No reason to jump to conclusions about turtle derby [Editorial]

It was Jim Smiley, trainer of Dan'l Webster, who observed in a potential rival: "Maybe you understand frogs, and maybe you don't understand 'em."

The same could be applied to speculation about those with a passion for training any number of other animals ranging from frogs, turtles and donkeys to rescue dogs and race horses.

Now the Dan'l Webster in this example shouldn't be confused with the current U.S. Rep. Daniel Webster, who represents Florida's 10th District, or with the late U.S. Sen. Daniel Webster who represented Massachusetts in Congress before being appointed secretary of state in a pre-Civil War political career historic enough to have resulted in highways being named after him in New England.

No, Dan'l Webster is the name given to a particularly athletic frog owned by Jim Smiley in a story put to pen and paper by Mark Twain shortly after the Civil War. Dan'l Webster had been "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," at least until Jim Smiley made a bet with a fellow who weighted the champion frog with lead shot to win a $40 bet ($40 being a hefty sum in the late 1800s).

As it turned out, Mr. Smiley may have known frogs, but he didn't have a solid understanding of a certain brand of betting man.

The long and short of all this is sometimes it appears the human understanding of animals and their relationship with people isn't all it seems to be, and as we humans become more in tune with what's cruel and what's reasonable, what is acceptable as animal-based entertainment changes. In Roman times, it was OK to have people and animals fight to the death in vicious spectacles. Blood sport involving provoking animal fights continued to be popular and accepted through the Middle Ages and well into the 1900s. Even in modern times, though bird and dog fighting are outlawed in this country, they go on; bullfights remain popular in Spain and a few other Hispanic countries.

So how does the Bel Air Fourth of July tradition of having frog and turtle races fit into the picture? This year an animal rights group raised questions about the efficacy of allowing turtle races in Bel Air. Their concerns were noted, but the turtle derby went on.

It's hard to answer the question as to whether the turtle derby is a harmless distraction, or a threat to a population of wild creatures. The ecological health of box turtles – which comprise the bulk of the turtles entered in the annual turtle derby – isn't particularly easy to measure. Box turtles can live longer than people, so even if a population them failed to reproduce for decades, it could appear viable for many years even as it is in danger of fading into oblivion.

Still, there's a bigger threat to box turtles (and other wild things) than allowing kids to catch and race them for a day of sport. Bulldozers, highway traffic and pollution all come to mind.

There's also the example of an annual event held many years back in northern Harford County known as donkey baseball. It was protested by animal protection activists and has long since faded into the county's past. Donkey baseball, however, continues to be played elsewhere in the country and there's not a particularly good reason to be opposed to it on the grounds of cruelty. Donkeys were bred as beasts of burden and for centuries have carried people and the possessions of people. From the donkey's perspective, it doesn't make much difference if someone is riding it from Nazareth to Bethlehem or around a baseball diamond, so long as the load isn't too heavy and there's a meal of hay or oats at the end of the day.

There's another reason for concern about kids being in close contact with turtles, as many reptiles can transmit salmonella bacteria to people, resulting in an unpleasant infection that, on occasion, proves deadly in humans.

On the whole, there's no reason for doing away with the turtle races or the frog jumping competition. Such things are generally harmless to the creatures involved – like dog and pony shows, horse racing and teaching parrots how to talk – but there's nothing wrong with taking a few extra precautions to keep the events harmless.

Organizers should strongly encourage participants to release their wild entries back into the places where they were captured, and, as always when handling animals, hand washing is a good idea. Beyond that, the American tradition of frog jumping contests and turtle races should be allowed to continue, and even encouraged.

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