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For Immediate Release, June 28, 2013

Contact: Collette Adkins Giese, (651) 955-3821

Maryland "Turtle Derby" Threatens to Spread Diseases to Wild Turtles, Children

Conservation Group Calls on Race Sponsor to Stop Using Wild-caught Turtles

BALTIMORE— Next week the town of Bel Air, Md., will hold its annual “Turtle Derby,” where wild turtles are caught and raced as part of an Independence Day celebration. The Center for Biological Diversity today sent a letter to the event’s sponsor, the Kiwanis Club of Bel Air, discussing risks posed by turtle races — including spreading deadly diseases to wild turtles and kids — and asking that the organization stop using wild-caught turtles at its event.

Bicknell's thrush
Eastern box turtle photo courtesy National Park Service. Photos are available for media use.

“Turtle races strain native turtle populations that are already under terrible pressure from habitat loss, road kill and other threats,” said Collette Adkins Giese, the Center’s biologist and attorney dedicated to conserving reptiles and amphibians. “Of course, Bel Air doesn’t want to harm turtles or kids. Once they understand the risks, I’m hopeful that they’ll skip the turtle race.”

Maryland law prohibits wild collection of any spotted turtles, wood turtles or diamondback terrapins, or possession of more than one of many other turtles found in the state, such as eastern box turtles or painted turtles. Despite these laws participants have, in the past, brought protected turtles — including the federally endangered bog turtle — to the Bel Air Turtle Derby. About half of the turtles raced are eastern box turtles, considered a species of “greatest conservation need” by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

At races turtles risk unnecessary exposure to disease, which can be spread to wild populations when turtles are released. For example, by bringing a number of turtles into close proximity, the race could potentially spread an emerging infectious disease called ranavirus that is killing Maryland eastern box turtles, as well as other turtles, salamanders and frogs. That’s why Maryland law prohibits releasing turtles kept with any other reptile or amphibian without permission from the Department of Natural Resources.

Turtle races can also spread disease to people who handle turtles, including young children who are especially vulnerable. Of particular concern is the risk of Salmonella infection, which can cause severe illness and even death. Salmonella are naturally occurring bacteria in turtles, and infected turtles usually do not appear sick in any way.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources has urged participants to stop collecting wild turtles for the race. In a statement released in advance of last year’s turtle race, the Department cautions that “using wild turtles in races poses a potential health risk to the turtles involved, the wild populations into which derby turtles may be released, and the human participants.”

In today’s letter the Center urges race sponsors to follow the lead of other small towns across the country, many of which have replaced their harmful turtle races with wildlife-friendly festivals that use creative substitutes for wild caught turtles, such as river races using rubber turtles or races where people pull toy turtles on strings. The John Hopkins Turtle Race in Baltimore does not use any wild-caught turtles and instead races turtles brought in from U.S. turtle farms, to which the turtles are returned.

Populations of native turtles across the country and worldwide are declining due to threats like habitat destruction, road mortality, predation by raccoons and other human-subsidized predators, toxins, and collection for food and pets. In a recent study, scientists found that nearly half of all turtle species are at risk of extinction. Collection of wild turtles for turtle races only exacerbates the numerous threats that native turtle populations are facing.

For more information about the Center’s campaign to stop the amphibian and reptile extinction crisis, please visit

The Center for Biological Diversity is a national, nonprofit conservation organization with more than 500,000 members and online activists dedicated to the protection of endangered species and wild places.

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