Animal Writes
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14 May 2000 Issue
Why We Don’t Support the Exotic-Pet Trade


by [email protected]  - Michelle Rivera

Animal rights activists have long held that exotic animals suffer tremendous abuses during their journey to the pet stores and beyond. However, statistics show that the trade in reptiles is the fastest-growing segment of the pet trade in recent years. So maybe it’s time to look at this from another angle. Perhaps appealing to the health and well-being of the people who buy these animals makes more sense than attempting to argue on behalf of the animals. Consider this: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that the frequency of salmonella infections (salmonellosis) from contact with pet reptiles has increased over the past 15 years. Most of the cases occur with infants and young children, and quite a few have involved serious complications. Two infants developed salmonellosis by contact with pet iguanas, resulting in the death of one of the infants. In light of this, the CDC has issued a statement warning parents of young children that pet reptiles, (iguanas, snakes, turtles and other lizards), be kept out of households with kids under five or with people who have immuno-suppressed systems.

But although the popularity of reptiles has grown, the list of exotic pets doesn’t stop with reptiles. Other popular exotic animals include hedgehogs, macaws, lizards, rodents, monkeys. Mike Tyson “owns” white tigers, but luckily, Tyson’s popularity has faded of late and his penchant for white tigers has not caught on with whatever fans he has left. Most exotic animals are federally regulated. These laws provide criminal penalties for people who own exotic animals without proper permits. However, these laws are not in place to protect animals, but for the protection of humans from animals who can carry transmittable diseases. For example, people can contract diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis B from monkeys. Snakes and lizards transmit salmonella bacteria to humans. Animals such as raccoons, hedgehogs, rats, sugar gliders and ferrets can transmit distemper, ringworm, mange, intestinal parasites, and bacterial and viral infections to domestic animals and humans. Giardia can easily be transmitted from parakeets, cockatiels and parrots.

And if you still want to appeal from the animal’s point of view, here are some facts that may help you win an argument!

A captive life amounts to capital punishment for exotic animals because of the lack of proper nutrition, environmental necessities, abject loneliness, and the stress brought on by their imprisonment. The trade in exotic pets is even more fatal to animals that don’t make it to our pet stores; for each animal who does make it to the auction or the pet store, incalculable others die en route.

The sale of birds, fish, reptiles, “pocket pets” and other mammals is, of course, legal. However, the trade in these animals is the result of illegal smuggling and support of an illegal trade in exotic animals. Caged birds are smuggled into the United States more than any other animal. In her book, All God's Creatures Priced to Sell, Anastasia Toufexis reveals that, prior to shipment, birds are force-fed, their wings clipped, their beaks taped shut, and they are crammed into all kinds of inadequate habitats, from spare tires to suitcases. It is quite common for 80 percent of the birds in one shipment to die, which explains the enormous price they bring. Snakes and lizards are sedated and crammed into containers with false bottoms. Needless to say, the rate of death of these animals is also very high.

Need more? How about the environmentalists point of view? Let’s look at the result of all this smuggling on the ecosystems from which they come. The population of the South American hyacinth macaw has dropped 75 percent. The Argentina trappers have annihilated thousands of quebracho trees while snatching fledgling macaws in their nests. In Philippine waters, poachers spray cyanide to capture brightly colored tropical fish. And in the movie “Instinct”, we watch in stunned horror as poachers shoot primates, especially nursing mothers, because babies cling to their mothers' dead carcasses in fear. Anthony Hopkins character may have been fictitious, but the portrayal of “harvesting” monkeys was frighteningly factual.

There’s more! There’s also the moral consequence. What happens to iquanas who grow to six feet? We drop them off at the zoo, of course! Sorry, not an option. The American Zoo and Aquarium Association advises zoos to refuse exotic animals from people who are unwilling to care for them. Jack Cover, a curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, says, "We'd have to have two or three warehouses to handle the donations we get calls on." Zookeepers have found animals that have been sneaked into exhibits, which puts the existing population at risk for infectious diseases. When found, these animals are euthanized.

Irresponsible owners have even attempted to return unwanted animals to their “natural

environment” -- which simply amounts to abandonment inn rural areas. Without suitable rehabilitation, however, these animals will become prey, will starve, or will die at the hands of cruelty, indifference, the elements, or traffic. And if that doesn’t go far enough to convince people not to support the exotic pet trade, consider this sobering statistic: Of all the all exotic animals who are purchased as "pets" 60% die within the first month of ownership 20 percent die within the first year, 10 percent are still alive by the end of the second year.

Don’t fall into the trap that you are “rescuing” an exotic animal from the pet store because he looked (pick one) lonely, hungry, cute, desolate, forlorn, helpless or needy and you knew you could take care of him better; the very second you walk out of the pet store with your “rescue”, he will be replaced by another, and the cycle of misery will continue because of your patronage.

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