Exotic Pets: Disaster Waiting to Happen?

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A man shows off his pet Celebes ape at the Mid-Ohio Exotic Animal Auction. The ape is a type of macaque, in which the herpes-B virus occurs naturally. (Photo by Mia Song)

by Amy Ellis Nutt, 6 Oct 2006

MOUNT HOPE, Ohio -- The monkey rattled the bars of its cage, then threw pieces of food at the small crowd gathered around its metal crate. Crouching, two children giggled and reached tentatively toward the animal.

A tag on the cage identified the occupant for sale: "Java macaque, 6 years old, missing a little hair."

What the sign did not say was this: Ninety percent of macaques are carriers of the herpes-B virus -- relatively harmless to monkeys, but so virulent to humans it can liquefy the brainstem and turn the spinal cord to mush.

Ninety miles southwest of Cleveland, in the heart of Amish country, buyers and sellers had come on a recent weekend to the Mid-Ohio Exotic Animal Auction to inspect and perhaps buy creatures whose native lands were thousands of miles away. Many were potential carriers of some of the most dangerous diseases known to man.

Called zoonoses, animal-to-human diseases are becoming more widespread, scientists say, because contact between humans and wildlife is increasing at an unprecedented rate. The reasons are many: overpopulation and urbanization, as well as environmental shifts such as global warming and deforestation.

"To some extent you're talking about leaves from a tree with these diseases -- bird flu, SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome), West Nile and all the others," said Richard Duhrkopf, an associate professor of biology at Baylor University and a tropical disease expert. "There are root causes: changes in habitat, changes in the distribution of animals and humans. Basically, we're seeing jungle diseases because there aren't any jungles left."

An explosion in the exotic pet industry is one reason these diseases, many of them out of Africa, are showing up in U.S. towns and cities.

"It's of great concern," said Faye Sorhage, New Jersey's state public health veterinarian. "A pet macaque? That's a disaster waiting to happen."

According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, some 38,000 mammals, 365,000 birds and 2 million live reptiles were imported into this country in 2002. Experts say that translates into something like 1 billion contacts between wild animals and domestic animals and humans.

With contact comes disease. Each year about 80,000 salmonella infections are reported to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most acquired from lizards, snakes and turtles. Children, whose immune systems are not fully developed, are especially vulnerable.

In 1998, a 5-month-old Wisconsin girl died of salmonella she picked up by crawling on a carpet contaminated by the droppings of the family's pet iguana. That same year, an elderly Boston woman died from a fungal infection she acquired from her pet cockatoo.

Reptiles carry 16 diseases infectious to humans, rodents can transmit 50, and there are at least 28 that can be passed by primates -- monkeys, small apes, chimpanzees and so forth.

Traded wildlife can also be part of a chain in which mosquitoes, ticks and other insects act as intermediate disease carriers, passing an infection from animal to human by successive bites. Some of the most lethal viruses, the hemorrhagic fevers, are spread this way, resulting in high death rates and disabilities for those who survive.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Animal Control Association, the American Zoo and Aquarian Association and the CDC all discourage the private ownership of certain exotic animals.

On the Internet, however, more than 1,000 Web sites cater to wildlife collectors. Last year the International Fund for Animal Welfare reported it had found thousands of endangered animals and animal products for sale online.

Only 15 states prohibit keeping primates as pets, even though 26 species, many of them popular with private owners, carry simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV), from which AIDS is thought to have evolved.

Macaques are particularly dangerous because of the lethal nature of the herpes-B virus, and because they can live up to 40 years, carrying the virus without ever showing symptoms.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, macaques should be handled using special biohazard procedures. Any human who is bitten, scratched, sneezed or spit on while the virus is active risks infection.

"At the zoo, we treat them all as if they're positive," said Mike Cranfield, director of animal health, research and conservation at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. "That means we take extra precautions when cleaning them -- impervious white outfit, rubber boots and a face shield."

Asked whether macaques should be owned as pets, Cranfield answered quickly: "I think it's insane."

If the Java macaque -- one of several macaques on sale at the Ohio auction -- had been a resident of a research laboratory, anyone coming into close contact would be required to wear a gown, gloves and a mask. There would be no eating or drinking, and the doors to the room housing the animals would be secured and locked.

In 1997, a rhesus macaque splashed a 22-year-old graduate student in the eye with some of its body fluids while she worked in a field station of Georgia's Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center. The student, Beth Griffin, flushed her eye with tap water 45 minutes after the incident, but the virus already had penetrated. Six weeks later she died.

While infections may be an occupational hazard of working in an animal research lab, exotic diseases also are finding their way to the general public. Monkey pox is one of them.

A variant of smallpox, monkey pox had never before been diagnosed in the United States, but by the end of June 2003, more than 70 people in six states had been stricken with the virus, which can cause fever, chills, rash, even encephalitis in humans. Although no one ultimately died, public health experts were alarmed by how easy it was for a rare zoonotic disease to enter the country, and how quickly it spread.

The infected African rodents suspected of causing the outbreak were imported to Texas from Ghana in early April 2003. An Iowa animal dealer then bought 18 giant Gambian pouch rats and 10 African dormice, housing them next to some prairie dogs before sending them along to Phil's Pocket Pets in Villa Park, Ill. At some point, the virus jumped from the African rodents to the prairie dogs. Phil's sold the animals to dealers in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Wisconsin, where some were exhibited and sold at swap meets, according to a report by the CDC.

The first illness was reported in Wisconsin in early June. But it would take two weeks for it to be diagnosed and reported to the CDC, and another three days before the CDC made a public announcement. Although 170 CDC staffers were involved in tracing the monkey pox outbreak, dozens of prairie dogs and rats were never accounted for.

Like other campaigns against zoonotic diseases, inspection of exotic animal imports is hampered by a lack of personnel. As recently as August, U.S. Customs and Border Protection was advertising job openings for agriculture inspectors in 11 states and in major import hubs such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and Newark, N.J. Nearly half of U.S. ports have no agriculture inspector at all.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also employs inspectors, but has just 100 for 18 ports of entry. According to the agency's own statistics, those inspectors are responsible for more than 120,000 shipments each year, but inspect only about 25 percent.

Because of a patchwork of laws and multiple agencies with overlapping jurisdictions, authority over animal imports is fragmented. Concluded a 2005 report by the Institute of Medicine: "No federal agency has a mandate and mission that cover all imported animals and zoonoses."

After the "mad cow" scare in 2003, when a Holstein in the state of Washington tested positive for bovine spongiform encephalopathy, federal officials proposed a National Animal Identification System -- a nationwide database created by tagging private herds. The proposal is before Congress.

"With a national ID system, we can find out where a disease originated quickly, and the more quickly you can trace its origins, the better off for the public and the farmer," said Ken Foster, an agricultural economist at Purdue University. "If it takes months, well, that can be disastrous."

Beyond the problems associated with the legal importing of exotic animals and the tracking of domestic herds is the wildlife black market. Along the Texas-Mexico border it's big business, second only to illegal drugs, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The agency estimates that $40 million worth of parrots cross annually -- taped to the insides of hubcaps, floated across the Rio Grande atop inner tubes, even stuffed in women's pantyhose.

Parrots can carry psittacosis, also known as parrot fever, a bacterial disease that can cause a flu-like illness in humans that ranges from mild to life-threatening. But along 1,200 miles, there are only five wildlife inspectors for 15 official ports of entry. The rest of the border is patrolled by just two special agents.

"We don't have the manpower, so we train customs officials to look for wildlife," said Fish and Wildlife agent Alejandro Rodriguez. "They're hidden in shipments of legal skins, or in boxes of engine components or even under the hoods of cars. The smugglers, they sometimes use the same routes used for drugs."

The wildlife that the Texas agents confiscate often ends up in the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville. The zoo has been the recipient of spider monkeys, military macaws, jaguars, leopards, iguanas and 250 tarantulas someone tried to smuggle in under his car's hood.

At the Mid-Ohio Exotic Animal Auction, most patrons seemed passionate about the exotic animals they'd come to buy and trade. Some professed involvement in humanitarian rescues of wildlife, others were private hobbyists, still others said they represented zoos or small roadside exhibits.

By 4 p.m. that Saturday, with the three-day auction winding down, the animals moved briskly in and out of the main ring. A female capuchin monkey sold for $6,000, a wallaby for $375, a camel for $2,750, a yak for $1,200 and a zebra pelt for $325.

Contacted by telephone a few days later, the manager of the auction conceded he was unfamiliar with concerns about the transmission of animal-borne viruses.

"I am not as informed about these diseases. We've never been asked about them before," said Thurman Mullet. "I agree, when you have so many animals you should keep them out of contact. But you can get diseases anywhere you go. To my knowledge we've never had an outbreak."

During a pause in the action, a man named Ben, representing the Ohio Association of Animal Owners, warned the audience that a pending state bill would require permits for owners of "dangerous or exotic animals." He exhorted the crowd of about 600 to "stand together now or we will be no longer."

As he stood in the main ring, next to a cage with a monkey about to be auctioned, he pleaded with the crowd.

"They want all kinds of requirements now. If this passes they'll be confiscating our animals. They want to regulate us out of existence and we can't let that happen."

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