Cute, Cuddly, and DEADLY

The headlines are as frightening as they are surreal: "Pet Tiger Euthanized After Biting Pregnant Woman," "Lion Lurking on Tri-State Streets," "Supersized Snake Slithers Out of Tank in 'Slick' Escape." Unfortunately, the reality behind these media tales is not only horrifying, but true. Wild, exotic, and often dangerous animals increasingly are being kept as personal pets or allowed to interact with the general public, despite the great risks involved in such animal companionship.

No longer are "domestic" dogs, cats, and hamsters—or even parrots and iguanas—enough to satisfy some pet fanciers. Lions, tigers, cougars, bears, monkeys, Gila monsters, boa constrictors, wallabies, and even obscure African rodents inhabit bedrooms and backyards across America. Some humans who live with these animals are remarkably ill-prepared to care for them sufficiently.

Not your average house cat

There are more tigers in captivity in the United States than there are in the wild worldwide. The allure of that cute tiger cub will someday evaporate as the animal's innate, wild behavior surfaces.

Since exotic pets are made available more cheaply (a tiger cub can cost roughly the same as a purebred puppy) and more conveniently (internet sales and local auctions provide a ready supply of wildlife to those eager for such pets) the number of animals imported into the United States is astronomical. According to Marshall Jones of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), between 1992 and 2002, U.S. trade in wildlife and wildlife products increased by 62% and the number of different species in trade grew by 75%. "Overall," Jones declares, "in 2002, over 38,000 live mammals, 365,000 live birds, two million live reptiles, 49 million live amphibians, and 216 million live fish were imported into the United States." In one year, about 267 million individual living creatures (roughly the human population of the United States) were imported into the country.

Where are these animals going? There are more than 2,500 animal exhibitors licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) under the Animal Welfare Act. USDA includes circuses, zoos, roadside menageries, petting zoos, and marine mammal parks in this category. There are some exemptions to the licensing requirement including pet shows, rodeos, and exhibitors showing only "agricultural" animals.

The majestic allure of these animals, coupled with their accessibility, creates a scenario in which members of the general public are no longer content to see these animals in a licensed facility, but want to own them as pets—despite the fact that they likely lack the knowledge, experience, or infrastructure to house and care for these wild animals appropriately. Keeping wild exotics as pets is like sticking your head in a lion's mouth: you never really know when the animal will decide he's had enough and bite.

Keeping exotics is bad for everyone

According to the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition (CWAPC), it is estimated that 90% of the exotic pets who survive capture and transport are dead within two years in captivity. CWAPC, which tracks incidents involving captive wildlife, presents a grim outlook on the prospect for keeping exotics safely—either as personal pets or in facilities where the public can have direct interaction with them.

A few stories about human injuries and deaths should be enough to steer anyone to an animal shelter for a domestic dog or cat: pet tigers, lions, and bears have mauled their "owners" to death; a petting zoo buffalo killed his caretaker; a leopard in a amusement park killed a woman visitor.

Animals in some exhibition facilities, including substandard zoos and refuges, also face injury and death: tigers and lions have been shot by police after escaping their enclosures, a black bear died at a wildlife park in Illinois after ingesting a ball, and hundreds of animals of all species have been confiscated after being subjected to neglect and cruelty. Other animals escape their captive homes and, luckily, also escape conflict with humans or other animals: lions have escaped from sanctuaries, a polar bear escaped his enclosure at the Denver Zoo, monkeys escaped from a dealer's facility in Miami, 16 baby pythons escaped from an animal wholesaler in Maryland.

Fears are rising in the wake of SARS, West Nile virus, and Monkeypox virus that importation of live exotic wildlife can also have a devastating impact on domestic animal and human health. Dr. Stephen Ostroff of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes, "More than half of these newly emerging infectious diseases have their origin in animals." This is not new knowledge—just newly-discovered diseases. It has long been recognized, for instance, that salmonella can be transmitted from pet reptiles to humans.

The latest outbreak, monkeypox, is suspected of affecting at least 72 people in six Midwest states according to the CDC (see box on page 10). It should be noted that live wildlife shipments for the pet trade are not the only risk. Mr. Jones of the USFWS observes that wild animal flesh ("bushmeat") is continually imported into the U.S. surreptitiously. One routine inspection at a refrigerated warehouse uncovered rodent bushmeat from Africa in a shipment from Ghana labeled as containing fish for human consumption.

Part of the problem is that while the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (CDC and Food and Drug Administration), the U.S. Department of Interior (USFWS), and the USDA (Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service/Veterinary Services) all play a role, there is no central agency in the U.S. government charged with verifying that animals imported into the U.S. are free of disease.

Leave wildlife in the wild

A number of actions have been taken and proposed to address the panoply of dangers associated with importation and ownership of exotic wildlife. In the short term, CDC has prohibited the transport and sale of prairie dogs, tree squirrels, rope squirrels, dormice, Gambian giant rats, brush-tailed porcupines, and striped mice. This limited ban on live wildlife imports is an important step, but obviously only gets at one part of the potential problem.

Congress has begun to pay serious attention to the issue as well. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee held a hearing on July 17, 2003, on the importation of exotic species. Senator Wayne Allard (R-CO), a veterinarian by profession, presided over the hearing. Senator Allard highlighted a government report that found that "nearly three out of four emerging diseases reach humans through animals." To his credit, Senator Allard also discussed the "high rate of mortality in exotic species." The Senator continued: "This occurs both during shipment and after the animal is purchased and taken home. Another problem I see is that few people are qualified to properly care for an exotic animal. The animals often end up neglected or cared for in an inappropriate manner. I do not think that this is acceptable. Pets are a huge responsibility and the decision to adopt one should not be taken lightly."

Senator James Jeffords (I-VT) also attended the hearing, and concluded: "…our nation may be more vulnerable from an unintended outbreak transmitted by an exotic species than from a foreign nation....we have a responsibility to act before it is too late."

Senator Jeffords has acted to address at least one component of the overall issue of exotic pet ownership by introducing the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (S. 269). A companion bill has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) (H.R. 1006). The bills would prohibit the import, export, and interstate commercial shipments of certain exotic animals including lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and cougars. The House bill, which has been passed by the Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, also includes a prohibition on trade in lion/tiger hybrids. The legislation is restricted to prohibiting big cats from being owned as pets by private citizens. It does not address the larger impact of other potentially dangerous exotic pets such as bears, primates, reptiles, and other animals, nor does it address the larger issue of disease transmission from certain wildlife. Moreover, though getting exotic big cats out of people's homes is a laudable goal, there are countless roadside zoos and other facilities that are ill-equipped to handle such wildlife and prevent dangerous exotics from escaping or injuring human visitors. Unfortunately, the bill includes an exemption that allows any individual licensed and inspected by USDA to receive or otherwise trade in exotic big cats—USDA licensing is a remarkably easy process that most anyone could attain. While the bill should be much more restrictive, it is a step in the right direction. Twelve states already prohibit private possession of exotic big cats (though a loophole remains as long as these individuals can get licensed by USDA).

Sometimes, animals that are in sub-par facilities are lucky enough to be confiscated, but sanctuaries—even the best of them—are under-funded and lack the room to take on the vast number of animals in need of rescue.

In one recent high-profile case, John Weinhart is facing criminal charges for child endangerment and cruel treatment of animals at his facility, Tiger Rescue, in Colton, CA. A raid of his premises last April reportedly turned up 90 animal carcasses including 58 dead, frozen tiger cubs. CWAPC Manager Kim Haddad, a veterinarian, visited Tiger Rescue in June. She writes: "It was one of the most hideous things I have ever seen. Many of the tigers have spent their entire lives in cramped, unsafe and filthy enclosures—so small that it would be unfathomable to leave dogs in them for more than a few hours at a time. These animals continue to fight, breed and give birth because there is no safe way to separate them."

Dr. Haddad notes that USDA has contacted her seeking help in placing more then 90 tigers, lions, and leopards in California and Texas. The homes and the finances for their long-term care simply are not available. So the options are poor: send confiscated exotics to sub par facilities that will profit by their residency and provide a potentially dismal level of care, or euthanize them. Although euthanasia is unpalatable, it may be the most humane option in some circumstances. A better solution would be for Congress to not only ban private ownership of exotic big cats (and hopefully other species eventually) but also to create a federal fund that can be drawn from in order to provide for the long-term care of seized exotics. These innocent animals should not have to suffer twice from human greed and shortsightedness. Ultimately, the smartest decision is to leave wildlife in the wild. After all, there's a reason they're called "exotic."