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April 27, 2010 > Ohlone Humane Society: Thought for food

Ohlone Humane Society: Thought for food

By Eric Mills, OHS Community Relations Director

Can I get an Amen? Some good news to report on the live animal food markets front. The five-member California State Fish & Game Commission voted 3:0 at their April 8 meeting in Monterey not to issue any future permits for the importation of live turtles and frogs for human consumption. "Aye" votes were cast by Commissioners Richard Rogers, Mike Sutton and Don Benninghoven. Commissioner Dan Richards was absent, and Commissioner Jim Kellogg recused himself, citing a possible conflict of interest.

Grandma was right: perseverance is half the battle. We've had 15 years of hearings, debates, protests, lawsuits and 2,500 letters of support to achieve this victory. Special thanks to Virginia Handley (Animal Switchboard, San Francisco), Susan Tellem (American Turtle and Tortoise Rescue, Malibu), and members of Action for Animals (Oakland) for their efforts. Job well done!

Live animal food markets are found throughout California, primarily in Asian communities in large metropolitan areas such as Oakland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento. Much of the opposition to any change in the status quo came from a few merchants with vested financial interests all claiming that this was an attack upon Asian culture. Nonsense! The real issues are three-fold: environmental protection, public health, and cruelty to animals. In the final analysis, "culture" and "tradition" are never valid excuses for animal abuse.

Every year some two million American bullfrogs and an estimated 300,000 to 400,000 freshwater turtles are imported into California for food. Most of the frogs come from Taiwan, where they are commercially raised. Permits are issued by the Department of Fish & Game to import only two species of turtles for the markets: the red-eared slider and the spiny soft shell. All of the turtles seen in the markets are taken from the wild in states east of the Rockies, depleting local populations. None of the market frogs or turtles are native to California.

When the market turtles and frogs are bought and released into the wild (a common, though illegal practice), they prey upon and displace our native animals, including threatened and endangered species such as the western pond turtle (our only native freshwater turtle), and the red-legged frog (of Mark Twain fame).

But hold on, it gets worse. Numerous recent necropsies (examination of a body after death), have shown all the market turtles and frogs to be diseased and/or parasitized. We're finding E. coli, salmonella and pasturella (all potentially fatal in humans), giardia, blood parasites, even one case of malaria. Yum!I told one market owner that I'd sooner eat a dead rat.

State law requires that such shipments be either destroyed or sent back to point of origin, yet the law goes largely unenforced, and the sales continue unabated. Not acceptable.

A troubling study in the January 2009 issue of Biological Conservation noted that of the market bullfrogs necropsied, 62% carried the dreaded chytrid fungus, a prime suspect in the extinctions of more than 100 amphibian species around the world in recent years. The African clawed frog is a known carrier of this fungus.

This species has been used in human pregnancy studies worldwide since the 1950s, and it is believed that this is how the fungus was spread. Neither the African clawed frogs nor the market bullfrogs are killed by the fungus, but they spread it to other species which are more vulnerable. Another good reason for an immediate ban on the sale of the market bullfrogs.

Enforcement will be key, of course. Though the Commission will not be issuing any new import permits for these animals, the current one-year permits will not all expire before the year is out. What we need now and in the future is a ban on the sale of these animals. Only last year, the Florida Wildlife Commission banned the commercial harvest of all freshwater turtles, yet we continue to see Florida soft shells in the California markets, a species not permitted by the Department. This must stop.

As if the environmental damage and human health problems presented by these exotics weren't enough, there's also the issue of animal cruelty. Indeed, it was this issue which inspired much of the opposition to the markets in the first place. The market frogs and turtles are kept in horrendous conditions, often stacked four and five deep, without food and often water. Many are routinely butchered while fully conscious, or sold alive over the counter (which is illegal) to suffer who knows what end.

Hopefully, this latest decision by the Fish & Game Commission will help resolve the problem for everyone concerned: turtles, frogs, humans and the California environment.

What you can do to help: Please write to the Commission to thank them for this change, and also ask for an immediate ban on the sale of all live turtles and frogs for human consumption.

John Carlson, Executive Director
State Fish & Game Commission
1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, CA 95814
fax - 916/653-5040;

Addenum - The Monterey Bay Aquarium is currently featuring a spectacular new sea horse exhibit. There are also a number of new educational exhibits focused on the global climate change crisis, showing how our eating and living habits affect the planet's well-being, and offering ways the public can help. Not to miss!

Monterey Bay Aquarium
886 Cannery Row; Monterey
(831) 648-4800

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