Look for a ceramic turtle in front of the store. That’s the signal. James knows it’s the spot to score red-eared sliders.
It’s a perfectly timed endeavor. Eight minutes before closing time, James (who asked that I not use his last name) dashes into a New York Chinatown tchotchke shop—located on Mott Street, just below Canal—with a wad of cash. The boxes are waiting for him. A shopkeeper, a woman in her 70s, struggles to wrangle them from a back room obscured by a curtain and boxes of paper fans. It looks like she ought to buckle under the weight, but she manages, and when he arrives, they are ready to be moved—quickly. He hands over $200: exact change. “100 cages, too,” he says. “The good kind.” He counts out another $100, and the woman shuffles away to retrieve them.
James starts loading the haul into his sedan, idling out front on Mott. The backseat is filling with boxes. Each contains 100 live turtles.
The elderly woman sees him chatting to passersby and dashes outside, shrilly assuring people that the boxes are “just turtle food.” She’s not fooling anyone: Tiny tails and speckled shells are visible through the air holes. Plus, each cardboard container is emblazoned with the words “Live Animals.”
Back inside, below the cash register, six turtles, each the size of a peach pit, paddle in a takeout container inside a shallow woven plastic basket. The water is murky and there’s not much space to swim. Nor is there a spot to perch, a light emitting UVB rays, or a heat source keeping the water between 75 and 95 degrees—all common recommendations for turtle husbandry.
James is a consummate salesman. “I’ve never had a real job,” he boasts. “I started out selling shoes and T-shirts on the side of the street, and now I’m branching out into real estate.” But today, he’s a turtle trafficker, selling to carnivals all over the East Coast. “Kids love them,” he says. Turns out, it’s a lucrative business. He brags, “We can make as much as $7,000 in one day.”
The high demand means that he needs a lot of turtles. He drives into the city from Philadelphia every Thursday to replenish his supply.
On another evening, after James’ visit, the old woman isn’t feeling so cautious. She lounges on the steps in front of the crowded shop, openly hawking her wares. She jabs a paper fan toward potential customers and calls, “Turtles inside, turtles inside!” A mother and preteen daughter turn into the store. “How much?” they ask. There’s a rapid-fire exchange in Chinese, and then a response: “$15 for two, including the container and food.” A group of tourists fawns over the hatchlings. “I wish we could take one on the plane,” one of them squeals. There are a few takers. The mother and daughter leave a few minutes later with a turtle sloshing around in a plastic container. The girl holds the terrarium up, inspecting it. There’s no attempt to stay under the radar today.
Chinatown is the epicenter of the black-market industry devoted to trafficking the petite paddlers. In the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, set in the city, four red-eared sliders emerge from their sewage-strewn lair to fight crime and devour pizza. But in reality, there aren’t any adolescent heroes in half-shells splashing beneath the streets—contrary to the premise of the show, these terrapins are kind of the bad guys.
The non-native sliders have escaped or been introduced all along the East Coast, where they have hunkered down and beat out locals such as painted and box turtles for prime grub and nesting turf. Many are former pets discarded by their owners.
The “scourge of the sliders” is upon us, according to the New York Daily News. The critters likely migrate to New York via shipments from commercial farms in the American South, where many are bred for international export. The World Chenolian Trust estimates that nearly 31.8 million turtles were exported from the United States between 2002 and 2005 alone. Most departed from ports in New Orleans, Miami, Dallas, or Los Angeles, mainly destined for Asian food markets. More than 400 of these shipments contained at least 100,000 turtles at a time.
The tiny turtles are illegal to sell. The FDA’s 1975 Public Health Services Act banned the peddling of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. Like many other reptiles, these swimmers can carry salmonella bacteria and pose a health risk to kids and immunocompromised adults. These groups are most likely to contract salmonellosis, marked by nasty fever, diarrhea, and intestinal cramps. (Granted, outbreaks have also been pegged to bacteria-riddled poultry, hedgehogs, and even produce such as cantaloupe, cucumbers, alfalfa sprouts, and tomatoes, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that the turtle ban prevents an additional 100,000 infections per year.)
Despite the ban, red-eared sliders have been observed in the wild throughout the boroughs, and as far away as Buffalo and Rochester. On its website, the New York Turtle and Tortoise Society warns that it can’t accept any new requests to foster these creatures, saying that many thousands of sliders have been turned over. (The turtles grow quickly and have a life span of up to 40 years.) Animal rights groups such as PETA also rally against the sales and laud passersby for reporting shops that shill the creatures. Law enforcement agents seized 22 turtles from an NYC shop in 2013.
So far, James hasn’t gotten caught. Others have. In the summer of 2013, a vendor at the California Mid-State Fair faced criminal charges for distributing red-eared sliders as prizes when contestants successfully tossed ping-pong balls into rings. Officials from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife confiscated 65 turtles from the man’s stall—some as young as two weeks old and the size of a quarter, according to the Tribune, a newspaper in San Luis Obispo.
As for those that are recovered? Some are relocated to turtle rescue sites, but the FDA recommends humane disposal. Since turtles are cold-blooded, this generally involves freezing them into stupor. Any person hawking the small turtles or turtle eggs risks a $1,000 fine and up to a year in jail for each violation.
It’s surprisingly easy to get in on the turtle trafficking game. Shopkeepers brag that they can fulfill bulk orders overnight, offering a quick way to make a buck, or $7,000. With stalls overflowing with pashminas and $3 T-shirts, Chinatown lures tourists and locals willing to weather a crowd for a shoddy bargain. Sometimes they leave with faux-jade trinkets, and other times with a swimming souvenir.