Among the various things I’ve been called in response to blog posts is "anti-reptile." Actually, I like reptiles. I’ve owned and treated them, and think many of them are quite fascinating species. They can be reasonable pets in certain situations. The main problem is that they have high rates of Salmonella carriage and are the cause of a large number of infections in people. That’s why the CDC, among other groups, recommends that people under the age of 5, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems avoid them.

Why do I bring this up (again)? I read an article today about the Fall River, Massachusetts, library and their resident tortoise, Franklin. Why am I concerned?

  • Who goes to a library? Lots of people. Kids and elderly individuals probably go more than average. Those are the high risk groups.
  • You could try to make the argument that having a tortoise in a library wouldn’t necessarily pose much of a risk if it was kept in a cage or terrarium. That’s probably reasonable, as long as good management and hygiene practices were used, but it’s not a guarantee.  Infections have been reported in households where the reptile never leaves its enclosure and in people who never have direct contact with it.
  • Regardless, Franklin doesn’t spend his days in a cage of any kind. He gets out and cruises around the library, especially in the carpeted Children’s Room. That’s a bigger problem. This tortoise is certainly not house trained (my tortoises’ repertoire was pretty much limited to eat, poop, wander around, repeat… I don’t think there was an extra neuron for something like litterbox training). Tortoises can also easily contaminate their feet and shell with feces. So, we have a potentially poop-contaminated tortoise who may also leave a fecal present at any time wandering around a carpeted (almost impossible to disinfect) surface on which young kids play. Not a good combination.
  • See the picture above. The person is described as a "library senior aide" and is presumably in the high-risk group based on age. The tortoise has its leg (which presumably walked over some tortoise poop sometime in the recent past) practically in her mouth. That’s not good either.

What should the library do?

1) Ideally find a good home for Franklin. One with no high-risk people.

2) If that’s not an option, a protocol should be in place for how to manage Franklin and reduce the risk of Salmonella transmission. This would involve:

  • Keeping him in a proper enclosure. Not letting him roam around public areas. Visits outside to walk around on the grass (during the appropriate seasons) are fine, but there should be no walking around general library areas (especially not the Children’s Room).
  • Not letting the general public handle him. Reptiles are "look but don’t touch" pets.
  • Emphasizing hand hygiene for anyone that has contact with Franklin or his environment, and facilitating hand hygiene by having convenient access to a properly equipped sink or alcohol-based hand sanitizers.
  • Excluding high-risk groups from contact, if people are allowed to have direct contact with Franklin at all. Any public contact should be supervised and there must be immediate washing of hands or use of a hand sanitizer afterwards. Since this is unlikely to be done properly, avoiding all public contact makes the most sense.
  • Using Franklin to help teach. Perhaps he could be brought out in a small glass terrarium and people could watch him as part of stories or other events. He (and the way he’s handled) could also be used to explain things about infectious diseases and infection control.

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