The 4 inch Law

It is illegal to sell turtles under 4 inches long (shell length) in the United States. You often hear bits and pieces of this law, but many people do not understand the whole thing or why it exists.

Background

In the late 60′s, baby Red-ear Sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans) were a popular pet because they were colorful, small, cheap, and supposedly easy to keep, but they were badly abused. Most were mass collected from warm ponds in the South –ponds used by waste water processing plants to allow human wastes to settle– where they would become heavily infested with Salmonella germs. These hapless turtles were collected by the millions, crammed into shipping containers, shipped world-wide, and then kept in giant tubs of dirty water. Huge numbers died just in the shipping process.

Then they were sold in department stores, pet stores, traveling fairs, corner stands, and Chinatowns. Most sellers told potential buyers that they took almost no care –a small bowl, a little water, some cheap packaged food, and that was about it. It was accepted that this was a small, short-lived and generally smelly pet that would die within several months, but was cheap enough that getting a replacement was not a problem. After all, you spent all that money for the bowl and stuff, right?

As if this was not bad enough, when they were “freed”, usually because they got too big or awkward, they tended to live and thrive in whatever ponds or rivers they were released in. The species can now be found in temperate cities around the world, and in most places they have either threatened or killed off the competition. Many local turtle species are either gone or reduced in numbers by this threat.

Another issue arose as well, one that was more important to an increasingly health-aware population. Kids were getting Salmonella more often, and it was traced to the turtles! They were living in filthy water and people were handling the turtles and/or water, then touching food or their mouths and getting sick.

Some groups, such as the California Turtle and Tortoise Club, decided to take action. People had tried to limit the sale of these turtles before, both to reduce the horrific death toll and to protect other habitats, but until the health issues came up, they had no real success.

The Four Inch Law

In 1975, the US government passed regulations with a stated goal of controlling Salmonella, but which also worked to protect sea turtle eggs, reduce environmental damage, and so on. You can see the entire act on-line, but the parts that most affect us are:

  • Code of federal regulations, title 21, volume 8, part 1240 “Control of communicable diseases“, subpart D “Specific Administrative Decisions Regarding Interstate Shipments”, section 1240.62 “Turtles intrastate and interstate requirements.
    1. Definition. As used in this section the term “turtles” includes all animals commonly known as turtles, tortoises, terrapins, and all other animals of the order Testudinata, class Reptilia, except marine species (families Dermochelyidae and Chelonidae).
    2. Sales; general prohibition. Except as otherwise provided in this section, viable turtle eggs and live turtles with a carapace length of less than 4 inches shall not be sold, held for sale, or offered for any other type of commercial or public distribution.
    3. [I’ve omitted this part. It deals with eggs, consequences, how to report, how to appeal, penalties, etc.]
    4. Exceptions. The provisions of this section are not applicable to:
      1. The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs for bona fide scientific, educational, or exhibitional purposes, other than use as pets.
      2. The sale, holding for sale, and distribution of live turtles and viable turtle eggs not in connection with a business.
      3. [I’ve omitted other parts past this point].

A few things to note:

  • This applies to all turtles, tortoises, and terrapins in the US, not just water turtles.
  • Many dealers try to sell babies by making the buyer sign or affirm that they are for display or scientific use to try to use the loophole in “d1”, but as you see, the loophole really does not exist since it states that having it as a pet does not count. Dealers doing this are basically making you perjure yourself.
  • Part d(2) tells us that the law does not apply to people doing this as a hobby or otherwise not as a business. Other parts of the law also allow small turtles to be sold for export purposes, to sell them as food, etc.

Whether you like the law or not, it had good intentions and has probably been a boon overall. If nothing else, it has certainly reduced the massive trade in hapless red-eared sliders.