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5 Reasons Feeding Turtles Live Food Is Animal Cruelty

Updated on March 17, 2018
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

Meet Robert Crosland. Robert decided to feed a snapping turtle he was keeping illegally as a pet a live dog in front of middle school students on school grounds, and the town he lives in supports him.

Going into more detail, the dog in question was allegedly terminally ill and there were three students viewing the incident after school hours. Two of these students purport that they were unphased by the dog being devoured; rather they were more disturbed by the yelling of another school employee who heard the animal’s screams from behind the locked classroom door. Some of the students claim the puppy wasn’t fed to the reptile alive, but was drowned first. While drowning is nearly an equally cruel way to put down an animal, Crosland can be seen in the photo below from 2005, smiling as he lowers a large, live, rat to be torn apart by the massive animal’s powerful beak.

As there is literally no difference between inflicting this torture on a rat or puppy, it could be deduced that the puppy wasn’t drowned, but perhaps held in the water, starting to succumb to drowning until the turtle got to it. The reports of the puppy’s screams contradict all claims of the animal being killed before being used as food. This incident was reported by Jill Parrish, whose heroic actions are being rewarded by threats from her community, who adores Mr. Crosland as a respected science teacher.

The school Mr. Crosland works at is also under fire from critics, and in typical viral story fashion, threats of violence were made against the school and the FBI had to be contacted. Regardless, is the backlash against Mr. Crosland justified? Was he simply just feeding his pet an animal that was 'just going to die anyway'? There are many reasons why feeding turtles rats and other mammals is particularly brutal and unnecessary.

1. Turtles Don’t Need Live Food

Some animals will not accept live prey. This pertains to some lizards and snakes. In most cases, snakes can be ‘taught’ to eat frozen-thawed rodents but it does require some effort. Snapping turtles and all commonly-kept turtle species hunt by smell and will eat non-live whole prey, pieces of meat, and even commercially-prepared, nutritionally-balanced pelleted diets. Snapping turtles are omnivorous and they are also prominent scavengers, so feeding them dead prey is as “natural” as it gets.

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2. It’s Not Educational

Mr. Crosland’s supporters proclaim that the beloved teacher is favored because the students love that he has a collection of exotic animals and that he “makes science come alive”. While the extent of education that captive animals offer is often questionable, watching animals feed on trapped prey repeatedly is obviously not an academic approach and instead fosters acceptance of cruel dispatching methods. Children can be taught that turtles eat animals without witnessing a staged execution of a rat or puppy. The hunting methods of the turtle can also be observed with non-living prey.

3. Captive Animals Aren’t “Nature”

One of the most commonly used defenses of feeding live prey to pets is that it occurs in nature or that it is natural. The problem with this defense is that it is a logical fallacy, called appeal to nature. Just because something happens in nature doesn’t make it good or desirable. Captive turtles are also not in nature, as “natural” is defined by conditions that humans do not interfere with. Natural conditions are also something that can’t be controlled by humans even if they wanted to. Holding a struggling animal in a tank when it is not necessary is entirely up to the pet owner, regardless of what some wild animal is doing in your backyard.

4. It’s Not Healthier

Some people think that meat should be as fresh as possible so that it is healthy for the animal. Even if this were true, prey can be pre-killed in a humane (AVMA approved) way before being fed off to turtles. While some studies have shown that fresher vegetables and meat tend to have more nutrients, what really matters is how meaningful this is to the organism. Would the turtle suffer from nutritional deficiencies due to nutritional deprivation because the nutrients in frozen-thawed meats are slightly less than those of fresh meats? No studies have shown this and it is highly unlikely. This does not justify the torture of animal prey.

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5. Enrichment Doesn’t Justify it

Finally, some people feed their animals live prey because they feel it is enriching for predators. They think that carnivores must hunt to be happy in captivity. This is also the excuse many cat owners give for letting their pets kill wild animals. There are many alternative ways to enrich animals that do not include torturing live animals. In the case of turtles, live prey hardly offers a different experience from dead food. As is the case with Crosland who feeds live rats to the turtle, they are held in place while the animal swims up to attack it. What is the difference between that and a frozen-thawed rat? The turtle likely doesn’t care or know the difference, but the rat certainly does. The only prey that can offer enrichment are fish that can be chased. However, as fish are vertebrates and their pain thresholds are not well understood, they shouldn’t be used as prey either.

What’s the Difference Between Live Feeding Turtles and Snakes?

Here lies the problem with live feeding culture as it exists in the pet industry. Acceptance of one form of live feeding may invalidate regulating other forms of cruelty. Crosland’s example has led to outrage, but his past feeding of other creatures has gone largely unnoticed. In general, live feeding of vertebrates should be avoided to the fullest extent possible.

Only animals that won’t eat dead food are exceptions, after every effort has been made to resolve the problem. This is a common problem for many species of snakes. Luckily, most constrictor snakes kill quicker and far more humanely than turtles do. When snakes constrict their prey, they cut off the blood supply to the animal and loss of consciousness occurs quickly. In contrast, turtles simply grab their prey and bite off chunks.

Horrific videos of turtles being fed live prey on Youtube show mutilated mice bitten in half, organs dangling, swimming around the tank in terror. If their spinal cords aren’t severed, they can very well be conscious and feeling. Under no circumstances is this a justified way to kill an animal.

Fish are animals that are often treated very poorly in our society. While we can assume that, being vertebrates, they feel pain like we do, some scientific reviews suggest otherwise. Either way, avoiding their use when it is unnecessary is best.

The last ethical question is that of invertebrates. Most lizards will not accept non-live insects, but in addition to that, how or if they process true pain is not well understood, and we certainly don’t know which method is best. Therefore it is impossible to make recommendations for proper dispatching.

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