July 23, 2014 at 1:54 PM ET
As the latest “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie rolls into theaters next month, there’s a new warning for parents tempted to add some real, live turtle-power to their family: Don't.
The American Tortoise Rescue — a California nonprofit that works to protect the reptiles — is pleading with parents not to buy turtles as pets for their children, no matter how much they love the movie and cartoon characters.
Hundreds of thousands of live turtles were purchased after each of the previous movies in the franchise, with many later dumped, deliberately killed or flushed down the toilet, the group said on its website. It estimates 90 percent of the animals died.
“We're asking you to save a turtle's life and perhaps even your child's,” co-founders Susan Tellem and Marshall Thompson write in an open letter to parents.
“Unfortunately, children do not realize that real turtles do not fly, perform stunts or do any of the exciting moves fictional movie turtles do. Parents, trying to please their children, purchased live turtles which ended up languishing in tanks.”
The bigger problem is that turtles carry salmonella, the group reminds parents, which can cause diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramps.
Hundreds of people — most of them kids — became ill in recent years in Salmonella outbreaks linked to small turtles, according to the CDC. The agency tells families with children under 5 to avoid keeping reptiles or amphibians as pets, noting young kids’ immune systems are still developing and they’re more likely to put their fingers into their mouths after touching the family pet.
The American Tortoise Rescue has even tougher guidelines: It does not recommend live turtles or tortoises for children under 13, in part because the kids lose interest almost immediately.
In general, kids under the age of 3 can’t be trusted around a pet and need very close supervision, but lots of families manage pets and small children just fine, said Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician and medical communications editor at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Parents get the final word on a pet, no matter what a child insists, she added.
“A pet shouldn’t be an impulsive purchase — that’s not fair to anyone, including the pet,” McCarthy said.
Getting a turtle isn’t smart if there is someone in the house — or someone who visits there often — with any immune system problems, she noted.
If all family members decide they really want a turtle, lots and lots of hand washing is key, she noted. Keeping hand sanitizer right by the cage is a good idea to help people remember and it’s especially important to wash hands well before eating, McCarthy said.
When adding any pet to their family, parents should think very carefully about their daily lives and the personalities of everyone involved — some children are gentler around animals than others, for example, she added. The American Academy of Pediatrics has more guidelines to consider.
And if you're a fan of the new “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” movie, the American Tortoise Rescue recommends buying action figures and toys instead of live turtles.