Exotic Pets: A Deadly Business

By Jennifer O’Connor 

Authorities at Bangkok’s international airport recently arrested a passenger whose suitcases were reportedly jam-packed with leopard and panther cubs, a bear and monkeys. The dazed animals had been drugged and were headed for Dubai, apparently part of an international trafficking network. 

While this seizure made headlines, smuggling of exotic and endangered animals takes place every day, and those animals who somehow survive often end up in pet stores, classified ads and flea markets right here at home. 

Animals who were flying through rainforest canopies or roaming vast savannahs find themselves stuffed into pillowcases, duffle bags and spare tires. Since concealment is paramount, they are denied food, water and any semblance of comfort during transport. Many, like the 18 dead and dying monkeys found jammed into a man’s girdle last year, suffocate or succumb to starvation and dehydration. Others suffer injuries from rough handling or from fights with other crazed victims. 

From kinkajous to tigers, sugar gliders to pythons, as long as a dealer can make a buck, any animal imaginable is available for the “right price.”  

While the illegal market in exotics contributes to declining wild populations, animals who are legally bred, sold and purchased suffer no less. The exotic pet industry is big business in the United States, but this merciless trade could be shut down and the deadly cycle could be curbed. 

There is no federal law prohibiting the private ownership of wild or dangerous animals, and very few states impose restrictions. Anyone who has wandered into a mall pet store knows that tarantulas, iguanas, turtles and hamsters are for sale alongside the puppies and kittens. But just about anyone can surf the Internet or classified ads and have a lion, tiger, camel, bear, boa constrictor or monkey delivered right to their door. 

There are no requirements for expertise, education or credentials of any kind to be a dealer. Federal permits to breed or sell regulated animals are issued to nearly everyone who fills out an application and sends in a fee. Backyard breeders all over the U.S. are churning out tiger cubs, bears and primates and advertising them for sale in swapsheets and on websites. But it’s not just backyard dealers selling these sick and traumatized animals. 

International dealers who supply animal “inventory” to pet store chains such as PETCO and PetSmart often house animals in huge, dark, reeking warehouses. U.S. Global Exotics in Texas, for example, was a massive exotic-animal wholesale facility where tens of thousands of mammals, reptiles, amphibians and arachnids were dumped into severely crowded and filthy boxes, bins, troughs and even soda bottles. Treated no differently than car parts, the animals were denied food, water and veterinary care. Authorities shut this outfit down after a PETA undercover investigation exposed the appalling conditions. 

Another cog in the supply chain is Dutch breeding mill Reintjes, where authorities recently seized nearly 6,000 mice, rats, hamsters and birds. Live animals were found shoved into soda bottles and tiny food-storage containers. Others had severe, untreated injuries, and most lacked food, water and adequate housing. Sick animals were simply left to suffer and die. 

The time is long overdue for the government to impose laws prohibiting individuals from breeding, selling or owning big cats, bears, primates and dangerous reptiles. People who are ready to pour their time, energy, money, attention and love into an animal companion can make a difference by adopting a dog or cat from a local animal shelter instead of succumbing to the temptation to buy a novelty pet.

 Jennifer O’Connor is a staff writer for the PETA Foundation.

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