Today I got a call from a man I hadn’t heard from in years. He used to raise dogs and he also brokered exotic animals, from monitor lizards to lion cubs, including this one ( in this ancient daguerrotype from when my clinic and I, and Becky, here, were young).
Gee, his son-in-law is on his way home from Minnesota with a bunch of turtles and "they just need a health certificate to come into Arkansas". Oh, it’s no big deal: they usually bring the turtles in through Memphis (from Minnesota?) and a veterinarian in Tennessee takes care of it. No special permits or anything are needed, just your basic health certificate because it’s a non-native species being taken into Arkansas for the pet trade.
Well, knowing this guy from away back, I know that he considers laws and regulations pretty flexible when need be. Unfortunately, if I write inappropriate health certificates, I can lose my accreditation in that area. Not suprisingly, it struck me as odd that a Missouri veterinarian should be writing health certificates for Minnesota turtles, and (though this may surprise you) I didn’t have much expertise in the legalities of turtle transport. "I’ll have to call the state authorities to see what paperwork is actually needed." "Ooh, we wouldn’t steer you wrong… you don’t need to do that." "Yeah, I do."
The purpose of an official health certificate is only partially to certify the (apparent) health of the animals inspected. At least as important is the ability to track the movement of the animals. If an outbreak of disease appears, you want to know how many animals just left that area and where they went. You also want to know who got there just before that, and where they came from. The idea is to track and stop the spread of disease. Any time you cross the state line with an animal, you’re supposed to have an official health certificate. An accredited veterinarian inspects the animal and (with his staff) fills out the appropriate paperwork describing the animal, any tests run, vaccinations given and the state of health (which has to be good, as far as you can tell). It also specifies the name and address of the seller, the shipper, and the recipient. A copy goes with the shipment, one to the home state veterinarian, and one to the destination state veterinarian (and one stays in your files).
Screwing up health certificates is a bad thing. Suppose there’s an outbreak of mad cow disease and you can’t tell who’s been exposed, where they came from or where they went? Not good. There are many diseases that could have a major impact on livestock production.
Regulations vary somewhat from state to state and species to species. So what about taking turtles to Arkansas? They’d better not be box turtles, since the minimum fine for bringing them into the state is $500 per turtle. Of course, I didn’t know that until I called the state veterinarian’s office, who recommended that I call Fish & Game. They sent me to local enforcement for northeast Arkansas, but he wasn’t home. His secretary sent me to Wildlife Management, fisheries department, which is where the state herpetologist lives (at extension 16).
Sometime during this telephone marathon, the turtle-shippers called back to say they were nearly to Kennett on I-55 with 800 or 900 Western Painted turtles (which are totally different). When I told them I was still making phone calls, my old acquaintance hastily said, "Uh…don’t use my name; these are… my son-in-law’s turtles".
When shortly afterward I finally got the straight info on bringing turtles to Arkansas, I was not surprised to see my initial suspicions confirmed. Those turtles should have had a health certificate and entry permit before they ever left Minnesota. I think the turtle boys already knew that, because they never showed up.
As I may have said before, this job isn’t always fun, but it’s never dull.