Statement of Senator James M. Jeffords

Hearing on Importation of Exotic Species

July 17, 2003

 

          Good morning, and welcome to all of our witnesses.  I want to begin by thanking you, Senator Inhofe, for holding this important hearing.

 

          We are fortunate to have on this Committee and in the Senate two members who can give us their insights and expertise on this issue, two members who practiced veterinary medicine before being elected to the Senate:  Senator Allard, who is going will Chair this hearing, and our first witness this morning, Senator Ensign.

 

          Senator Ensign and I have introduced legislation, which Senator Allard has co-sponsored, S. 269, the “Captive Wildlife Safety Act of 2003", to address public safety threats posed by private ownership of dangerous exotic cats.  It is my hope we can act on that legislation this session.

 

          However, today’s hearing takes a broader look at the problems posed by importing exotic species and their impact on public health.

          We have all been alarmed by the recent outbreaks of diseases that many of us had never heard of or thought would ever reach this country.

 

          What is most alarming is that many of these diseases are being introduced into this country by animals, legally imported, for the purpose of being sold as pets.  Some of these pets, known among enthusiasts as “pocket pets” due to their smaller size, have been found to have served as vectors for monkeypox, which had never before been found in the U.S.

 

          Spreading disease is an unintended result of importing exotic species, but a serious one. 

As the monkeypox episode demonstrated, our nation may be more vulnerable from  an unintended outbreak transmitted by an exotic species than from a foreign nation.

 

          We must address our vulnerability from exotic species with the same fervor as we defend our nation against other foreign threats.  I believe we dodged the bullet so far, but we have a responsibility to act before it  is too late. 

 

          All of the agencies testifying here today did an outstanding job identifying the monkeypox outbreak and preventing it from becoming more serious and widespread.  But do the agencies have the tools they need to prevent future outbreaks?

 

          The fact that we have four agencies here today raises another question:  should the importation of exotic species be streamlined or placed under the control of one agency?

 

          In the 1970s, the Food and Drug Administration banned the importation and sale of turtles less than four inches in length because of the threat of salmonella infection.  In 1975, the Centers for Disease Control banned the importation of primate species for the pet trade because of herpes and hepatitis concerns.  In 2000, the Department of Agriculture banned the import of three types of African tortoises because of the tick-borne Heartwater disease.  

 

          It has long been known that monkeypox can infect rodents.  If the importation of certain rodents were banned, could this outbreak have been avoided?  Should we have known?

 

          Hindsight is 20-20, but we are here today to look forward to the future to see how these risks to public health and safety can be eliminated.

 

          I doubt that Congressman John Fletcher Lacey, an Iowa Republican, the author of the original Lacey Act in 1900 would have ever imagined the problem we face today. 

 

          Representative Lacey had the foresight to propose the ban on the bustling interstate commerce of birds because milliners used their feathers to decorate hats.  But that was 1900, before the invention of the airplane--before the invention of a non-stop flight between two cities thousands of miles apart.

 

          Today we import birds and animals--many of which are proven to be carriers of diseases--as exotic pets.  What would Congressman Lacey be thinking today?

 

          It is my hope that with today’s hearing, we will begin to address this problem together and prevent the spread of diseases through unintended carriers.  Some of these critters are cute and cuddly, but are they worth putting our public health in serious jeopardy?

 

          Again, I would like to thank Senator Inhofe  for holding this hearing and I look forward to the testimony of the witnesses.