by Suzie Dundas

Sea Turtles are truly extraordinary animals.

Throughout their 100-million year history on earth, they’ve been witness to the fall of the dinosaurs, rise of man and evolution of most of the planet’s incredible flora and fauna. Yet in the only 200,000 years since modern humans have been in existence, just one one-thousandth of the time the sea turtles have been on earth, we’ve already put them on the endangered species list. All seven species of sea turtle are currently listed by the Department of the Interior as being at risk of extinction, and some are even listed as “critically endangered”; the highest status available for animals at risk.with other turtles – and slowly dying of disease, injury, and abuse from constant mistreatment and neglect.

Two such critically endangered species, the Kemps Ridley and Hawksbill sea turtles, are found mostly in the Cayman Islands at the Cayman Turtle Farm, a popular tourist facility. Along with the endangered green sea turtle, they live their days swimming, engaging with other turtles and slowly dying of disease, injury, and abuse from constant mistreatment and neglect.

At first observation, the Cayman Turtle Farm, or CTF, appears to be a standard facility. It’s certainly popular with cruise line guests, as it receives more than 200,000 visits a year from tourists who touch, handle, and even swim with the captive turtles. Children and families happily hold the turtles and smile for vacation photos before dropping the frightened and starved animals back into their tanks or worse yet, on to the rough concrete floor. The turtles are packed into barren concrete enclosures with more than 300 others, rendering them unable to swim, dive, or engage in their natural solitary behaviors. Sea turtles in the wild will normally dive more than 100 meters; however the depth of an average tank at the Cayman Turtle Farm rarely exceeds one meter. 

Photo by WSPA /
Sea Turtle Farm

As a result of the overcrowding, the turtles are stressed and panicked. Tourists, scientists and independent researchers alike have observed welts from overcrowding in addition to rashes and lesions from scraping against the tank walls. Even cannibalism has been observed, as the turtles fight for pet store pellets, their unnatural yet only food source. Almost 300 of the turtles, 299, to be exact, were recently killed from asphyxiation when their tank slowly drained, a process that took several hours. One can only wonder why n no one at the CTF noticed this occurring or stepped in to prevent their deaths.

Even cannibalism has been observed, as the turtles fight for pet store pellets – their unnatural yet only food source.

In the last five years, just 133 turtles have been released into the wild, more than 1,000 have died from the conditions at the CTF and more than 6,000 have been killed for their meat. Sadly, these stressed turtles could be considered the lucky ones, as the majority of the inhabitants at the CTF are raised purely for slaughter, to be consumed as burgers and steaks on the property. Indeed, despite billing itself as a ‘conservation facility,’ recent numbers obtained from British Freedom of Information Act requests tell a different story. 

In 2012, the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) stepped in. The global organization, active in the US, undertook a yearlong research project to study the facility before beginning their campaign for change. The study included water testing, assessment of the CTF by independent scientists, case studies on other facilities and surveys about behaviors and attitudes among tourists and Caymanians. The study concluded that the turtles are suffering from diseases, injuries and birth defects due to negligence and improper care at the facility. It also found risks to human health, including Salmonella and E. Coli, pathogens for which the water in the turtle tanks tested positive.

This report was shared with the Cayman Turtle Farm in the summer of 2012, when WSPA approached the CTF about the conditions at their facility. Partnership since then has been tense at best, as the CTF has undertaken a very aggressive attack campaign against WSPA, claiming their position is “unfounded” despite the fact that independent assessments have validated WSPA research as recently as January 2013.

The risks to turtles and humans should not come as surprising. A casual observer can conclude that the water is unclean and the CTF hasn’t made a secret of the fact that they do not have a full-time veterinarian on staff; a possible indicator that the “Conservation Facility” is more concerned with profit than progress. Several leaders in the field, including David Godfrey, Executive Director of the Sea Turtle Conservancy, have spoken out against the farm’s “conservation” program, noting that there is a “lack of evidence that the turtle release program actually benefits the wild population.” Many of the sea turtles at the CTF are inbred, diseased or unhealthy, which poses a risk to the healthy, wild populations if they were to be released.

The CTF’s “head starting” program, a conservation strategy that has been criticized by both the scientific conservation and sea turtle communities, is the only method by which turtles are released into the ocean.

The turtles of the CTF are in cement tanks, with little attempt to tend to their well-being or recreate their natural habitat.

To date, WSPA’s campaign has been three-pronged. They’ve been working directly with the CTF, attempting to provide guidance on how to change and offering help along the way. They’ve also been working with cruise lines to ask them to remove the CTF as a destination vacation offering and educating consumers and tourists about the animal welfare issue at the heart of the discussion. The Caymanian Government, which funds the farm at more than $17 million annually, has even acknowledged the issue and accepted much of the scientific evidence to date, asking WSPA and the CTF in late January 2013, to work together to come to an agreement.

Infected Sea Turtle

Photo by WSPA /
Injured Sea Turtle

However, the Cayman Turtle Farm has positioned itself to be less open to change than WSPA as it’s supporters had anticipated, and has instead responded with a smear campaign against WSPA’s efforts, calling them “sensationalized” and short-sighted. Further actions, even after both the CTF and WSPA committed to a partnership, accused WSPA of using guerrilla tactics to shut down the farm, despite the fact that WSPA’s aim is to help the CTF transition to a conservation facility, not close down the Cayman Turtle Farm.

WSPA is cognizant of the impact of the CTF on the Cayman Islands, which relies on tourism as a primary driver of its economy. Thus WSPA’s research into the CTF included both studies of the impact of the CTF on the region and case studies of similar facilities.

One such facility, the Kélonia Observatory of Marine Turtles in the Réunion Islands, uses a model that could be emulated by the Cayman Turtle Farm. Originally established as a sea turtle farming operation, the facility decided to make a sweeping change and now serves as a research and rehabilitation institute for injuries turtles. At the facility, tourists are able to observe the animals, but there is no physical interaction; a key difference between Kélonia and the Cayman Turtle Farm. Kélonia’s turtles have injuries that would disadvantage them in the wild, so they live in comfortable natural habitats with native flora and fauna, receiving vital veterinary care. In contrast, the turtles of the CTF are in cement tanks, with little attempt to tend to their well-being or recreate their natural habitat. Supporters of the Cayman Turtle Farm are rationalizing the institution’s farming of the endangered creatures by claiming to create a sustainable supply to meet the demand for turtle meat. The meat is considered a cultural delicacy and the history of the Cayman Islands is intertwined with turtle hunting. By farming turtles in a manufactured environment, they argue, they are preventing the poaching of the animals from the oceans.

Sea Turtle Factory Farming

Photo by WSPA
Sea Turtle Farm

But their argument falls flat when put to the test. As the only sea turtle farm in the world, the CTF sets their own price for meat and they price it high enough to be inaccessible to most native Caymanians. Thus, the market “demanding” the turtle meat can no longer afford to purchase it, meaning that the farm sells mainly to western tourists; a group that has no cultural or historical connection to the dish. Regardless of how the CTF prices their meat, a poached turtle is and always will be free. Further, surveys of the Caymanian population have shown that the desire to consume sea turtles is declining, with most Caymanians under age 35 seeing it as a dated tradition in which they have no interest.

As of mid-February 2013, the campaign is in flux. The World Society for the Protection of Animals is a non-profit with a global reach and prides itself in successful partnerships with businesses and governments. According to Elizabeth Hogan, U.S. Wildlife and Oceans Manager for the World Society for the Protection of Animals, “our campaign has always had two ultimate goals; to stop the inhumane treatment of the endangered turtles at the CTF and to help them transition to a true conservation facility. We’re disappointed that the CTF continues to attack WSPA after both parties committed to a partnership and plan to adapt the campaign accordingly to achieve the most change on behalf of the turtles.” 

WSPA stands by the work of independent researchers and plans to continue to be transparent in its motivation and science. Peer-reviewed studies conducted as recently as December 2012, have been published in leading outlets, including a publication in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine entitled Health Implications Associated with Exposure to Farmed and Wild Sea Turtles’ which found a risk of zoonotic disease to tourists who handle the turtles and touch the water. Leading sea turtle and animal welfare organizations, including Humane Society International, Sea Turtle Conservancy, and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project, have already supported the campaign and are actively participating in WSPA’s work. The Cayman Turtle Farm has little to lose by changing its operations, but much to gain. Research has shown that the majority of tourists, 90 percent, are willing to pay at least $2 more in admission to a facility that protects a species, allowing similar models (like that of the Kélonia Observatory) to be funded through tourism. 

Injured Sea Turtle

Photo by WSPA
Injured Sea Turtle

By continuing to operate as a slaughterhouse for the endangered turtles, the CTF runs the risk of losing the support and promotion of major cruise lines. However, by transitioning to a true rehabilitation and conservation center, the CTF could be at the forefront of the ecofriendly tourist markets, developing travel segments sure to drive revenue. WSPA’s goal is not to shut down the CTF, but rather to help it transition away from farming sea turtles, towards good stewardship of the species through conservation and research. Were the CTF to decide to work with WSPA, the organization would provide leadership, guidance and best practices to make the transition as easy and fiscally successful as possible.

The Cayman Islands has long recognized the importance of these animals, as evidenced by the prominent display of a sea turtle on the island nation’s flag. It remains to be seen whether the island’s people and the Cayman Turtle Farm will take steps to protect the turtle’s welfare and move them back into the oceans they’ve called home for so long.