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Celebrate National Bird Day


The Dirty Side of the Exotic Animal Pet Trade

Published 06/15/03
Source: Animal Issues, Volume 34 Number 2, Summer 2003

When Miami airport inspectors asked a man arriving from Havana, Cuba to raise his pants legs, they were surprised to find 44 birds strapped to his legs. The man had denied he was bringing any wildlife into the United States. He was released the next day on $50,000 bond after being charged with lying on a customs declaration form.

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.”

Thousands of Animals

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.

Caught in the Internet

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 Marketplace, Animals 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.

Black Market to Open Market

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 and PETsMART 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. See API’s summary of your state’s pet shop and anticruelty laws and how to help. Petco and PETsMART believe that they sell “livestock” as a “service” to their customers. Please take action by letting them know that live animal sales are not a “service” that you value, and that you will take your business elsewhere until they stop selling animals.

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.

Wild Bird Trade

Thousands of parrots are taken from the wild each year to be sold as “pets” in Asia, Europe, and even the United States. The initial shock of losing their freedom and being confined to a cage can kill 10-20% of wild-caught birds. Of those who survive capture, half will die of starvation, dehydration, suffocation, or disease before reaching their final destination. Researchers in Nicaragua estimate that, to compensate for mortalities, up to four times as many parrots are captured than make it to market. In fact, recognition of the unacceptably high rate of mortality among imported birds helped prompt the U.S. Congress to pass the Wild Bird Conservation Act in 1992. Though the Act effectively reduced the United States from the largest importer of wild-caught birds to one of the smallest, up to 150,000 parrots are illegally smuggled into the U.S. across the Mexican border each year.

Any legal trade in exotic species, whether wild-caught or captive-bred, usually leads to an increase in popularity and demand for the animals as “pets,” a demand for which there are always people eager to supply the pet market to make a fast buck, usually at the animal’s expense. As evidence of this, American Federation of Aviculture, a group representing the interests of exotic bird breeders, opposed the 1992 Wild Bird Conservation Act (WBCA) and most recently opposed a bill that would have added birds to the list of animals covered under Animal Welfare Act for research purposes. These actions demonstrate the pet industry’s history of putting its personal interests above the welfare of animals.

Many breeders of exotic species claim that breeding species in captivity protects species in the wild, a claim unsupported by fact. The role of private breeders has largely been one of a willingness to collect rare specimens, breed them outside official conservation plans, and then trade, sell, or display the offspring for self aggrandizement and/or profit. Experts say that import restrictions are perhaps the single most effective measure for improving the plight of endangered parrots, and a recent study revealed that the WBCA cut poaching rates from almost 50% to 20%, refuting the claims of the pet industry and exporting countries that limiting legal trade intensifies illegal trade and poaching.

Although U.S. laws protect native birds such as blue jays, cardinals, and robins from commercial exploitation, such protections are glaringly inconsistent with how we allow the pet industry to exploit the birds of other countries. According to Dr. Steven R. Beissinger, of the University of California at Berkeley, “To be ethically consistent, the trade in live exotic birds should be regulated by nations in the same manner that they regulate commercial uses of native wildlife. For example, the USA has prohibited most commercial use of native wildlife species ... although it is illegal to market and hold native bird species, except under permit; it is quite legal to practice these same activities with most non-native birds without a permit. This poses unfortunate ethical inconsistencies in the treatment of wildlife species.” The exotic birds currently held in captivity cannot be returned to the wild. We have a responsibility to provide them the best care, but better if we extended the same respect we have for our own birds to those of other countries. We shouldn’t trade exotic birds like commodities.

Birds and the Domestic Pet Trade

In the United States, the overproduction and promotion of parrots as “pets” has resulted in serious animal welfare issues. Whether wild-caught or captive-bred, captive parrots frequently suffer from captivity-related stress, which leads to behavioral and physical problems. Birds sold as “pets” very commonly suffer from nutritional diseases through the ignorance of many purchasers of exotic birds. The problems associated with captivity and the pet trade, have resulted in an influx of unwanted, abused, and abandoned birds entering shelters and avian rescue facilities.

Of the more than 100 self-described bird rescues or sanctuaries in the United States, several have come into existence within the last few years and are already filled to capacity, though the total numbers of birds kept in captivity and the number entering rescue facilities remains a subject of debate. A 1998 article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association cited “the most extensive demographic study of pet birds” in stating that the U.S. “pet” bird population was estimated to be 35-40 million; in 1996 the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council reported there were 40 million “pet” birds.

But this emphasis on numbers distracts from the real issue — the welfare of captive birds. Whether we are dealing with 10 million or 40 million, each bird’s quality of life matters. In 1998, the World Parrot Trust estimated that as many as 50% of all “pet” parrots were kept in inadequate conditions. Due of lack of space or funds, bird sanctuaries across the country are forced to turn away hundreds of birds a year whose possessors cannot provide them with the care they need. Clearly this is a problem that must be addressed.

Says Cheryl Meehan, who has studied avian welfare at UC-Davis, “What we are now learning is that it’s actually very difficult to keep parrots as companions. It’s not uncommon to hear about a parrot being put into a corner in a cage with a towel over them for 10 years.” This is because “most people,” as bird behaviorist Liz Wilson explains, “are not prepared physically, or psychologically, to share their lives with wild animals.” When considering the welfare of captive birds, many have concluded that it is inherently cruel to keep an intelligent, social, and active animal adapted to flight confined to a cage that is too small to facilitate normal behavior. Marc Johnson, Director of Foster Parrots Ltd, who receives 5-10 calls a week from people looking to rid themselves of the responsibility of caring for their birds, asks, “Why is it that they do not understand the inhumanity of taking an animal that has inherited the sky as its birthright and turning it into some terrestrial captive for our own pleasure?”

Cold Blooded Cruelty

Reptiles have become increasingly popular as “pets” over the past decade. Almost every pet store, small or “super,” that sells animals sells reptiles. Reptiles can also be easily acquired over the Internet, from backyard breeders or breeding ranches, at expos or swap-meets, as well obtained from the wild. The most popular reptiles sold in the U.S. are not those species which are rare, but those species that are inexpensive or low margin, such as the green iguana which retails at $10 to $15 or the Ball python which retails at $35.

Wild-caught reptiles or reptiles that are offspring from wild-caught parents make up the majority of reptiles held in private hands. In fact, according to an American Pet Products Manufacturers Association survey, 17% of “pet” reptiles in the U.S. were captured from the wild by their possessors. Although some reptiles are captive-bred in the U.S., the numbers are insignificant in comparison to the amount of reptiles kept as “pets.” Hundreds of species are imported.

The U.S. is a major importer of live reptiles for the exotic pet trade. Hundreds of reptile species are imported from all over the world, from China, Colombia, Vietnam, Indonesia, and more. The total number of reptiles imported for 1998 was 1,925,680 animals. In 1970, 69% of all imported animals was the red-eared slider turtle. However, in 1975 the Food and Drug Administrations banned the sale of turtles under 4 inches, which significantly reduced the number of animals imported. Now, iguanas appear to be one of the most popular imported reptile — in 1998, 41% of all imports were green iguanas.

While the animal welfare concerns surrounding trade in wild-caught reptiles whether legal or illegal is obvious to most, few people are aware of the cruelty inherent in breeding of reptiles for the pet trade.

Reptile breeding facilities typically house and stack reptiles in small to mid-sized barren aquariums or clear plastic containers in which some will spend all or most of their lives. One reptile farm boasts that it houses reptiles in plastic containers that range in size from 12.5 x 6.75 x 6.75 inches to 16 x 10.75 x 6.5 inches. While such housing may be standard in the reptile industry, it is hardly capable of accommodating and/or facilitating natural reptile behavior. To propagate a species only to relinquish it to an environment in such stark contrast to the habitat to which it is adapted is not conservation nor is it humane.

Due to the ignorance of those who purchase them, reptiles kept as “pets” frequently suffer from nutritional deficiencies. Because little information exists on the habits of exotic reptiles in the wild, meeting their physical and behavioral needs in captivity may be impossible. Nor do reptiles kept in domestic homes live long. According to a German-Austrian study, the average lifespan for captive reptiles is 3.9 years for terrapins and tortoises, 2.5 years for lizards, and 3.6 years for snakes. Broader analysis supports the theory that the majority of reptiles do not even survive the first year in captivity.

Because the life expectancy of a captive reptile is so low and the animals themselves suffer, API recommends that reptiles not be kept as “pets” by the general public. Reptiles should remain in their native habitat where they are able to roam and be free from captivity.

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