The World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) has long smelled something fishy about the operation of the Cayman Turtle Farm, one of Grand Cayman’s premiere tourist attractions. The Cayman Turtle Farm is billed as a conservation facility, dedicated to breeding and researching endangered sea turtles, whose once-plentiful populations were severely depleted through the 19th century by commercial hunting and for mere survival by many of the Cayman Islands’ inhabitants.
In 1968, a group of American and British investors attained licensing from the government of the Cayman Islands to begin the first commercial enterprise to domesticate green sea turtles, naming it the Cayman Turtle Farm. However, protection regulations established for the reptile prohibited the sale of turtle products in the US, thus decreasing the commercial value of the farm. The facility went under twice before it was purchased by the Cayman Islands government, who remain the owners and operators of the farm today.
The Cayman Turtle Farm is the largest land-based tourist attraction on Grand Cayman, hosting upwards of 500,000 visitors annually. Visitors are encouraged to handle the turtles in “touch tanks,” as well as snorkel with green sea turtles and other local marine life in a reef lagoon located on the expansive 23-acre property. But right on the very same property, you can indulge yourself in a nice turtle burger or steak when you’re finished cooing over the endangered animals the Cayman Turtle Farm is dedicated to conserving.
It was these issues, as well as some major hygienic and health concerns, that led to the WSPA conducting an undercover operation in October 2012 that showed the grim reality behind the veneer of the conservation facility. Their investigation revealed deplorable conditions at the farm, with its more than 9,000 resident turtles suffering from disease, physical injuries, genetic defects, and overcrowding, which also led to cannibalism among some of the turtles. When WSPA presented their findings to officials at the Cayman Turtle Farm, their assessment — including video footage — was dismissed as “unfounded, erroneous, and sensationalized.”
However, WSPA received confidential information that Cayman Turtle Farm had immediately commissioned a private assessment, which came to similar conclusions about the facility as WSPA had. The findings of a second assessment conducted in December 2012 stated that there was “clearly room for improvement in standards of care which will require immediate changes in infrastructure, processes, staffing, and resources.” That report also stated that “similar recommendations had been made in the past but have not been acted on.” The litany of health issues cited “severe injuries” among a “notable proportion of the animals,” which included skin lesions, deep ulceration to the shoulders, head, hind and forelimbs, as well as a high mortality rate among juveniles.
The response to these findings, which were made public January 25, 2013, was that of outrage, sympathy, and a desire to pressure Cayman Turtle Farm into making necessary changes for the welfare of their turtles. A petition signed by more than 144,000 people from all over the world was delivered to the Cayman Islands government and the farm’s management calling for the farm to transition into a purely conservation facility, ending its practice of farming sea turtles for commercial meat production and tourist dollars. As a result, WSPA and Cayman Turtle Farm are currently in talks to address the many issues that are contributing to the animal suffering taking place within its walls.
Only time will tell if change is truly on the horizon, when the majestic sea turtle will cease to be a commodity in the Cayman Islands.
Images via SWIMPHOTO