Bel Air's annual July 4 turtle derby is known for being slow, but now a conservation group wants to bring it to a complete halt.
The Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity sent a letter Friday to event sponsor Kiwanis Club asking the Bel Air group to call off the derby, warning of the risk of spreading "deadly diseases" to both wild turtles and children.
While the derby has been going on for years, the center raised the issue now – and less than a week before the event – because of a rise in ranaviruses among amphibians in Maryland, Collette Adkins Giese, the center's biologist and attorney, explained in a phone interview Friday.
The virus has been detected since last year in Harford County and "we are very much concerned that it can spread," she said, noting it has been known to "just wipe out populations."
"Then last summer, a sick box turtle was found in Harford County and brought to the Chadwell Animal Hospital in Abingdon, and tests sent to the national wildlife lab in Wisconsin confirmed ranavirus," she added.
The Turtle Derby and Frog Jumping Contests are longtime staples of Bel Air's annual day-long Independence Day celebration, set for July 4, which also features a parade and fireworks and is one of the most heavily attended events of its kind in Maryland.
Organizers have no plans to call off the derby, at least not this year.
Don Stewart, president and chairman of the Bel Air Independence Day Committee, Inc., the nonprofit community group that runs the Bel Air celebration, said Monday he did not necessarily disagree with the center's position, but the volunteer organizers did not have enough time to consider stopping the event.
"We do our best to keep as safe as possible," he said. "It's a long tradition. It predates us. It's not anything new and our understanding of animals has increased over the years."
"They definitely have a point. We are not disputing anything they have to say," he said. "We are just doing the best we can with what little resources we have."
"Our group wasn't ready to make that move that quickly," Stewart added about the possibility of calling off the race, explaining that if the derby was called off, a new event would have to fill that time slot.
Stewart also said organizers talked with the center about half a year ago, and he doesn't know why they sent out a letter now.
"They are really good people, with a specific cause. They are doing what they think is necessary to further their cause and interest and I respect that," Stewart said. "They know we are moving forward with [the celebration] and I don't think they are happy with that."
He said he is very concerned about preserving the tradition and reputation of the July 4 event, calling it "very large, very old, very traditional."
"It's not feasible to just snap my fingers and make a change," Steward said. "We told them right after this event, we would have another meeting as a group and we would re-address the issue."
Other races changed
Adkins Giese noted the Maryland Department of Natural Resources put out a statement last year urging participants to stop collecting wild turtles for the race because of the potential health risk to both the turtles and participants.
The center's letter says many other towns have replaced turtle races with creative substitutes and the Johns Hopkins Turtle Race in Baltimore now uses animals brought in from U.S. turtle farms, where the turtles are returned afterward.
The virus was first detected in Montgomery County in 2011, according to a DNR newsletter. The National Wildlife Health Center also says all confirmed cases of ranaviral infection in wild eastern box turtles are from Maryland.
The Wildlife Health Center, however, notes "the virus generally cannot be cultured at temperatures above [86 degrees], so it probably is not infectious to domestic mammals and humans."
Adkins Giese also said in the letter that the race strains native turtle populations and that Maryland law prohibits wild collection of any spotted turtles, wood turtles or diamondback terrapins, or possession of more than one of many other turtles found in the state, such as eastern box turtles or painted turtles.
"Turtle races can also spread disease to people who handle turtles, including young children who are especially vulnerable," according to the letter. "Of particular concern is the risk of Salmonella infection, which can cause severe illness and even death."
Bel Air's Independence Day Committee has already warned on its website that no turtles entered in the race can have a carapace less than 4 inches long and limits participants to one member of each turtle species per adult, citing DNR restrictions.
Local conservationist Bob Chance said Monday he saw both sides of the issue, noting the derby has been going on for half a century.
"This is a gigantic controversial issue," he said. "Every year it gets a little dicier."
Although he did not know about the ranavirus, "I know a lot of wild-caught turtles that get used in this race get displaced, they don't get returned to the place where they were found, and that really confuses the animal. They are totally disoriented. Sometimes it's a very hot day, sometimes the turtles are not properly fed before the event."
"On the other hand, this Independence Day tradition has been an educational tool," Chance continued.
Canceling the race "could possibly affect a few people's science careers," he explained.
Because of that, Chance has reservations about calling off the derby completely.
"I have a lot of people tugging on me on this issue in both directions," he said. "Shucks, you have 150 entries [for the derby]."
Chance pointed out hamster races have been discontinued, but Bel Air's frog jumping contest goes on despite some drawbacks.
"A lot of frogs get injured in the jump, but it's carnival, old-time Americana," he said.