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New England Aquarium aids rescue of smuggled Eastern box turtles

The turtles were found in a box, individually stuffed inside tight socks without food or water.

The New England Aquarium was part of a rescue team that aided the recovery of nearly 100 Eastern box turtles that were attempted to be smuggled out of the U.S. and into Asia over the summer. They supported the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services in taking in the turtles that were suffering from a myriad of issues that had arisen from their treatment.

The turtles were found in a box, where they were individually stuffed inside tight socks without food or water, according to a release from the aquarium. They had been captured illegally from the wild by the smugglers, who were trying to export the turtles from a U.S. port. Eastern box turtles are native to the East Coast and are one of the most commonly sighted turtles. They are also a popular breed of pet turtles.

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After examination, wildlife officials found that the turtles were all severely dehydrated intentionally and had ear and eye infections from being confined in the box without sunlight or water.

“When smugglers ship turtles, they often withhold food and water in advance because they don’t want them defecating,” the service’s supervisory wildlife inspector for the Northeast region, Laura DiPrizio, said in the release. “The smell draws attention.”

The turtles were inspected and later distributed by the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA) Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) American Turtles Program to the New England Aquarium, as well as Roger Williams Park Zoo and Zoo New England. The Rescue and Animal Health staff at the Aquarium was able to treat the turtles for dehydration and their eye infections.

Within the next few weeks, however, the turtles began showing symptoms of the ranavirus, which is a deadly disease that “causes animals to hemorrhage, gasp for air, and accumulate fluid under the skin,” according to the aquarium.

The aquarium quickly looked for a biosecure research laboratory studying ranavirus as there currently is no cure for the virus so they were not able to release the turtles into the wild, donate them, or give them up for adoption due to their circumstances. They were sent to a laboratory at the University of Illinois, where veterinarians are studying ranavirus.

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“The AZA SAFE American Turtle Program worked the way it was supposed to by finding emergency housing for turtles and providing critical veterinary care that informed our decision to conduct comprehensive disease screening to identify risks of release,” Dave Collins, who runs the AZA SAFE American Turtle program, said in the release. “But the ranavirus outbreak illustrates the complexity of the challenge, and the ongoing need for resources and research to respond to the native turtle-trafficking crisis … It’s a problem too big for one organization to solve.”

The aquarium highlighted several ways to help stop illegal trades of turtles, including not sharing locations of wild turtle sightings. They said poachers scour the internet to look for potential turtle sightings. Those who want to buy a pet turtle should also do their background research and opt for adoption, the aquarium said.

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