California trails China, Singapore, Taiwan, & Hong Kong in regulation of frog & turtle sales at live markets
SAN DIEGO, California––Meeting on December 13-14, 2023 at the Handlery Hotel in San Diego, the California Fish & Game Commission will be asked yet again to ban the import into California of live American bullfrogs and freshwater turtles.
Importers and marketers of live bullfrogs and freshwater turtles are again expected to “play the race card,” as they have in response to similar proposals almost annually since 1995, contending that humane, public health, and environmental concerns about the bullfrog and freshwater turtle traffic amount to an attack on Chinese culture.
Frog & turtle traffic banned outright in Singapore
Selling bullfrogs and freshwater turtles, however, is at least on paper more strictly regulated in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong than in California.
The sale of live frogs and turtles at wet markets in Singapore, a nation of 80% ethnic Chinese ancestry, has been banned outright since December 2021.
“Live animal food markets are found in various ‘Chinatowns’ throughout the state, especially in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, San Jose, Sacramento and elsewhere,” explains Eric Mills of Action for Animals, personally inspecting sales venues and protesting against live sale of frogs and turtles since 1995.
“The frogs & turtles are housed in horrendous conditions, usually without either food or water, often stacked atop one another four-and-five deep, many with missing body parts,” testifies Mills “The animals are routinely butchered while fully conscious. And often bought in bulk and illegally released into local waters by ‘do-gooders,’ where they prey upon and displace our native species, while spreading all sorts of diseases and parasites.”
“Oregon & Washington acted decades ago”
Mills during the run-up to the December 13-14, 2023 California Fish & Game Commission meeting placed quarter-page display ads in the East Bay Times and the San Jose Mercury News, drawing attention to what he believes are the major issues involved in selling live frogs and turtles for human consumption.
“Copies were sent to various print, radio, and TV media, environmental organizations, and legislators,” emailed Mills.
“Oregon and Washington both banned the import of non-native bullfrogs decades ago; Oregon also outlawed the import of non-native turtles,” Mills points out.
“The issues are many: environmental degradation, species extinction, dangers to public health especially within the Asian-American community, horrendous animal cruelty, lack of law enforcement, ‘political correctness,’ money, and more.
“Diseased and/or parasitized”
“More than three dozen necropsies on market frogs and turtles since the mid-1990s have documented that all of these animals are diseased and/or parasitized,” including with “cases of E. coli, salmonella and Pasteurella, all potentially fatal in humans, plus cases of giardia, blood parasites, even one case of malaria,” Mills emphasizes, “though it is illegal to import or sell such products under California Code of Regulations, Title 14, Section 236.”
Paragraph 5 of Section 236 states:
“Any lot or load of aquatic plants and animals found by the inspector to be diseased, parasitized or to contain species not authorized by the importation permit must be immediately destroyed or transported out of California within a period of time specified by the department. In such cases, the importation permit is automatically revoked.”
“Where are the local health departments?” Mills asks. “Local health departments should be all over this, but their silence, read ‘political correctness,’ has been deafening.
“The chytrid issue alone is more than enough reason to shut down this illicit, brutal and dangerous commerce,” Mills adds. “The majority of the bullfrogs carry a lethal chytrid fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, cause of the extinctions of 100+ amphibian species worldwide in recent years.”
Indeed, Mills appears to be understating the chytrid threat.
Explained Kristin Hugo for BayNature.org in December 2022, “Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis is a chytrid fungal pathogen – a dangerous skin fungus that spreads easily. It has now been found in two California native salamander species,” according to a November 2022 report published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Veterinary Medicine.
“The pathogen, which causes lesions, disrupted skin functions, lethargy, loss of appetite, and eventually death, is as fatal [to amphibians] as it is hardy.
“One species of fungus can infect 1,000 host species”
“Twenty-five percent of the world’s amphibian species reside in the United States,” Hugo detailed, “of which more than 40% are already threatened with extinction. Amphibians absorb water through their skin, making them very susceptible to environmental changes in temperature or water chemistry.”
Added San Francisco State University herpetologist Vance Vredenburg, “We have one single species [of fungus] that is able to infect over 1,000 species of hosts. It has probably led to the extinction of several hundred species of hosts.”
Despite the disease and parasite issue, fumes Mills, the California Department of Fish & Wildlife “continues to issue annual import permits for two million American bullfrogs plus 300,000 freshwater turtles for human consumption.”
Long uphill battle
Mills anticipated progress back in November 2000, when then-California governor Gray Davis signed AB 2479, prohibiting stores from skinning and dismembering live animals, as well as storing and displaying animals in ways likely to result in injury, starvation, or suffocation.
The law applied to frogs, turtles, and birds sold for food, whom antiquated legal language previously exempted from coverage under the California anti-cruelty statutes.
But the law has apparently been poorly enforced, and in any event did not actually prohibit bullfrog and freshwater turtle imports.
In August 2006 the California Fish & Game Commission voted 4-0 in favor of a frog and turtle import ban, persuaded, according to Mills, by testimony from SPCA Los Angeles president
Madeline Bernstein, American Turtle & Tortoise Rescue president Marshall Thompson, Santa Barbara freelance science writer Stephanie Pappas, and Mills himself, who submitted copies of a 60-page report done by former California Department of Fish & Game warden Miles Young on live market treatment of frogs and turtles.
That hope of progress was thwarted, however, largely through the influence of then-California state senator Leland Yin Yee, who represented parts of San Francisco and the San Francisco Bay peninsula.
Yee previously represented the Sunset District of San Francisco in the California state assembly and had been president of the San Francisco School Board.
In March 2014, however, Yee was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for alleged public corruption and gun trafficking—”specifically,” summarizes Wikipedia, “buying automatic firearms and shoulder-launched missiles from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an Islamist extremist group located in the southern Philippines, and attempting to re-sell those weapons to an undercover FBI agent, as well as accepting a $10,000 bribe from an undercover agent in exchange for placing a call to the California Department of Public Health regarding a contract at the organization.”
Yee got five years in the pen, but even that did not get frogs & turtles out of pens
Pleading guilty in July 2014 to felony racketeering in relation to money laundering, public corruption, and bribery, Yee served five years in federal prison.
Even that, however, did not embolden the California Fish & Game Commission in addressing bullfrog and freshwater turtle imports into the state.
American Turtle & Tortoise Rescue continues to stand alongside Mills in calling upon the California Fish & Game Commission to act decisively at last against the live bullfrog and freshwater turtle trade.
PETA pipes up for African dwarf frogs
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA], meanwhile, appears to be the only national animal advocacy organization currently campaigning on behalf of either amphibians or reptiles.
In the U.S., PETA objects, “Ace Hardware locations around the country are selling miniature tanks containing African dwarf frogs. These tiny cubes are far too small to sufficiently house these fragile animals.
“African dwarf frogs require specialized care,” PETA points out, “yet consumers are misled to believe that they’re ‘low-maintenance.’ Many frogs die as a result. In nature, they live 15 years on average. In captivity, they’re lucky to make it to age 5.”
“Selling frogs in these tiny boxes is inhumane,” PETA continues. “The artificial ‘biospheres’ don’t allow them enough space to live comfortably, and there is no filtration system, so the water can quickly become filthy and toxic. Frogs are vectors of salmonella and can easily pass the dangerous bacteria to humans, including children or immunocompromised people.”
Both Ace Hardware and PetSmart appear to have been selling African dwarf frog “biospheres” at least since 2019.
“Snakes, rattle & roll!”
In the United Kingdom, Advocates for Animals solicitor Edie Bowles in October 2023 reportedly served notice on the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs [DEFRA], on behalf of PETA, the Animal Protection Agency, the Born Free Foundation, Freedom for Animals, and World Animal Protection, warning that they may sue DEFRA “if the department fails to reflect scientific advice in its guidelines for minimum enclosure sizes for snakes.
“We are urging DEFRA to update its guidance to require that snakes be housed in enclosures that are at least as long as their bodies,” Bowles wrote.
“The issue is pressing,” posted PETA spokesperson Margarita Sachkova. “DEFRA has indicated that even though guidance from the government’s Animal Welfare Committee states that denying snakes the ability to stretch out their bodies hinders their physical and psychological well-being, it is minded to defer to the pet industry, which, unsurprisingly, allows them to be kept in much smaller enclosures.
“Could result in a judicial review”
“Failing to adhere to scientific advice on what is in the best interest of snakes could qualify as failing to follow due process and could result in a judicial review,” Sachkova said.
“It’s worth noting,” Sachkova added, “that the spatial requirement for snakes has already been successfully implemented in Wales.
“Around 400,000 snakes are kept in homes throughout the United Kingdom,” Sachkova noted, “and many more are contained in pet shops, breeding facilities, and mobile zoos.
“Currently, snakes are the only animals who are permitted to be kept in enclosures in which they cannot stretch out to the full length of their bodies. This is physically and psychologically damaging for snakes, just as it would be for any other animal.”