Frog jumping contest, turtle races still part of Bel Air 4th events

Frogs will jump and turtles will lumber along to the encouragement of their young backers when Bel Air holds its annual Independence Day celebration Friday.

The traditional Turtle Derby and The Great Bel Air Frog Jumping Contest will take place as usual in Shamrock Park, as they have for decades and in spite of last year's mild protests from local and national wildlife protection groups, who had asked that the town's July 4 events organizers and sponsors consider not holding them.

The wildlife groups say they hope to continue educating people on the dangers such events pose, but as of Tuesday afternoon none had announced plans to protest at or try to stop the events.

The Bel Air Independence Day Committee Inc., which organizes the events, did post a note on its website acknowledging the prior controversy.

"We love our turtles — and having a turtle derby has been a feature of this event for decades," the note states. "We recognize the sensitivity of the issue of treatment of wild animals, and we urge all participants to honor their turtles by caring for them properly, safeguarding them from possible pathogens and returning them to the proper environment as soon as possible."

Disease concerns

Concern about the races came to light last year when the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity urged the principal sponsor, the local Kiwanis Club, to cancel the event, citing concerns about the spread of ranaviruses among amphibians.

Most recently, the national animal rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals issued a notice urging people to tell Independence Day committee members to cancel live animal competitions.

The frogs and turtles are "taken from their natural habitats and cruelly subjected" to the frog jump and turtle derby games, according to PETA's website.

"This chaotic ordeal would obviously be terrifying for both frogs and turtles, who view humans as predators, and it is potentially harmful," the notice states.

PETA sent the Bel Air organizers a letter in the past month urging them to cancel the competitions, animal cruelty case worker Gemma Vaughan said Tuesday.

"Unfortunately, we were ignored, which is when we alerted our members," Vaughan said.

The group, however, is not planning to take any further action.

Bel Air's activities may be among the few left. Vaughan said she has only heard of "scattered" reports about similar events.

"To my knowledge, they are not very regular," she said. "It seems to be phasing out."

Education message

The Bel Air-based Susquehannock Wildlife Society is not planning any formal protests or involvement. Last year, members of the group were on hand July 4 to "monitor" the races and educate attendees about wildlife.

"We are very respectful of the community and we are not that kind of group," Susquehannock president Scott McDaniel said about the possibility of demonstrations. "We want to get the message out through education, not through disruption."

McDaniel said the group has not talked with the Independence Day events organizers since last year, but it still wants people know why the races endanger the frogs and turtles.

McDaniel also said students from North Harford High School's wildlife management class have been urging Harford residents to "have Bel Air start a tradition of protecting wildlife."

"When you have a group of students that is saying, 'Work with the kids' and 'We don't really want this to go on,' is it really for them or is it for the parents?" he said.

The students set up an education table at the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center in Abingdon and also made a series of videos that will be released soon, McDaniel said.

He also said he continues to hope the Independence Day Committee will change its mind.

"I know that the issue last year is there was not enough time" to cancel the races, he said, adding he has gotten no new response from the committee.

"We still have the same stance," McDaniel said. "More than anything, we are just disappointed in this event and what it encourages, which is taking wildlife out of the wild, putting them in harm's way when they already have all these things they cannot control."

"This is something that could easily be prevented but we continue to do it as a community," McDaniel said about the threat to the animals.

Don Stewart, president of the Bel Air Independence Day Committee Inc., did not reply to multiple requests for comment.

There were 178 entries in the 2013 frog jumping contest, many more than race organizers expected, and 140 turtles were entered for the derby.

Rules, protection advice

According to rules posted online, each person who enters the Turtle Derby is limited to one turtle, and the turtles cannot have carapaces shorter than 4 inches. Snapping turtles cannot be entered, but the competition is open to species such as box, painted, red bellied and spotted.

"Help the environment – care for your turtle!" the rules state, noting turtles should be kept "comfortable" in their boxes, which should be damp and lined with shredded paper towels – a paper towel covering the box is also recommended to protect the turtle from the sun.

There should only be one turtle per box to prevent turtle-to-turtle disease transmission, and the entrants should wash their hands after handling the turtles at "washing stations."

Those who enter the frog-jumping contest are also limited to one frog; each frog should be no shorter than 2 inches.

Frogs should also be kept in a cool, damp and covered box, and participants should also wash their hands frequently.

"Frogs are endangered throughout the world, and the more we are conscious of the proper way to treat them, the better our natural world will be," the rules state.

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