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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Trouble With Boa: A Look at Exotic Pets

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks with zoologist Donna Fernandes about the lucrative legal and illegal international pet trade. The illegal aspects of the trade is second only to drug smuggling into the United States.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. International wildlife trafficking is big business. According to the World Wildlife Fund, smuggling of endangered animals and animal parts generates more than $5 billion a year worldwide. That's more than illegal weapons and gemstones, and second only to drugs. And as with illegal drugs, the United States is a leading consumer. One of the problems for both consumers and law enforcement agencies is that the illegal wildlife market is intermingled with a legal trade in exotic pets. I recently visited a legitimate pet emporium to talk about the exotic pet trade with our favorite zoologist, Donna Fernandes.

(Bird calls)

FERNANDES: Probably the biggest illegal trade is in birds, lizards, some primates. But I think the biggest market currently is birds as they become more and more popular.

CURWOOD: So how do people smuggle these in?

FERNANDES: Well, there's a variety of ways that have recently been detected by wildlife officials and smuggling experts at airports. In some cases they can bring in wild caught eggs in specially designed vests to keep the eggs warm against their body, walk through onto an airplane, get off, and then they'll transport those eggs to pet dealers. And when the eggs hatch out they are sold as captive-reared. Because consumers are aware that they -- they do want to buy captive-reared birds, and yet this is one way to get around that.

CURWOOD: Birds, is that the biggest part of this trade?

FERNANDES: Well certainly the last few years the biggest reports from Miami and New York, where most of the smuggling operations seem to come through, are macaws stuffed in plastic tubes trying to be smuggled in. Snakes are another big thing. A lot of boa constrictors are caught when they're very young. One individual was caught with snakes, about 18 snakes in small nylon bags wrapped all over his, uh, body. They caught him 'cause he sort of bulged funny and then when they opened his suitcase he had another 35 snakes trying to get into Miami Airport.

(A bird screeches)

CURWOOD: Oh -- excuse me! We're in a pet store if you can't tell from what's going on. How important is the cash raised by this exotic animal trade to the countries that export them?

FERNANDES: Well, it depends. Usually the individuals who collect the animals only get, you know, probably ten cents on the dollar if that. So in terms of local economies, it really is not making a lot of money. It's a lot of money relative to them. But unfortunately it's the middle men and the pet store owners who are making the huge profits. And there can be really long-term negative consequences of getting rid of your wildlife. For example, frogs are being collected all the time for food in French restaurants, everyone eats frogs' legs. Well, there's been such a collection, a massive collection of frogs in -- in Asia, that they're now having problems with mosquitoes because the frogs used to eat all the mosquitoes. So now they're having to spend a lot of pesticides, and they're spending more money on pesticides to correct the mosquito problem than revenues generated from the collection of frogs. So it can have the same thing -- snakes, if you remove snakes you can get rodent problems. So countries who think that they can market their wildlife find out that they're disturbing whole ecosystems and the long-term costs outweigh any short-term benefits.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a bit about some of the laws regarding these exotic species. Certain places you can own things, other places you can't. It's -- it's kind of a mish-mash right now.

FERNANDES: Right. The import of all animals into this country is governed by what's called CITES, the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species. And that regulates import of any kind of endangered or threatened animals. But once they're into the United States, individual states differ tremendously in laws regarding having exotic pets. And some states allow you to have just about anything; they have no laws whatsoever regarding. And others have very strict laws. Massachusetts is one of -- do have certain animals you're not allowed to have as pets.

CURWOOD: Um, if about a third of the exotic pet trade is illegal, smuggled, how can consumers be sure that they're getting a legal animal when they go to the pet store?

FERNANDES: Well, it's -- it's very important that you go to reputable dealers, and it's nice if you can actually see baby animals to be sure that they are being bred rather than just claimed to be bred. And there are some things that you really don't know. Even zoos can fall victim to dealing with animal traders who purport that they're captive-bred, and then later when we further research into it, it will actually be not the truth. In fact, recently, one of the biggest smuggling operations that was blown open was an individual who was very highly regarded in avaculture, bird breeding communities. He had written several books on parrots and numerous articles. It turns out he was the leader of the largest bird smuggling ring in the country, and was in fact turned into authorities by a drug smuggler who sidelined in illegal wildlife trade. And that's not uncommon to find the same individuals involved in both drug smuggling and animal smuggling. Because the source of origin is very often South America, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil. And they're coming into Miami for distribution to pet stores, or if drugs, of course, distribution across the country. There's even been such cases as wildlife officials noticed an illegal shipment of boa constrictors, and one of them had this odd bulge in the side. The x-rayed the boa constrictor and found that it had forced down into it several condoms filled with cocaine.

CURWOOD: It's not a nice business.

FERNANDES: No, it's not a nice business. And I think we have to recognize that in the United States we are the largest consumers of illegal wildlife. And just as we complain about South American countries not doing their bit to stop the drug trade, we are the biggest consumers of drugs. Likewise, it's not only up to the countries who are illegal exporting their endangered wildlife. We as Americans have to stop it and not at all support illegal pets in this country.

CURWOOD: So tell me, Donna Fernandes -- I get the impression that maybe you think we shouldn't have exotic pets at home.

FERNANDES: Um -- I don't recommend it. I think there are plenty of opportunities like zoological parks and aquariums to see exotic animals. If you really want to have an exotic pet, please do read all about it. Understand before you buy anything. Its longevity, its dietary requirements, its space requirements, social needs. So that you can be fully educated and decide are you willing to make that long-term commitment to really care for that animal properly?

CURWOOD: Okay then, thank you. Dr. Donna Fernandes is associate curator at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City, and the former vice president for programs at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo. Thanks for joining us, Donna.

FERNANDES: Thank you very much.



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