Sink or swim

A turtle vendor on Main Campus who has had the legality of his street sales called into question said he has nowhere else to go.

Kevin Robinson sat on the wall between Dunkin Donuts and the Qdoba Mexican Grill on Cecil B. Moore Avenue last Wednesday with his hands folded in his lap. Next to him sat about 10 cages, each filled with one tiny turtle he was selling for $20.

He can be spotted here often throughout the week.

“If you want $5 ones, you can go around and find somebody who’s selling some unhealthy turtles,” Robinson said.

“These are healthy turtles – I take care of them really good,” he explained to a customer who would later purchase two turtles: one of each gender.

According to a ban enforced by the Food and Drug Administration, the sale of turtles with shells under four inches in length is illegal, due to their ability to spread salmonella to those who touch them. The legality of Robinson’s turtle sales remains in question.

Executive Director of Campus Safety Services Charlie Leone said this situation is difficult because it is out of CSS’ “realm.”

“We would have to get two other entities involved; a license and inspection to see, ‘Does he have a vendor’s license, can he even sell on the sidewalk period?’” Leone said.

“The other piece would be the animal issue,” he added.

Leone said the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ investigative team will be contacted about the turtles. A Philadelphia-based SPCA representative said the turtle sales would only be in their jurisdiction if cruelty was involved.

According to the FDA, salmonella symptoms usually appear within six to 72 hours after an interaction with the bacteria and can last two to seven days. Symptoms include fever, stomach pain, nausea, diarrhea, fever and headache. Usually, those afflicted recover on their own.

Robinson said he purchases the turtles from a source who buys them in bulk, but he wouldn’t provide further details. He claimed none of his clientele have ever returned with complaints of feeling ill.

“I always tell my customers whenever they deal with them to always wash their hands, and that’s with every animal,” Robinson said.

Senior media studies and production major Jackie Corbett said she purchased her turtle from a merchant  along Cecil B. Moore Avenue near 15th Street last April.

The turtle’s name is Sal, short for salmonella, an illness Corbett said she never contracted after purchasing him.

“He just said, ‘OK, wash your hands so you don’t get [salmonella],’” Corbett said. “But he didn’t tell me anything about how long [the turtle] was going to live — then I Googled it and saw that it would live for, like, 70 years!”

Corbett said that although she knows that the sale of these turtles is illegal, there are worse crimes occurring in the city to give attention to.

“Here in the city of Philadelphia where I was raised, there are so many different things that I could be doing to make money,” Robinson said. “I could be robbing people, selling drugs or whatever it is to get money in a negative way, but I chose to come here and sell healthy turtles.”

As a Muslim, Robinson explained that it is a part of his religious beliefs to care for the turtles that he sells.  Robinson said that he has sold so many turtles, he has lost count.

“If you’re going to get into something, you should learn about it,” he said. “Especially with animals or living creatures or anything of that sort, you definitely need to know how to take care of them and a little bit about them.”

Robinson said his business goes beyond the sale of turtles. By setting up near Main Campus, he believes he has opened up communication between himself and the students. He also views himself as a role model to the children living in the community.

“When they see me standing here and they walk up to me, they automatically respect me because they see what I’m doing – I’m not selling drugs,” he said. “I can give them advice because they look up to me a little bit.”

According to the FDA, infectious disease specialists estimate the ban on small turtles prevents 100,000 salmonella infections in U.S children each year. Children are among those at the highest risk for contracting salmonella.

If Robinson is banned from selling his turtles, he said he does not know what else he will do for money.

“Let’s say I am banned from doing this,” Robinson said. “Then, that puts pressure on me because, you know, I had a nice situation where I am making honest, legal money and, you know, enjoying the good, and you are pushing me away from that. So, what else do you want me to do?”

Cindy Stansbury can be reached at

1 Comment

  1. Allowing this behavior to continue is bad for turtles that are native to PA. Sliders are not native to this area and when they are inevitably released into the wild, they out-compete native turtles like eastern painteds because sliders are so aggressive.

    Despite their popularity, RES are not good pets for students. They require expensive filtration and lots of water. A fully grown female needs at minimum 75 gallons of water and a filter/heater rated for twice that capacity to keep the water clean. They also require UV and heat lamps and fresh greens to promote shell health. You cannot keep 100 gallons of water in a student apartment or dorm. A small turtle can live in shallow water but as it grows it will need a bigger habitat. There is also no way to tell whether the turtle you purchase is a male or a female until it is 4 inches long or larger.

    Sliders can also live a long time. If you buy a turtle at 20 and take good care of it, you might still have that animal when you’re 60. Most students are not ready for that type of commitment and will ultimately abandon or mistreat the turtle. At best, the turtle dies a slow, painful death from poor husbandry and at worst it spreads diseases contracted from living in captivity to local turtle populations when it is released into the wild.

    That said, I have an RES myself, she’s a year old this month. She lives in a 55-gallon tank ($100 used with a stand) and has a canister filter ($90 new plus the cost of media) and a lighting setup ($25 for a new UV bulb every 6 months, plus the initial cost of the lamps.) This is an upgrade from a 20-gallon long tank and crappy fish filter that cost about $50 on craigslist. I have invested about $400 on this turtle all told, and she’s not even done growing yet. I have moved her a few times and I can’t even lift her tank on my own. The initial cost of the animal was $12. Doesn’t seem quite so cheap and easy anymore. I love her but it’s still work to change her water and clean her tank.

    Don’t buy these turtles if you’re not prepare to care for one for its entire lifespan, and if you do, don’t ever release them into the wild.

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