By Lori Lovely
On January 19, two national non-profits, Animal Legal Defense Fund and Best Friends Animal Society, jointly filed a petition for rulemaking with the Indiana Natural Resources Commission, arguing that the Department of Natural Resources misinterpreted state law regarding animal cruelty at Ohio County’s annual Snapperfest.
Indiana Code 35-46-3-12 states that “a person who knowingly or intentionally beats a vertebrate animal commits cruelty to an animal, a Class A misdemeanor.” Because the snapping turtle is one of three designated a game species in Indiana (along with the smooth softshell and spiny softshell), the DNR believe that the state’s animal cruelty law isn’t applicable in this instance because it provides an exemption for wild animals that are legally taken and possessed.
“We are asking the INRC to clarify that after animals are taken, they are protected under Indiana law,” says Carter Dillard, director of litigation for ALDF. “DNR took the position that no law applies; however, once you trap an animal, you can’t just do anything you want to it. Their misinterpretation would literally allow someone to torture a turtle, a deer, a coyote or any animal to death, so long as that animal had been trapped first. It is time for this legal misinterpretation to be corrected and for the state to put an end to this pathetic event once and for all.”
Dillard says the DNR has condoned the event by stating that Snapperfest participants are exempt from anti-cruelty law under the exception for hunting and trapping, because they claim the turtles were trapped prior to their mistreatment at Snapperfest. Furthermore, ALDF claims that DNR is not doing its job.
In response, Cameron Clark, chief legal counsel for the Indiana DNR, calls ALDF’s description an “unfair characterization,” stating that DNR doesn’t “permit or promote [Snapperfest].”
However, due to extensive protests from animal rights groups, DNR had a presence at last August’s Snapperfest. As part of an undercover operation, conservation officers were empowered to intervene if they witnessed cruelty. According to Shelley Reeves, Governor’s liaison for the DNR, “To our knowledge and from onsite observation, abuse of the snapping turtles is not allowed.”
Citing undercover footage provided by the World Animal Awareness Society that reveals numerous incidents during the event that ALDF considers examples of cruelty in violation of state law, such as turtles held by their tails, repeatedly dropped and/or thrown to the ground and held up by their heads, Dillard says, “If they didn’t see it, they are ignoring it – or maybe they don’t understand.”
“They have a responsibility to protect wildlife,” Dillard emphasizes. “Between Snapperfest, coyote penning and canned hunting, the leadership looks like it’s putting up Indiana’s wildlife in a fire sale.”
Fun festival or turtle torture?
The competition consists of timing men on how quickly they can pull a snapping turtle from a tub of murky water, run across a lawn and force – or, as Reeves describes it, “coax” – its head out of its shell far enough to grab it by its neck. Women are timed in a relay race to carry a soft-shell turtle across a lawn.
Undercover video shows a man slamming a turtle onto a mat, grabbing its head, stretching its neck and kissing it on the nose. Other videos show men using their knees to hold the turtles down or carrying them by their tails, and women dropping turtles while they run.
According to Marty La Prees, a DNR-licensed wildlife rehabilitator and owner of Indiana Turtle Care, Inc., any of these actions could cause injury. “The possible injuries I observed in the videos were a broken neck, broken legs, injured shells and head injuries.”
Picking up a turtle by its tail can cause dislocation of the spine or tail, which could affect its swimming ability or its balance while climbing out of the water. “It’s like being picked up by your toe,” explains Julie Zickefoosee, licensed wildlife rehabilitator. “It separates the vertebrae; it’s very painful. You can see they’re in pain, writhing and twisting. It can cripple them.”
- Carrying a turtle by the neck could break its windpipe, esophagus and vertebrae.
- Moving a turtle too quickly or roughly can cause intestinal injuries.
- Dropping a turtle can injure its skeletal system, particularly its legs and neck. It could also cause jaw or facial injuries. “If there is a recent, unhealed injury to the shell, it can make the injury worse by increasing the fracture or splitting a soft area that is healing,” La Prees adds. A turtle’s shell is living tissue and can feel pain. Cuts and tears can occur to the outer edges of the softshell turtles’ shells; fractures to bones located near the center of the shell are possible. Skin infections can result from soft tissue exposure.
- Digging their fingers into the soft tissue to extract the turtle’s head could cause neck, eye and/or nose injuries.
In addition to potentially causing any of the injuries listed, slamming a turtle to the ground is traumatic. “These animals can certainly feel stress and trauma,” La Prees says. A turtle seen in one video urinating while being held upside down by its foot indicates stress and/or fear. “Turtles do this when in a traumatic situation or feeling threatened. This is truly an example to cruelty to animals.”
Stress makes animals sicker and can cause illness by itself, notes Dr. Angela Lennox, DVM with Avian & Exotic Animal Clinic. When treating animals, she seeks to minimize psychological pain as well as physical pain. “Reptiles do have pain receptors. We use sedation when pulling the head [of a turtle] out to get a vein, plus anti-anxiety medication and pain medication so as not to traumatize it – and that’s with animals that are used to being handled, not wild animals.”
Because they are cold-blooded with slow metabolism, turtles are slow healers. “Returning injured or sick turtles to the wild is tragic,” says La Prees, who recommends that fractures be treated by a qualified exotic veterinarian prior to rehabilitation. Broken bones will disable a turtle, making it easy prey or leading to drowning if it cannot move properly through water. Eye injuries will render it unable to find food. Further stress is caused due to the fact the turtle is unable to function normally.
Lines have been clearly drawn. For the past 15 years, the event has been held at Campshore Campground, a private facility on the Ohio River near Rising Star Casino, but widespread protest against Snapperfest in 2011 generated a great deal of negative attention.
Recognizing that they were in the spotlight, says WKRC TV reporter Rich Jaffe, who toured the campground but did not witness the competition, Snapperfest promoters took “the utmost possible care to ensure there [were] no injuries” because “the turtles represent their livelihood and are the focus of the event.”
Undercover video seems to contradict that statement. Those videos, showing event signage with Budweiser’s name, so alarmed Michael Lourie, director of corporate communications for Anheuser-Busch, that he issued a statement: “Neither Anheuser-Busch nor our local independent wholesaler is a sponsor of Snapperfest. We had no knowledge of the banner until it was brought to our attention after the event. For more than a century, we have prided ourselves on our reputation for treating animals with respect – from animal protection to animal rescue and rehabilitation to wildlife habitat preservation.”
Others go even further. “There’s strictly no need to torture animals for entertainment,” Lennox says. “We need to be done with that.”
“Snapperfest is an event where cruelty to turtles is obvious,” La Prees believes. “I can’t think of any event with other wildlife that would be allowed to conduct such a shocking contest. This event must stop.”
Calling Snapperfest “indefensibly stupid, dangerous and life-threatening,” Zickefoose clarifies, “We don’t want to stop their festival. We just want to stop them from handling turtles. Put them on display in tanks, but don’t use wildlife as toys.”
However, considering it “good, clean fun,” Tim Sizemore, campground owner, rebukes animal rights activists who, he says, “have nothing better to do but send 60,000 emails against us.”
Dillard underscores ALDF’s position that “this is not about animal rights; it’s common decency not to mistreat animals.”
Sizemore’s assertion that the police told him they’re “not doing anything wrong” is substantiated by Ohio County Auditor Connie Smith, who says, “The cops say they’re not breaking any laws.” Aurora Police Chief Bryan Field said in a statement that the event falls outside of the jurisdiction of the Aurora Police Department.
Complaining about the flood of emails and voicemails the county commissioners received last year, Smith adds, “We have no say over it. We have more important things to worry about.”
DNR has to worry about it. The petition has been assigned to committee for review by the NRC, although Clark continues to believe the petitioners want more than DNR can do. “It’s complicated because criminal code is involved. It’s not as simple a task as the petition makes it.” Nevertheless, he says the petition “raises an interesting question of post-take treatment of animals. Maybe it’s timely; we may need this.”