DETROIT - After multiple outbreaks of salmonella infections tied to pet turtles, Petco has launched what it calls a "turtle relinquishment program."
The pet chain hopes to curb illness and give unwanted turtles new homes.
The salmonella issues have lead to warnings from government officials. As of last week, 219 people in 34 states had been sickened in six overlapping outbreaks by salmonella found in small turtles sold in souvenir shops and at street fairs, CDC officials said. Infections have been caused by three rare strains of salmonella: San Diego, Pomona and Poona.
Petco started accepting rejected turtles back in May, around the time the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began warning about growing numbers of salmonella infections tied to the small turtles.
"We saw this concern through the CDC and we thought, ‘How can we help in this situation?'" said Dawn Burch, veterinary relations manager for Petco.
So far, 111 people in 10 states have taken Petco up on the offer and returned the turtles. Although the CDC warning applies to the smallest turtles, Petco will accept turtles of any size, according to Burch.
Petco also tries to prevent any salmonella-contaminated turtles from being re-sold. The store has an agreement to send the turtles to Concordia Turtle Farm in Jonesville, La., which hatches, raises and sells turtles in the U.S. and abroad. Daisy DeWitt, a staffer at the farm, said the turtles are treated for any signs of salmonella and then placed in clean tanks where they thrive.
A spokesperson for the Centers for Disease Control says getting more turtles out of the hands of children is the main concern. The salmonella infections were detected in six separate but overlapping outbreaks dating from June 2011 to late September. Thirty-six people were hospitalized; no deaths were reported.
CDC officials say they are aware of the Petco turtle take-back program, but they don't have a formal agreement with the company. It's experts warn that children under 5 years old should not handle the small turtles because of the risk.
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