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The Status of Captive Wild Animals in the U.S.: An Overview of the Problem and the Laws

By Nicole Paquette
Source: Animal Law Institute Conference - Dallas, TX

III. Where Are the Animals Coming From: The Captive Wild Animal Trade

The trade in exotic animals is a multi-billion dollar industry. People are breeding captive wild animals in large numbers. Every year, thousands of animals enter the captive wild animal trade from a variety of sources. These animals are either “surplus” from various roadside menageries and other zoos, captured from their native habitat, are sold at auctions, pet stores or over the Internet, or come from backyard breeders.

A. Surplus Animals

Many animals enter the pet trade once they stop attracting audiences at roadside menageries or other zoos. When animals age and are no longer cute and cuddly, the facility disposes of the surplus animals in order 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, are over-bred, fail to “wow” visitors, or become 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.

B. Auctions

At dozens of exotic animal auctions across the United States, tigers, lions, bears, non-human primates, birds, reptiles, and other exotic animals are offered for sale to the highest bidder. Auctions are not the most pleasant activities to be witness to. The sounds of squawks, squeals, screeches, screams, and roars are ever present and almost deafening. The conditions that the animals endure during the auction are dismal. Hundreds of people gather from all across the country to buy, sell, or trade almost every animal you can imagine. Purchasers of these animals are not questioned about their knowledge and expertise about possessing these animals, nor are the buyers required to verify that they and their new “pet” will reside in a state that permits the ownership of the purchased animal.

There are very few state laws regulating 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.4 On the federal level, all auction markets that sell exotic animals must be licensed pursuant to the Animal Welfare Act. The auction operator is responsible for compliance with all regulations and standards, including transportation, sanitation, cleaning, and general health and well-being of the animals.5

C. Backyard Breeders

Animals are also being captive-bred in people’s backyards and then sold to whomever will purchase them. These animals are sold to local buyers, are advertised over the Internet, and in magazines. One of the most popular magazines is the Animal Finders’ Guide, which carries ads from dealers, private parties, breeders, ranchers, and zoos offering large cats, monkeys, and other exotic animals for sale. Numerous other periodicals, such as Animal Marketplace Magazine, Animals Exotic and Small Magazine, and Exotic DVM Veterinary Magazine also carry advertisements for the sale of exotic animals to private hands.

Backyard breeding is a very lucrative business and is now a multi-million dollar industry, which actually began in the 1960s and 1970s. 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.6 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 regulations only require that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred.7

D. Internet

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 100s) 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. 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.

E. Illegal Trade/Black Market

Trafficking in rare and exotic wildlife is a global business, worth between $10-$20 billion annually. And while the breeding, selling and transporting of exotic wildlife is legal on a federal level, as well as in many states, many of the animals bred and sold within the United States arrived 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.

The only way to stop the proliferation of the exotic animal trade and the suffering it causes is to stop the breeding, bartering, trading, and selling of exotic animals for personal profit and amusement and by educating the public to understand that wild animals belong in the wild, not in our homes.

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