records, on and off-record interviews with current and former employees and documentary evidence, including photographs and Cayman Turtle Farm board meeting minutes.

She told the Compass, “I was continually bombarded with more issues regarding the general welfare of all of the animals at CTF. I watched the farm workers fishing out the daily dead baby turtles from the nursery tanks.”

In the years since, the Turtle Farm has made some reforms, recently introducing lettuce and other more varied food for tourists to feed to turtles beyond the grain pellet diet they receive.

The farm has also started installing shade structures above turtle tanks in the tourist area, and Mr. Adams said the facility will also put shade over the commercial food production tanks, kept separate from the more than 200,000 visitors who pass through the park annually.

“The daily grind of watching the suffering, the turtles being grabbed out of the handling tanks by the swarms of tourists, scrabbling to get to the surface for the same pellets, the huge wounds on their bodies, I felt utterly helpless to stop their suffering,” Ms. Souster wrote in a separate email to the newspaper.

She said, “I don’t quite understand why the situation was as dire as it was.”

Two nurse sharks at the park while Ms. Souster was there continually ganged up on a third shark. “One was basically being eaten by the other two,” she said.

Of her six months as the head trainer at the Cayman Turtle Farm, she said, “It all kind of went downhill pretty quickly.”

Some of the workers at the farm had good intentions and wanted to take good care of the animals, but, she said, there was a “lack of education on welfare” and some workers at the farm did not understand issues around animal welfare.

“A lot of the staff did express concern,” she added, “but nobody was willing to make a stand.”

She said her concerns were met with a sentiment of, “This is what people come here to do, they come here to get their picture with a turtle. I walked away thinking I’d let myself down and let the animals down.”

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  1. First, as much as I support the turtle farm, I do not support training the turtles that people may take rides on their backs in the water. My reason for this is because I would always hear the old folks say that riding on the backs of a sea turtle could be dangerous, whereby they often pulled their heads and fins in-ward and if a person was not careful their hands could get jammed either in the neck or the fins area while in the water. When a turtle takes a dive and your hands are jammed one could easily get drown.
    Don’t know the truth why the trainer left, however much of it seemed exaggerated.

  2. Here’s another example of Cayma”s attitudes towards animals. Abuse and neglect. Who said that turtles should be abused by riding them. What nut came up with this horrible torture to the turtles. This is sickening. Lettuce was just introduced to the turtles for the tourists to feed. Shade structures are now being constructed. My, how progressive. Close the darn place.

  3. I have been coming to Cayman for 19 years and have been to the Turtle Farm a few times. Each time I go it is more disappointing than before. From what this paper reports it is losing millions a dollars a year which the government pays. What a waste of money. I am sure that something fun like a water park could be constructed on the same site. Something that would keep jobs and at least break even.

  4. I wonder how Mr Adams could not have seen that he was hiring a animal activist. I think that turtle riding is fun , but you just don’t let any person do it. There are so much that the person have to know about him or herself before holding on to a turtle for a ride, you also need to know how to control the turtle to make it turn , go down, or make it come to the surface. I would say that turtle riding would not be a profitable business.

  5. Can anyone say how turtle riding is cruel? Or how it would be abused by someone holding on to it while it swimming ? Then you could say that horse back riding , holding the sting rays, dolphin riding are all cruel if we listen to the activist. There would be nothing fun left to do if we continue to listen to animal activist.

  6. Ron
    Horses, like dogs, have been domesticated for centuries.

    But yes, dolphin riding and holding sting rays are also cruel. Just like circuses where tigers and elephants are trained to take unnatural poses and kept in tiny cages.
    Even though all the above are considered fun for the human participants.

    Are you implying that only ex-pats are against animal cruelty?

  7. Charging for riding on turtles? This is nuts, whacko, and even with western saddles or eastern saddles, it’s a cruel and sadistic idea. How about riding blue iguanas? Surely the turtle farm should be closed or privatized into some sort of amusement fun park that might bring in some welcome income to the Cayman Islands.

  8. I support the theory of a Turtle Farm. Raising turtles to return to the wild. Repopulate and reverse the possible extinction. etc. Great idea! I do not support ridiculous notions that we should be riding turtles, or any other sea creature for that matter. Fishing them out of the water for a photo, or a kiss is just unnecessary cruelty.

    Please tell me why you think the animal trainer is an activist (ron ebanks)? That one made me laugh. She’s an animal trainer who identified and reported danger signs to management. That doesn’t make her an activist. That makes her a caring human being.

    I’d also like to know how the agree and disagree column identifies whether you are expat or local?

  9. Horse vs. turtle. Are you kidding. An old turtle’s shell integrity could be questioned as to its ability to hold a 200 lb man.
    A horse might weigh 1200 lbs. How cruel you are. Let’s abuse every living creature. No one should handle the turtles at all in fear of passing on diseases and threatening their existence.

  10. @ Ron Clair Ebanks

    Your comment illustrates the problem perfectly. Too many people here have third world attitudes to animals.

    Treating an intelligent living creature as a mere chattel or a source of income and profit without any consideration for their welfare is exactly what the slavers did. It matters not a bit whether these are domestic pets or animals being bred for their meat we have no right to abuse them.

    CTF is a national disgrace.