Shell Game: New Preds coach may have to give up pet turtle

During his introductory conference call Wednesday, newly named Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette revealed that he is the owner of a pet turtle named Frank.

From The Tennessean:

"Frank was given to us by my nephew. When we got the turtle (in Philadelphia), he was about the size of a quarter," he said. "Then when I looked him up online I found he grows to the size of a dinner plate … and I was thinking to myself, 'what are we doing with this turtle?'

"My daughter insisted I love this turtle and it be part of the family, so its name is Frank."

Frank the Turtle spawned a lot of on-line chatter and the completely predictable parody Twitter account. But Laviolette may run afoul of the state if he brings his turtle with him to Nashville.

There are a couple of pieces of state law and administrative rule making at play. First up, the rules of the Tennessee Department of Health's Bureau of Health Services Administration's rules on communicable and environment diseases. Rules 1200-14-01-.36-.39 apply to turtles and tortoises.

In relevant part:

It shall be unlawful for a person to sell, barter, exchange or otherwise transfer any turtle as a pet; or to import or cause to be imported any type of turtle in the State of Tennessee for such purposes.

Now, Laviolette is not selling or bartering or exchanging a turtle, but he would be importing the turtle for the purpose of keeping Frank as a pet (although one reading of the Department of Health rule would seemingly prohibit the transfer or importation of the turtle only if Frank was to be sold).

Also at issue is the state's exotic animal law (TCA 70-4-400) passed in 1991. It sets up a permit system (and establishes various rules and regulations) for the keeping of exotic animals, broadly defined, essentially, as anything besides common pets and farm animals (turtles, for example, but also things like camels and tigers).

The law sets up four different classes of exotic animals: Class I covers animals "inherently dangerous to humans," including big cats, venomous snakes and the like, Class II is native wild animals (which would include Frank if he is a native species of turtle; his species is unknown to Post Sports) and Class III includes (among other things) non-native turtles and Class IV are animals that can only be kept in zoos.

If Frank is native and, therefore, a Class II turtle (though not a second-class turtle), he would require a permit, which the law says the TWRA and Tennessee Fish and Wildlife commission "shall issue." (It costs $10). If he is non-native and a Class III turtle, he does not require a permit, but the law gives the TWRA and TFWC broad authority to define which species are Class III. 

So while the Health Department rule could be read as prohibiting Frank, state law seemingly allows Frank.

Except that in 2012, the TWRA stopped issuing turtle permits because of a threat of salmonella. And indeed, state game wardens will seize turtles, as relayed in this recent story out of Chattanooga.

Chattanooga attorney Chris Jones — known for representing gubernatorial candidate and raccoon enthusiast Mark "Coonrippy" Brown — says that there have been no documented cases of turtle-borne salmonella in Tennessee and is fervent in his belief that the TWRA is draconian in its enforcement. He says TWRA agents threaten turtle owners with prosecution if they don't agree to turn their pets over to the state, which either euthanizes the animals or sends them to licensed wildlife rehab facilities.

Jones says even turtles captive-bred in other states and purchased legally — like Frank — are at risk for TWRA seizure.

A request for comment from the man responsible for enforcing the law, TWRA's captive wildlife coordinator Walter Cook, was not immediately returned.

So can Laviolette legally bring Frank to the Music City? The answer, seemingly, is no. But if a high-profile turtle can get the law changed, he'd truly be a hero on the half shell.