Turtle exploitation and house cat craziness

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Alabama is notable for the diversity of its native plants and animals, in this respect exceeding any other area of comparable size in the country. Contributing to the remarkable diversity are the 23 species of freshwater turtles inhabiting the state.

Recent articles appeared in the Mobile Press-Register (Feb. 26) about the commercial exploitation of the state’s turtles. Reporter Ben Raines quotes Auburn scientists Craig Guyer and Jim Godwin who say that, because of the state’s weak regulations, commercial harvesters from as far away as Maine are coming to Alabama to collect turtles for export. They say the market for turtle meat is fueled by demand in Asian countries where native turtle populations have been decimated by years of overharvest. They also explain that some Alabama turtles bring hundreds of dollars apiece when sold as exotic pets.

Many turtles captured in Alabama are sold to China. Mark Sasser, with the state’s Conservation and Natural Resources Department, says, “China wants our turtles, because they’ve eaten all of theirs.” A report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition states that 75 percent of Asia’s turtle and tortoise species are threatened as a result of overharvesting.

Turtle laws have recently been strengthened in Georgia, and Tennessee now prohibits commercial harvest of most turtle species. In 2009 Florida banned commercial harvest in all public and private waters. These restrictions have forced more turtle catchers to harvest turtles from Alabama waters, because free permits are available to out-of-state residents to catch up to ten turtles per day, except for a few protected species.

No license is required, and much of the collecting is done at night. Sasser says enforcement of the few rules on the books is difficult as is monitoring the status of various species.

The scientists contend that imposition of stricter regulations, including a total ban on the commercial take of wild-caught turtles is the only way to lessen or eliminate the threat to the species in demand.

An editorial in the Press-Register endorses the recommendation of the Auburn University specialists, stating, “… state conservation officials should act swiftly to clamp down on wild-turtle harvesting. Otherwise, it may not be long before Alabama’s freshwater turtle population is decimated.

“There’s no reason Alabama should allow its freshwater turtle population to be compromised by out-of-state and overseas profiteers. It’s time to draw the line and protect our wildlife resources just as regulators in Florida, Tennessee, and Georgia have done.”

The agency could make recommendations on the issue at its next Conservation Advisory Board meeting in Montgomery at the Capitol Auditorium on March 10.

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If you own a house cat, can a protozoan parasite found in its feces affect your personality and habits? According to a Czech scientist, Jaroslav Flegr, it may if you become infected. A lengthy article in the March 2012 issue of Atlantic Magazine, “How Your Cat is Making You Crazy,” written by Kathy Mcauliffe, details the reasons for his conclusion and describes the symptoms associated with the infection.

He became convinced that the parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, was subtly manipulating his personality and causing him to behave in strange, often self-destructive ways, beginning in 1990. He believes the parasite invades the brain and can contribute to car crashes, suicides, and schizophrenia.

His observations led him to conclude that infections affect males and females in strikingly different ways. Men harboring the parasite tend to dress slovenly, are prone to be suspicious, antisocial, inattentive to their surroundings and to engage in risky behaviors, including driving their vehicles recklessly.

Conversely, infected females tend to be meticulously attired, extroverted, trusting, careful, and have numerous friends, whereas infected men have few.

Initially, Flegr’s theory was ignored or discounted by the scientific community, but recently Flegr has gained considerable respectability. Highly respected neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University states, “Overall, this is wild, bizarre neurobiology.” Schizophrenia expert E. Fuller Torrey, director of the Stanley Medical Research Institute in Maryland states, “I admire Jaroslav for doing (this research). It’s obviously not politically correct, in the sense that many labs are not doing it. He’s done it mostly on his own, with very little support. I think it bears looking at. I find it completely credible.”

“Since the 1920’s,” Mcauliffe writes, “doctors have recognized that a woman who becomes infected (with T. gondii) during pregnancy can transmit the disease to the fetus, in some cases resulting in severe brain damage or death. T. gondii is also a major threat to people with weakened immunity….”

Owners of house cats are encouraged to read the article and learn about the possible consequences of becoming infected with this cat-borne parasite.

 

Bob Mount is a Professor Emeritus with the Dept of Zoology and Entomology, Auburn Univ. He is also co-chairman of the Opelika Order of Geezers, well-known local think tank and political clearing house. He writes about birds, snakes, turtles, bugs and assorted conservation topics.

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