It’s not likely going to spark a Hollywood movie, but a turtle on a plane triggered a lot of angst and controversy in the US recently.

A 10-year-old girl was traveling with her pet turtle, Neytiri, on an AirTran flight from Atlanta to Milwaukee. The airline has a no-reptiles policy (actually, a no-pets-at-all-in-the-cabin policy) and when one crew member spotted the turtle in a cage under the girl’s seat, she was told that she had to get off the plane.

This is where things start to fall apart a little. Apparently, the girl and her sister threw the turtle and its cage in the trash. They say that they were told to do so, although AirTran disputes this. Regardless, the turtle was tossed and the girls got back on the plane.

Banning turtles from plane cabins makes complete sense. I’m not sure why anyone would really need to travel with their pet turtle, particularly in the cabin. Turtles are notorious vectors of Salmonella and a huge number of Salmonella infections in people are attributed to contact with pet reptiles. People under the age of five, the elderly, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems are at particular risk and should not have contact with reptiles. The problem with a plane is you can’t be sure whether or not such high-risk individuals are on it (or will be on subsequent flights). A turtle in a cage is probably of fairly low risk. The problem would be the owner handling the turtle or its cage, then touching common hand-contact sites in the plane. Those sites could then be touched by someone else, creating a theoretical risk of transmission.

What’s the real risk in this situation? Probably minimal. However, you have to think about whether risks, even minimal ones, are worth taking when they are completely avoidable by keeping turtles and other high-risk species out of cramped and hygiene-limited public spaces like airplane cabins – places they don’t need to be.

Did the airline over-react? I don’t think so (although recommending someone toss a live animal in the garbage, if it happened, is completely unethical). They have a policy. It’s a reasonable policy. If you fly on an airline, you have to abide by their rules. If you are going to do something unusual like travel with a pet, it’s your responsibility to determine what the rules are.

The story has a happy ending, fortunately. It seems that an airline employee recovered the turtle from the trash, and the girl was re-united with her pet a couple of days later, after flying home on an AirTran plane… in the cargo hold.

One other interesting note about this story – the turtle, Neytiri, was only two-inches long.  In the US, the sale of pet turtles with a carapace length of less than four-inches has been illegal since 1975, due to high rates of turtle-associated salmonellosis among children, who were more likely to extensively handle tiny turtles.

Photo (left): Carley Helm and her pet turtle Neytiri.