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Animal Underground

The Dirty Side of

the Exotic Animal Trade

The illegal trade in wildlife is second only to that of drugs in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). A former FWS chief of law enforcement said, “There is no stigma attached to being an animal smuggler. If you get caught illegally transporting animals on a first offense, it’s possible you won't even do jail time. You can’t say the same for running drugs.”

Every year, thousands of animals enter the exotic pet trade. Some are captured from their native habitat and smuggled in or legally imported. Others are “surplus” from various roadside menageries and other zoos, or come from backyard breeders. Many are sold at auctions, pet stores, or over the Internet.

When animals age and are no longer cute and cuddly, roadside menageries or other zoos may dispose of these “surplus” animals to make room for younger animals. A surplus animal is generally defined as an animal that is no longer compatible with its social group for various behavioral and health reasons, is over-bred, fails to “wow” visitors, or becomes excess to the collection of animals housed at the facility. Surplus animals may bounce around to many buyers before finally ending up in another roadside menagerie, zoo, as a personal “pet,” or at the receiving end of a gun on an exotic game ranch.

Exotic animals are sold at dozens of auctions held across the United States every year. Sellers realize instant profits and quick sales, as tigers, lions, bears, non-human primates, birds, reptiles, and other exotic animals are sold to the highest bidder.

Auctions can be most unpleasant. Squawks, squeals, screeches, screams, and roars are ever present and almost deafening. The animals endure dismal conditions. Hundreds of people gather from all across the country to gather to buy, sell, or trade almost every animal you can imagine. Animal buyers are not questioned about their knowledge and expertise about possessing these animals, nor are they required to verify that they reside in a state which permits ownership of the purchased species.

Very few state laws regulate exotic animal auctions. In fact, only ten states have laws that pertain to auctioning exotic animals and the majority of these laws only require a license or permit to operate. On the federal level, all auction markets that sell exotic animals must be licensed pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). The auction operator is responsible for compliance with all federal regulations and standards, including transportation standards, once the animals are accepted by the auction, as well as sanitation, cleaning, and general health and well-being of the animals.

Animals are also captive-bred in people’s backyards and then, advertised to local buyers, over the Internet, and in magazines, sold wherever there is a market. One popular magazine, the Animal Finders’ Guide, carries advertisements from dealers, private parties, breeders, ranchers, and zoos offering large cats, monkeys, and other exotic animals for sale. Other magazines, such as Animal MarketplaceAnimals Exotic and Small, and Exotic DVM Veterinary, also carry ads for the sale of exotic animals to private hands.

Backyard breeding began in the 1960s and 1970s and is today a multi-million dollar industry. Very little protection exists for these captive-bred animals whose offspring contribute to the abundance of exotic animals entering the pet trade. The majority of state laws only require the breeder to obtain a permit. On the federal level, all persons breeding these animals are required to obtain a breeder’s license pursuant to the federal Animal Welfare Act. However these federal regulations only require that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred.

The Internet has emerged as one of the primary places where people can buy unusual, rare or exotic animals. Indeed, animals can be purchased as easily as a best-selling book. Log on to any number of sites (currently well into the hundreds) that boast their living wares and you too can become the new “owner” of anything from a baby lion cub to a hairless rat. Unfortunately this type of Internet trafficking of live animals is growing steadily. While the majority of states have laws governing possession of certain exotic animals, all of these laws do not prohibit the propagation and breeding of these animals. And so, with nothing more than a credit card and a ship-to address, people can easily purchase a Bengal tiger for $1,000, a baboon for $5,000, or a baby giraffe for a whopping $22,000 from an Internet site, and have a new “pet” within a few days.

The losers in this commodity exchange are the animals. Frequently the animals bought on the Internet go to people who have no knowledge about how to care for their new “pet” and, consequently, the animals themselves suffer. And the sellers of these animals make no mention of the state or local laws regulating private possession of exotics, or of the dangers, difficulties, or physical and psychological needs of the animals they peddle. The suffering of the animals in the hands of unqualified and hapless buyers appears to be of no concern in the lucrative exotic pet trade.

Trafficking in rare and exotic wildlife is a global business, worth $10-$20 billion annually. And while the breeding, selling, and transporting of exotic wildlife is technically legal on a federal level, as well as in many states, many of the animals bred and sold within the United States arrive here illegally. Nevertheless, because the chances of getting caught are so slim and the financial gains are so huge, exotic animal traffickers and breeders gladly take the risks associated with breaking the law — especially since the penalties exacted are little more than a monetary fine or, in extreme cases, a short jail stay.

Pet shops such as Petco offer a marketplace to those who wish to cash in on the exotic animals and other fad “pets.” By displaying live animals in their stores, they encouraging impulse buying. Many animals are also likely purchased by parents as a result of “pester power” of children. Children have a wonderful natural affinity for animals but tend to lose interest in them once they acquire them, and unwilling to provide the ongoing daily care required for the lifetime of the animal.

The in-store care of animals in pet shops is always suspect because store managers are often faced with conflicting responsibilities of making a store profitable and caring for animals — even when the animals are sick. Since the cost of veterinary care can easily exceed the commercial value of an animal, common sense leads to the conclusion that profits and animal care inherently conflict, especially in a retail environment.

Some animals are shipped to pet stores over long distances, which can be very stressful and cause illness and injury to the animals before they reach the sales floor. Many pet stores claim that they hold their suppliers accountable for the condition of animals by refusing shipments of sick or injured animals. But is it really ethical to send sick and injured animals back to the supplier like a damaged bag of cat food, rather than providing veterinary care and finding homes for the animals? The fact is, in a retail environment, animals must be treated like commodities for the store to realize a profit.

It is the responsibility of animal advocates to help make the sale of live animals unprofitable by not supporting pet shops that sell live animals and by investigating those that do for violations of state pet shop and anticruelty laws.

The only way to stop the proliferation of the exotic animal trade and the suffering in it causes is to stop the breeding, bartering, trading, and sale of exotic animals for personal profit and amusement, and to teach the public that wild animals belong in the wild, not in our homes.  (Source:  Born Free -