Exotic Animals: Born Free, Sold Out

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The Journey to the Pet Shop

Even when birds, reptiles, fish, and mammals are legally purchased in pet shops or from dealers, a cruel, illegal trade in exotic animals is being supported. Birds are smuggled into the United States more than any other animal. Before being shipped, birds are often force-fed, their wings are clipped, their beaks are taped shut, and they are crammed into everything from spare tires to luggage. It's not unusual for 80 percent of the birds in one shipment to die. Reptiles, who are drugged and stuffed into containers with false bottoms, also have high death rates. Despite the enormous losses of life, smugglers reap profits: Wildlife experts estimate that the illegal trade in exotic animals is a $10 billion-a-year business. Many animals, ounce for ounce, are worth more to smugglers than cocaine.

Taking animals from their natural habitats not only endangers individual animals - it jeopardizes entire populations and ecosystems. For example, the population of the South American hyacinth macaw has dropped 75 percent in the last 10 years due to smugglers' capturing of the birds for U.S. and European collectors. In Argentina, trappers have cut down thousands of quebracho trees since 1976 to reach fledgling macaws in their nests, destroying the habitat for all remaining animals. In the waters of the Philippines, poachers spray a sub-lethal dose of cyanide - which poisons fragile coral reefs - to stun and capture brightly colored tropical fish. To capture baby orangutans, poachers shoot the infants' mothers because, instead of running away, the babies cling to their mothers' dead bodies in fright.

Animals bred in captivity usually fare no better. For example, to help generate demand for pot-bellied pigs, breeders tell unsuspecting buyers that these animals grow to weigh no more than 40 pounds. To keep pigs small, unscrupulous breeders may deprive the pigs of food or inbreed them. But, once adopted, pigs often grow to top the scales at 200 pounds or more. Birds older than 8 to 10 weeks of age don't sell well at pet shops, so many are kept for breeding, confined to small, filthy cages. Nest boxes usually offer no means of escape, endangering female birds who can be injured or killed by sexually aggressive males. One trade magazine warns that hedgehogs under stress - from being confined, fed an improper diet, or forced to have too many litters - may display erratic behavior, including deserting, or even eating, their babies.

Hidden Dangers to Humans

Some exotic animals are regulated by laws that make it illegal for private individuals to keep them. These laws are usually designed not to protect animals, but to protect humans from animals who may be dangerous or who can carry transmittable diseases. For example, people can contract diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis B from monkeys. Iguanas and other reptiles - the fastest-growing segment of the exotic animals trade - can and do transmit salmonella bacteria to humans. Animals such as raccoons and hedgehogs often suffer from distemper, mange, parasites, and bacterial and viral infections, which can be transferred to domestic animals.

Many exotic animals have innate characteristics that make them unsuitable to keep inside homes. Tigers, lions, and other big cats, who can be legally purchased at auctions throughout the country, are just one example. In a span of just a few months, a 2-year-old Chicago girl was mauled by her aunt's "pet" Asian jungle cat and needed 200 stitches; a 3-year-old North Carolina boy required surgery after being attacked by his father's Bengal tiger; and 15 lions were killed by police officers in Idaho after the animals attacked their owners and escaped from "Ligertown," a private compound that housed exotic animals. Federal laws regulate the keeping of exotic - and potentially dangerous - animals only if they are endangered or exhibited or bred for profit. State and county laws are often too vague to be enforceable.

Ignorance Breeds Misery

Enormous suffering can also result from negligence or ignorance when exotic animals are kept in captivity. In November 1995, animal control authorities confiscated a crippled cougar cub from a man in Long Island, N.Y. The cub had been fed a calcium-deficient diet, which caused her bones to become twisted and deformed. A local SPCA investigator said the cub's "own weight breaks her bones." Iguanas can suffer debilitating illnesses - and death - if they are not provided with enough sunlight (for proper calcium metabolism) or if they are fed inadequate diets. Hedgehogs, who roll themselves into tight balls, can easily become injured when children try to "uncurl" them or if cats roll them across floors. Some types of fish will die of loneliness if they do not have other fish companions.

Nowhere to Turn

The American Zoo and Aquarium Association advises zoos to refuse exotic animals from people who are unable or 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." Some people sneak animals into exhibits - and risk infecting zoo populations with diseases - or leave animals in front of zoo gates; usually these animals are euthanized. Others try to return unwanted animals to their natural homes - or simply abandon them along rural roads - but without appropriate rehabilitation, these animals will starve or fall victim to the elements or predators. Many pot-bellied pigs are taken to slaughterhouses when their owners tire of them.

A Death Sentence for Exotic Animals

According to animal shelter sources, 60 percent of all wild animals who are kept as "pets" die within the first month of ownership; of the remainder, 20 percent die within the first year, and only 10 percent are still alive by the end of the second year.

Resist buying exotic animals from dealers or pet shops. Support or introduce legislation that would make owning exotic animals illegal in your community (contact PETA for a sample ordinance), and fight efforts by breeders and pet store owners to dismantle existing laws.

If you are concerned about the welfare of an exotic animal in your community, contact the local humane society. Often, animal control officials conduct investigations only after complaints by neighbors have been filed.

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