Cayman Turtle Farm under critical scrutiny
The Cayman Turtle Farm (CTF) has come under intense and damning scrutiny from the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA), a London-based international organisational dedicated to animal welfare and elimination of animal cruelty.
In a report entitled ‘The Cayman Turtle Farm: A case for change’ , which was made public last week, the WSPA has cited the Cayman Turtle Farm for not meeting the welfare needs of animals under its care and for being a threat to the captive as well as wild turtle population. The report described what it called poor conditions at the Turtle Farm, citing water quality, the turtles’ diet, congenital defects in captive bred turtles and overcrowding in tanks.
The report is authored by WSPA’s Dr Neil D’Cruze, with supporting research by Dr Philip Arena, Murdoch University; Dr Adam Dutton, WildCRU, University of Oxford and Ms Catrina Steedman and Mr Clifford Warwick of the Emergent Disease Foundation.
“Sub-optimal conditions” at the farm
The report states that various diseases were observed at the farm, attributable to high stress load, sub-optimal welfare conditions and poor water hygiene associated with commercial farming. It cited “overt behavioural signs of maladaptive captivity stress…throughout the farm in turtles of varying ages and developmental stages.”
In terms of water quality, the report states that water-bearing enclosures at the farm are not cleaned properly, leading to contamination of the living environment through uneaten food and body waste. It highlighted the turtles’ artificial diet of fish pellets as a contributory factor to the animals shifting from being an omnivore in the juvenile stage to becoming a herbivore as an adult.
It was also critical of the fact that visitors of all ages can handle turtles at the farm as part of the tourism experience, a practice, it says, that can trigger a stress response and lead to significant injury to the animals.
There were obvious signs of overcrowding, with too many turtles occupying the same space and thus not having enough room to express their natural behaviour, the WSPA concludes.
The report also says that turtles with birth defects were observed at the farm, including skeletal deformities and absence of one or both eyes.
In a strong response to the WSPA report, the government and Cayman Turtle issued statements rejecting the organisation’s findings, but undertaking nonetheless to conduct its own independent review of the farm’s operations by December.
“In its purported quest to “shut down sea turtle farming,” the WSPA is making grave allegations against the world’s only sea turtle farming and conservation organisation that has reached the landmark achievement of a second generation of captive-bred sea turtles. The Cayman Farm is taking these allegations very seriously, as the organisation focuses on its mission to be a world-renowned attraction where guests enjoy quality interaction with animals in a safe environment which promotes sea turtle conservation through research and education,” the statement from the Turtle Farm read.
Health and well-being of turtles maintained
CTF rejected claims that its operations are cruel to turtles in its cares. “We found no evidence of the kinds of injuries or defects among the turtles reared at our facility that the WSPA is listing in its assertions against us.
“Rather, we have instead succeeded in maintaining the health and well-being of our turtle population through established veterinary treatment protocols and methods,” the statement noted.
It described as “completely erroneous”, claims by the WSPA that diseased or defective turtles were being reared and slaughtered for meat. “Any turtles among the population with congenital defects are humanely euthanised. Such defects are very rare and have not been found at rates higher than those expected in the wild population. Also, all meat harvesting is performed under the guidelines of the Cayman Islands Department of Environmental Health as well as internationally-accepted humane harvesting procedures,” the CTF noted.
It also refuted statements regarding the handling of turtles and the potential for harm to the creatures, and the safety of visitors to the facility.
“In addition to the safety and well-being of the turtles at our facility, we are also dedicated to the health, safety and enjoyment of the many visitors to the Cayman Turtle Farm each year. The Cayman Turtle Farm is the number-one land-based attraction in the Cayman Islands and receives on average over 200,000 visitors annually, giving them the unique experience of seeing sea turtles of many different ages and sizes.
“We adhere to all safe turtle handling protocols to ensure that our guests, who come to interact with sea turtles as a unique and often once-in-a-lifetime experience, are in a completely safe environment. This is done through signage and extensive spoken instructions by our on-site tour guides and lifeguards. All handling protocols at the Cayman Turtle Farm follow the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for the safe handling of reptiles,” the CTF stated.
In a follow up statement issued on Monday, 15 October, the WSPA stood by the findings of its report and defended its research and findings.
“Our claims against the Cayman Turtle Farm (CTF) are founded on evidence gathered during a comprehensive, 18 month investigation into the treatment of the sea turtles at the CTF. This evidence is the basis for our compelling arguments against the CTF and is in the form of footage and photographic evidence and peer reviewed scientific analysis. WSPA does not initiate campaigns such as this without watertight evidence.
“The investigation was carried out in response to a number of complaints we received in early 2011 from scientific experts and visitors to the CTF, relating to the animal welfare conditions therein. To verify these concerns, we conducted our investigation in association with a number of research partners, and received two Freedom of Information (FOI) requests directly from the CTF,” the WSPA said.
Commitment to conservation
The investigations into CTF by the WSPA were brought to the farm’s attention earlier this year and discussion had taken place with government representatives on island and in the UK.
In addition to its stated goal of reviewing its operations, CTF has reiterated its commitment to continue its work with Green sea turtles – in conservation, reproduction, display and education. “We endeavour to preserve the population of this species so humans may continue to learn from them and experience the joy of interacting with these animals that are held in such high esteem in our Islands’ national heritage and consciousness,” the CTF emphasised.