According to the University Events Calendar, Usdan University Center vendor Randy “The Plant Guy” Skolnick “brings all things green to Usdan.” The calendar advertises cacti, orchids, and bonsai as his primary merchandise, but on Monday, Feb. 1, Skolnick sold a green commodity of a different variety: baby turtles.
Students bought all but one of “The Plant Guy’s” infant reptiles, which were sold in 5×8 plastic containers, along with water, a rock and a ziplock bag full of premium-grade turtle food. In the weeks since, many of the turtles have happily settled into their new collegiate homes, but at least five have been reported dead, prompting anger among students who purchased them.
“I think [my turtle] lived a good life, except for the fact that he was starving to death,” said Brooke Baker ’13, whose turtle died three weeks after she purchased it. “I’m just pissed because I think the turtle never ate the food that I was given.”
Skolnick, however, maintained that his intentions were not malicious.
“I just love turtles,” he said. “As a kid I owned a lot of them. I made a turtle habitat in my backyard.”
The young Red Eared Sliders that Skolnick sold measured approximately 1.5 inches in length, which is 2.5 inches below the legal size limit for commercial turtle sales, as stipulated by the Turtles Intrastate and Interstate Requirements passed by the Food and Drug Administration in 1975. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) website, the law was passed to prevent salmonella infections in children, which declined substantially after the regulation was enacted.
Some students have expressed an ethics concern due to the small size of the containers in which the turtles were sold, and lack of accompanying pet care instruction.
“I believe that this situation is a striking example of the need to improve legislation and enforcement surrounding animal issues,” wrote President of Wesleyan Students for Animal Welfare Alexa Atamanchuk ’12 in an e-mail to The Argus. “The fact that vendors such as this can come into a place as public as a University center and profit off of illegal practices will promote animal abuse and negligence.”
Usdan Facility and Events Coordinator Frank Marsilli, who manages the vendor program, said he was unaware that Skolnick was selling turtles, although there is no written policy about visiting vendors selling pets.
“Off and on, Randy will bring beta fish,” Marsilli said. “There’s been some conflict about that because it is illegal to sell fish in such small containers in some countries in Europe.”
Skolnick said that while he did not provide his customers with any literature about turtle upkeep, he gave the verbal instructions on food recommendations and advised that they research the Red Eared Slider online.
“I am very sensitive about living things,” Skolnick said. “I really should have printed out care instructions but I figure these are students at a good college and they can use the Internet.”
Skolnick said he also forgot to mention to students that without a warm environment, such as that provided by a heat lamp, Red Eared Sliders are unable to properly digest their food and will likely starve to death.
Skolnick purchased the turtles from a pet distribution company, but he said he believed they originally came from the Louisiana Bayou. He was not sure of their exact age, though he estimated them to be only a few weeks old.
“When you’re dealing with younger animals, you have to take better care of them,” he said. “Some people buy them, and think it’s a great idea just because they’re cute, but they’re not thinking about how to take care of them. The better you take care of them, the better their survival rate.”
Victoria Calleja ’13 bought two turtles from Skolnick, which she affectionately named Harold and Maude. Harold, whom Calleja said she considers an adopted family member, is thriving, but Maude died on Feb. 13.
“Maude was always super small and was the weak one,” Calleja said. “The first night I bought her I was carrying her back to the Butts and I thought she had gone to sleep because she wasn’t moving.”
Despite Maude’s death, Calleja remains optimistic about the future of Harold, whom she keeps on the windowsill beside her bed.
“I love waking up and seeing him in the morning. He’s like my little baby,” she said. “He was probably the best investment I ever made.”
Ultimately, Skolnick said that the best method of care is affection.
“Give them love,” he said. “They don’t mind being handled.”
Skolnick will be returning to campus on April 5 to sell his usual goods—turtles excluded.