United States Senator John Ensign

Senate Environment and Public Works Committee

Hearing on the importation of exotic species on public health.

 
Mr. Chairman, thank you for allowing me to participate in this important hearing on the importation of exotic species and the impact on public health and safety.  As a veterinarian who operated a small animal practice, I have dealt first-hand with exotic animals, and it is a subject I have passionate feelings about.  
 
As you know, Senator Jeffords and I introduced the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, S. 269, earlier this year in order to combat the interstate movement of big cats for use in the pet trade.  Keeping lions, tigers, and other big cats as pets is a prescription for trouble – for both animals and people.  
 

Wild animals belong in the wild.  Only certain types of domesticated animals belong in the home.  Wild animals are not behaviorally suited for pet-keeping.  They often have very specific needs that cannot be met by housing them in a tank, in the basement, or in a cage in the backyard.  Many people quickly give up these animals because they cannot adequately deal with them and their often destructive and dangerous behaviors.  They have few disposal options, all bad: kill the animal, release the animal, or turn it over to already overburdened sanctuaries and humane societies, which then must bear the long-term financial cost of an irresponsible and often impulsive decision to acquire a wild animal as a pet.

 
The House Resources Committee earlier this week reported the House companion bill to the floor, and we hope this committee moves S. 269 in an expeditious manner.  Senator Jeffords and I would be delighted to see the President sign the legislation into law before the year ends.
 
While I am here to respectfully request your support for the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, I also appear to applaud your effort to take a broader review of the exotic wild animal trade.  While big cats and other predators pose a threat to public safety – and protection from violent attacks is a primary rationale for S. 269 -- the pathogens that many other animals can carry and transmit to people pose an even graver threat to the health of Americans.  This is why Senator Jeffords and I together requested this hearing.    
 
We have long known that animals transmit zoonotic diseases to humans.  These diseases include E. coli, rabies, salmonella, trichinosis, yellow fever, malaria, botulism, streptococcus, and influenza.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that there are more than 90,000 cases a year of salmonella infection stemming from pet reptiles, which have salmonella in their intestinal tract.
 
In more recent times, so-called “emerging diseases” have increasingly jumped from animals to humans.  These include Hepatitis B, the hemorrhagic Ebola and Marburg viruses, Lyme disease, hantavirus, West Nile virus, the respiratory killer SARS, and now monkeypox.  Scientists present evidence that suggests that even HIV-AIDS and mad cow disease are zoonotic diseases.  
 
We are playing Russian roulette with the American public by allowing the free-flow of exotic wild animals into this country for the pet trade.  The risks far outweigh the rewards, and a public policy response is heavily warranted and long overdue.
 
There are other costs to society.  An unrestricted flow of wild animals into this country puts native wildlife, forests, and agriculture at risk.  My home state of Nevada recently experienced an outbreak of Exotic Newcastle Disease, a deadly avian contagion.  It appears that parakeets or fighting cocks were illegally transported into California from Mexico.  Some of these birds were infected with Newcastle Disease and an outbreak in Los Angeles County spread throughout all of southern California and into Arizona, Nevada, and Texas.  To contain the spread of the disease, USDA spent more than $110 million in its containment and compensation efforts.  Government authorities had to kill more than 3.7 million birds, disrupting egg and poultry production and other poultry-related industries.
 

Currently the ownership of and traffic of wild or exotic pets is largely unregulated.  On the state level, only 12 states prohibit owning dangerous animals. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, (CITES) restricts ownership and trade only in endangered wildlife.  With scant federal regulation, virtually any non-endangered wild animal to be brought into the U.S. to be sold, bred, and kept as pets.

 

With thousands of exotic pet outlets ranging from exotic animal auctions, flea markets, online sales and other effective distribution channels, the potential for similar events involving much more dangerous pathogens is a very real threat to public health and safety.

 

In light of the recent outbreaks of SARS, monkeypox and Newcastle Disease, federal response is absolutely necessary.  Because many federal agencies including the Center for Diseases, Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration regulate animal import, I suggest the need for cooperative effort to:

 

1.               First, identify policy suggestions that would prevent outbreaks similar to the SARS and monkeypox outbreaks. 

2.               Second, recommend policy suggestions that better prepares agencies to react in the event that another outbreak occurs. 

 

As the Congressional Research Service suggests, “development of a systematic method for using disease outbreak response to evaluate public health system preparedness could assist in identifying areas for improvement in the system and a metric for measuring improvement.” 

Mr. Chairman, wild animals belong in the wild where they are less likely to transmit zoonotic diseases posing risk to public health.  That is the principle that should guide our actions in the Congress.    Thank you this opportunity to speak on this issue.  I look forward to reviewing the findings of this hearing.