Testimony related to the importation of exotic animals

by

Wayne Pacelle

Senior Vice-President

Communications and Government Affairs

for

The Humane Society of the United States

to the

 Environment and Public Works Committee

 

July 17, 2003

 

 

 

On behalf of the Humane Society of the United States and its 7.7 million members and constituents, I would like to thank the Chairman for conducting a hearing on the critical issue of exotic animals imported into the United States for the pet trade, and the concomitant dangers they pose to public health, native wildlife, and the environment.

 

At the root of the government’s recent scramble to contain the outbreak of monkeypox lies a simple fact.  nyone arriving in the United States carrying a meat product, a piece of fruit or a potted plant from any foreign destination is subject to a thorough inspection and confiscation of the item to make sure it isn’t harboring diseases or parasites.

 

But an importer of live exotic animals, say Gambian giant pouched rats that are blamed for introducing the monkeypox virus into the United States from Africa and passing it on to humans via pet prairie dogs, faces no such check.  Gambian rats, and hundreds of other exotic wildlife species, have a far easier time entering the United States than dogs, cats, livestock, horses and people.

 

This latest outbreak of yet another alien disease is the direct result of the government’s failure to regulate the flow of tens of millions of wild creatures into this country for the pet trade.  A veritable Noah’s Ark of exotic wildlife carrying viruses, bacteria and parasites that can transmit endemic foreign contagions to humans and to native wildlife, are being imported into the United States with scant federal regulation, restriction, or precaution.

 

America’s craze for exotic pets has created a freewheeling, virtually unregulated wildlife import industry that may account for close to half of the roughly $30 billion market for pets and pet products in this country.  The industry is in serious need of controls.  Everything from dangerous carnivores to omnivorous fish to venomous reptiles and amphibians are sold in pet stores, on the Internet, by mail order catalogue, at regional auctions, and in local swap meets.

 

As monkeypox vividly illustrates, the virtually unrestricted flow of exotics into the U.S. poses a serious disease threat.  Animals have long been known to transmit zoonotic illnesses to humans.  They include E.coli, rabies, salmonella, trichinosis, yellow fever, malaria, botulism, streptococcus, and influenza.  The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918-19 that killed some 20 million people worldwide, is believed to have originated either with swine or waterfowl.

 

In recent times, so-called “emerging diseases” have increasingly jumped from animals to humans as contact with exotic creatures has increased and opportunistic infectious agents have found new hosts.  These diseases include HIV-AIDS, Hepatitis B, the hemorrhagic Ebola and Marburg viruses, Lyme disease, hantavirus, mad cow disease, West Nile virus, the respiratory killer SARS, and now monkeypox.  This virus, never before seen in North America, spreads between humans and kills about 10 per cent of its victims in Africa.

 

Experts believe this animal-human crossover could spawn dangerous new pathogens and increase the chances for another deadly disease outbreak.  Robert Webster, a leading virologist at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, has warned: “There are probably hundreds, if not thousands – maybe even millions – of viruses out there. We don’t even know they’re there until we disturb them. SARS is probably just a gentle breeze of what one of these big ones is going to do someday.”

 

The Humane Society of the United States began campaigning against exotic animal imports three decades ago when it supported a successful petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the import and sale of small turtles that carry salmonella.  Since then, we have continued to battle this growing public passion for unusual pets and have tracked with alarm the deleterious consequences for both people and wildlife.

 

In 1975, the government banned imports of all primates for the pet trade because they carry several dangerous diseases.  Later, it prohibited the import of three species of African tortoise that can transmit a disease deadly to livestock.  In the wake of the monkeypox outbreak, the government recently banned the import, sale and distribution of Gambian rats and other African rodents.

 

Trade was also halted in native American prairie dogs which vectored monkeypox to humans and are known to carry bubonic plague and tularemia.  The government’s practice of targeting wildlife after a disease outbreak illustrates a major flaw in public health protection --  the classic approach of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.

 

Washington has failed to stiffen the nation’s public health defenses sufficiently even as the threat to public health has increased dramatically.  Four years ago, for example, the HSUS petitioned the FDA for an import ban on all pet reptiles in response to the soaring incidence of salmonellosis.  We are still awaiting the agency’s response.

 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are nine million pet reptiles -- snakes, iguanas, lizards and turtles  -- in the U.S. and they are responsible for some 90,000 cases of salmonella poisoning annually.  The disease causes severe diarrhea, fever, vomiting, even death – with children and the elderly the most vulnerable.

 

Government defenses against the exotic animal disease threat are fragmented between several federal agencies.  The CDC, for example, regulates imports of cats, dogs, and pet-trade primates because they are known vectors of disease to humans.  The Fish and Wildlife Service checks a wide variety of wildlife shipments – alive and dead – looking for endangered species, but its inspectors are not trained to detect diseases.

 

Along with meat and produce, the Department of Agriculture inspects horses, livestock and birds which are subject to quarantine and a raft of other screening procedures.  Everything else gets waved through. Says a USDA spokesman: “We don’t regulate importation of fish, reptiles, lions, tigers, bears, foxes, monkeys, endangered species, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats, chinchillas, squirrels, mongooses, chipmunks, ferrets and other rodents.”

 

The HSUS has warned for years that exotics can also wreak ecological and financial havoc by introducing diseases to domestic wildlife, livestock, poultry, and fish populations which have no natural resistance to them.  In 2000, the government clamped an emergency ban on three species of African tortoise that carry ticks capable of transmitting heartwater disease to ungulates.  Had it become established here, the contagion could have wiped out half the nation’s cattle, sheep, goats, antelope and deer.

 

Exotic Newcastle Disease, carried into California this year by smuggled Mexican parakeets and initially spread to four other states by illegal cockfighters whose game fowl became infected, has forced the government to destroy 3.5 million chickens and turkeys and has cost taxpayers over $100 million.

 

Fanciers of unconventional pets eager to obtain the latest fad animal for personal amusement, public recognition, or bragging rights, rarely stop to consider the true costs of the exotics trade.  All forms of wildlife suffer extreme cruelties and high death rates during capture and transportation.  Mortality among tropical birds, for example, runs as high as 80 percent.

 

When millions of surplus cats and dogs are euthanized every year because homes cannot be found for them, there is no good  reason to take wild animals from their natural habitats and confine them to a tiny cage or a small enclosure for the rest of their lives.  Before the monkeypox outbreak, tens of thousands of prairie dogs were captured out west and sold into the pet trade.  In their natural habitat, these gregarious animals live in large social groups: as solitary caged pets, they are condemned to a miserable and lonely existence.

 

Properly caring for exotic pets, particularly large predators like big cats, is difficult at best as owners often try to change the nature of the animal rather than accommodate its normal behavior.  The HSUS estimates that Americans now own anywhere up to 12,000 pet tigers, lions, cougars and other big cats.  These magnificent carnivores – particularly easy-to-breed tigers -- have become the nation’s hottest new exotic pet, animal status symbol, advertising gimmick, and roadside attraction.

 

They are imprisoned in tiny wire mesh cages, tethered or chained in basements and barns, displayed outside gas stations and convenience stores to attract customers, used as guard animals by drug dealers, and held in squalid, unaccredited roadside zoos.  Astonishingly, they are also carted around to schools and shopping malls to be photographed and petted. 

 

They may appear to be tame and friendly, but the reality of recent attacks -- many on children -- reinforces the omnipresent danger to their owners, or to anyone who comes into close contact.  Big cats are hard-wired to kill, and in the past five years, at least 9 people have been mauled to death by tigers, scores have been attacked, and many have suffered grievous injuries.  Twice as many people die each year from dog bites but with 50 million dogs, the threat from tigers is far greater.

 

Tigers kept as pets or held in roadside zoos suffer from abuse, ignorance, poor diet, lack of veterinary care, and painful physical ailments from random inbreeding.  A few lucky ones end up in accredited sanctuaries.  Most are dumped into pseudo-shelters that operate like puppy mills.  They breed the big cats to churn out cubs for sale on the internet or at exotic animal auctions.  They cost as little as $300 – the price of a pure-bred puppy.

 

Many tigers end up being dumped on local animal shelters that are ill-equipped to care for them.  Humane officers report a catalogue of misery suffered by the animals from untreatable ailments requiring euthanasia, to cats mutilated and crippled by ignorant owners to try to de-claw their pets with garden shears.

 

This growing threat to the American public, the widespread abuse of these animals, and the patchwork of state and local exotic animal laws, underscores the need for federal action.  Twelve states (Alaska, Calif., Colo., Ga., Hi., Mass., N.H., N.M., Tenn., Utah, Vt., and Wyo.,) prohibit the private possession of exotic animals.  Seven states (Conn., Fla., Ill., Md., Mich., Nev., Va.,) have a partial ban.  Fifteen states (Ariz., Del., Ind., Maine, Miss., Mont., N.J., N.Y., N.D., Okla., Ore., Pa., R.I., S.D. and Tex.,) require a license or permit to possess them.

 

However, enforcement is spotty, loopholes are wide, and local ordinances are a regulatory patchwork.  From the squalid backyard menagerie to the seedy roadside zoo, it’s time for Congress to step in and begin policing the big cat underground.  It is also time to stem the tide of millions of exotic animals imported for the pet trade.

 

Consumers should consider the health risks and the humane issues associated with any species of wild animal – exotic or native – obtained as a pet.  Any time a wild creature is brought into the home, it can bring with it every bacteria, virus, or parasite it has been exposed to.  Even with a lengthy quarantine, there is no way to assure that these animals are healthy, or will not pass on disease-causing pathogens to humans.  The risks far outweigh the novelty and fascination of owning the animal.

 

The Humane Society of the United States believes Congress and the federal government have several available options for decisive action to regulate these unrestricted wildlife imports and protect public health.

 

·                 Enact the Captive Wildlife Safety Act [HR 1006 and S.269] now before the House and Senate that would prohibit the interstate transportation of big cats and other dangerous predators for sale and commerce in the private pet trade.

 

·                 Form an advisory committee within the Department of Health and Human Services to determine which species pose a health threat, and recommend their placement on the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service list of injurious species.

 

·                 Expand the injurious species list immediately to include exotic reptiles and rodents, thus preventing their importation and interstate transportation under the Lacey Act.

 

·                 Consider new legislation to establish a fund to assist in the confiscation and placement of captive wild animals in the U.S. and improve their quality of care in accredited animal shelters and sanctuaries.

 

Until a sound system to protect public health is in place, Washington should prohibit imports of all exotic mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds – wild caught or captive bred -- destined for the pet trade.

 

Thank you again for conducting this important hearing.