I’ve written before about infectious disease concerns associated with animal smuggling. It’s usually focused on the large-scale smuggling of reptiles, birds and other small critters, but it can happen in larger animals as well.
Some parts of the US/Mexico border appear to be rather popular smuggling routes for cattle and horses. US Border Patrol agents recently seized 14 horses that were being smuggled into the US across the Rio Grande River, south of El Paso, Texas. USDA officials tested them for a range of diseases and found that all 10 adult horses were positive for equine piroplasmosis, a potentially fatal bloodborne parasitic disease. This is an important disease that’s common in Mexico but has been considered a foreign disease in the US (although recent recurrent outbreaks make it clear that it is established in some parts of the country). Regardless, smuggled horses come in with no testing, no documentation, not contact tracing and no controls, so they represent a great way to either bring in new diseases or spread existing ones around.
In 2011, approximately 280 cattle and around 160 horses (including donkeys and mules) were seized along the Rio Grande. I’m not sure what percentage of smuggled animals get caught. However, it’s probably a minority, so it’s likely safe to assume that lots of horses and cattle make their way into the US as illegal aliens and potential disease vectors every year.
I avoided the "snakes on a plane" title, as ever since the (bad) Samuel L. Jackson movie came out, every reptile smuggling headline seems to use use it. Regardless, would you like to be on a long trans-Atlantic flight with 247 smuggled animals, including a collection of venomous vipers? Probably not.
Fortunately for passengers on a flight from Buenos Aires to Madrid in early December, security screeners took note of the "organic substances moving inside" Karel Abelovsky's baggage. Inside, they found over 200 reptiles and mollusks, including 15 venomous vipers. Among these were two yararas (Bothrops jararaca), a viper that can grow up to 160 cm (~5 ft) in length, and which is a common cause of snakebites in some regions. Two of the animals were dead by the time they were found. Probably many (or most) of the others would have died during transit.
Animal smuggling is a big problem for many reasons:
- It's an major animal welfare issue, since it is reasonable to suspect that only a small minority of smuggled animals survive the process, and even fewer thrive in their new homes.
- Smuggling of endangered species can threaten survival of some species in the wild.
- Smuggling of venomous or otherwise dangerous species can put people at risk. This includes people that purposefully buy dangerous animals but can't handle them, people who buy them not knowing they are dangerous, people at various points of the smuggling process (e.g. security screeners) that might come across the animals, and the general public who can be exposed if the animal escapes.
- Moving animals between regions always carries some risk of bringing along infectious diseases. The less control, the greater the risk.
Mr. Abelovsky has been changed with smuggling and faces up to 10 years in prison, but typically people get off with minimal punishment. Weak enforcement and the potentially lucrative nature of smuggling means that it's going to continue until the problem gets taken more seriously, both in terms of investigation and charging of other people in the process (e.g. where did he get the animals, who was he working with, where were they going to go?) and application of penalties that are severe enough to discourage people.
Unfortunately, while an incident like this gets a lot of attention, it just represents the miniscule minority of smugglers that actually get caught.
A recent case of canine rabies in France showed yet again the risks posed by illegal importation of animals. This case is somewhat unusual since it seems to involve ignorance of the rules and lax enforcement, compared to rampant animal smuggling, but the end result was the same.
The animal in question was a puppy that was brought to France by a family that had been vacationing in Morocco. They found the puppy on July 11 and returned to France on July 31. European Union regulations require that imported dogs be vaccinated against rabies and microchipped. Neither was done to this puppy, and it was in fact too young to vaccinate against rabies according to standard protocols. The family traveled back to France by ferry and car, and either met no customs officials or at least no officials who asked any questions about the puppy.
They day after they returned to France, the puppy started to exhibit behavioural changes and progressive sleepiness, with subsequent development of aggression. Five days later, it was taken to a veterinarian and it died the next day. Rabies was confirmed a few days later, and testing of the virus strain indicated that it was of the Africa-1 lineage and closely related to strains previously isolated in Morocco.
An investigation into possible rabies exposure ensued. Typically, it is assumed that animals can be infectious for up to 10 days prior to showing signs of rabies. Often, this is extended by several days for added confidence and because it's not always possible to determine exactly when the earliest, mildest signs might have developed. In this case, they considered the period that rabies could have been transmitted to be from July 18 until the puppy's death.
Multiple people had close contact with the puppy. Three family members had been bitten, a clear indication for post-exposure treatment. One other person (a friend of the family, it appears) was also bitten and received treatment. Another person reported being licked on non-intact skin (i.e. an area of skin with a cut, abrasion or other break in the normal barrier) and was also treated. The attending veterinarian, who had been previously vaccinated, received two booster shots.
This isn't the first time that rabies has made its way from Morocco to France, and it's concerning that it was so easy for it to happen. Nine rabid dogs have been illegally imported to France from Morocco since 2001. In 2008, one such dog subsequently transmitted rabies to several other dogs, resulting in France losing its rabies-free status until February 2010. It's not surprising that no questions were asked of the family traveling from Spain to France because of the open nature of borders between EU countries, but the ability to enter Spain from Morocco with no flags being raised is a concern. Hopefully there's an investigation into how this puppy was able to get into Europe so easily and how to reduce the chances of this happening again.
When a particular animal species or breed gets a lot of attention, such as through a popular movie or TV show, there's sometimes a major increase in people wanting one as a pet. The proliferation of Dalmatians after 101 Dalmatians, and people buying Jack Russell terriers in response to Eddie from Frasier are only two examples. Sometimes the trend is fine, but it can result in problems when people get breeds or species that really aren't right for them (this was a big problem with the Dalmatians), and with puppy mills pumping out large numbers of poor quality animals to meet the demand. The problems can be even worse when an exotic species is involved.
Concern has been expressed about the potential for this to occur following the success of the animated movie Rango. The movie features a chameleon, a fascinating reptile but also one that is not that easy to properly maintain in captivity and, like all reptiles, carries a risk of Salmonella transmission to household members.
PETA and some other groups have expressed concern about a PetSmart promotion whereby people can get a $10 discount on reptiles if they bring in a Rango movie ticket stubs.
Any increase in demand for chameleons resulting from this promotion will be trouble, because:
- Odds are most of the animals will not do well if purchased on a whim by someone who isn't adequately prepared to take care of them.
- Smuggling or legal importation of wild-caught chameleons will probably increase, with the associated very high death rates during the collection and shipping process.
- Chameleons may end up in households where reptiles are not appropriate, such as those with kids under five years of age, elderly individuals, pregnant women or people with compromised immune systems.
Hopefully the concerns are unfounded, but anyone considering purchasing a chameleon needs to carefully research the care requirements, be aware of the risk of disease transmission in the household, and should look for ethically sourced (i.e. captive bred and properly raised) animals.
Security screeners at a Thai airport discovered an attempted tiger smuggling, presumably by realizing stuffed animals don't have a skeleton. A 31-year-old Thai national was trying to smuggle a sedated tiger cub in a carry-on bag. As it went through the X-ray machine, screeners noticed an item resembling a real cat. Closer inspection identified the actual item and the individual was arrested.
Unfortunately, this person is presumably among the very small minority of smugglers that actually get caught. Creative smugglers, established smuggling pathways, lucrative markets and extremely lenient penalties combine to make this a pathetic but unfortunately often profitable venture that results in the deaths of huge numbers of animals, and acts as a potential way to transmit various infectious diseases that could affect other animals or humans.
Image: Tiger cub at the Philadelphia Zoo (source: http://commons.wikimedia.org)
Mexican officials searching a man at the airport with a bulge under his shirt identified 18 monkeys hidden beneath his clothes. Apparently, investigators became suspicious when the guy became very nervous when questioned. (I would have thought the stench associated with having 18 monkeys plastered to your body would be another tip-off.)
He was detained for possessing the 18 titi monkeys, a protected endangered species. He claimed they were pets and that he moved the animals from his suitcase to his clothes so the x-ray machines wouldn't harm them. I suspect the fact that an x-ray screener might have flagged the image of a suitcase with 18 monkey skeletons in it as abnormal was another reason.
Anyway, that's one more smuggler caught, but many more to go. Unfortunately, it's probably the stupid, small volume smugglers that get caught most of the time, while the people involved with importing huge numbers of animals go unnoticed.
Why does animal smuggling need to be stopped?
- It's inhumane. A large percentage of animals caught for smuggling die during transit. Many of the "lucky" ones that make it to their new owners die because of illnesses acquired during transit, stress of shipping and adaptation to a new home, and inadequate care by uninformed owners.
- It creates a risk of infectious disease importation. Smuggling is a major risk for introduction of diseases that could hurt (even devastate) animals or humans. Smuggled animals don't go through the same degree of inspection and quarantine as legally imported animals. Smuggling may be the main risk of introduction of various infectious diseases.
- It harms populations. Mass smuggling of endangered species can jeopardize the survival of these species in the wild.
The best way to deter smuggling is to cut down on demand. If people stop buying these animals, people will stop smuggling them because there will be no profit in it. People thinking about getting an exotic pet need to think carefully about from where the animals come. Too often, people put on blinders and conveniently forget the questionable provenance and what they are supporting in their desire to get a novel pet. At the same time, smuggling laws need to have some teeth. Huge amounts of money are made through smuggling, and the penalties need to reflect that. A slap on the wrist doesn't do much to deter someone who's making a lot of money and has little risk of being caught.
Image: Dusky titi monkeys (source: www.bbc.co.uk)
.A public health expert has recommended that an exotic animal dealer's facility be demolished or "completely gutted and sterilized" because it is so contaminated with animal feces and vomit, as well as roach infested and swarming with uncaged animals. No evidence of infection control was present in the facility that "reeked of death and decay on a mammoth and overwhelming scale."
26 000 (yes, twenty-six thousand) reptiles, rodents and mammals were removed from US Global Exotic's Texas facility last week, in a raid prompted by an undercover investigation by PETA. An employee working undercover in the facility for PETA documented various abuses. The company now stands accused by the city of inhumanely housing the animals as well as denying them proper food, water and medical care. Hundreds of dead animals were found, and some animals had started eating one another to survive. An SPCA spokesperson said she stopped counting at 200 dead iguanas.
Buying certain things on the internet is fine. Buying live animals over the internet is something that you shouldn't even consider. This is a multi-million dollar industry that feeds off the naivety of people, the willingness of people to ignore serious welfare issues in their desire to get a unique pet, and the suffering of animals. Exotic pets can be good pets in certain situations, but tremendous numbers of them suffer and die from inadequate care at distributors, pet stores and homes, with many (many) more dying during smuggling.
If you want an exotic pet:
- Read a lot about it first. Make sure you can properly manage the animal and that it's legal in your area.
- Learn about any infectious disease risks and whether it's appropriate for your household. In general, exotic pets should not be present in households with children under five years of age, pregnant women, elderly individuals and people with compromised immune systems.
- Find a small, local breeder. Buy the animal from a place where you can see how they are raised so you can have more confidence they are healthy and have been properly cared for.
- If you want to buy an exotic pet from a pet shop, ask clear questions about the origin of the animal and request supporting documentation. Only buy a pet that was bred locally. US Global Exotics apparently sold most of their animals through pet stores.
Don't support illegal and unethical activities by buying exotic pets - if you really want to have such a pet, remember that it requires a lot of forethought and investigation of the source.
Michael Plank, a California resident, was caught at the Los Angeles airport smuggling 15 lizards from Australia. Two geckos, two monitors and 11 skinks were found worth over $8500 and confiscated. The reptiles were strapped to his body inside money belts. It's not explained how the smuggling was identified, but I imagine wriggling clothes might be a tip-off to an astute customs agent. The smell that would have almost certainly been generated from reptiles defecating during the trans-Pacific flight also could have played a role.
Importation of reptiles is regulated by the international Convention on International Trade of Endangers Species (CITES), and Mr. Plank faces some pretty severe financial penalties and jail time, although typically people charged with animal smuggling or abuse get off with a slap on the wrist at best. The problem is that people can make substantial amounts of money from smuggling reptiles, and the downside of being caught is often limited, thus making it a lucrative business. However, illegal importation of animals creates risks for disease importation, which can be a major problem for both the human population and native animal populations. Importation of animals is also associated with very high mortality rates - the percentage of smuggled animals that survives transportation is pretty low.
This isn't the first time this guy has been caught illegally importing reptiles, so it's safe to assume that he's done this many times before. Hopefully someone will get serious about the associated human health, animal health and animal welfare problems and start using some of the stiff penalty options that are available. People that buy reptiles should be conscious about the sources of the animals (and their forefathers), and ensure that they are not contributing to illegal activities.
Animal smuggling is a surprisingly big problem. A report in the Canberra Times quotes an Australian customs officer as saying animal smuggling is a $20 billion industry and the third largest criminal activity in the world (after drugs and weapons).
Animal smuggling can range from someone trying to sneak an exotic pet into the country, or large- scale smuggling by certain individuals (like the guy who tried to smuggle 300 poisonous frogs onto a plane). It can also consist of massive organized crime ventures.
There are many concerns associated with animal smuggling:
- Animal welfare: High death rates are not uncommon among animals during illicit transportation. Smuggled animals are often wild-caught, and even if they survive the stress of transportation, they may die soon after arrival. Particularly when you hear about animals being smuggled sewn up in giant teddy bears, or stuffed into pockets and pouches, it's a wonder as many of them survive as they do. The customs office in the Canberra Times article sums it up nicely "'People who smuggle animals don't care about the animals ... They actually see dead animals as an overhead.'"
- Introduction of foreign diseases: Smuggled animals have been blamed for introduction of serious diseases like avian influenza into areas where these diseases don't normally exist. This can be a huge problem, as it creates the potential for large outbreaks amongst indigenous animals or people whose immune systems are completely naive to the diseases.
- Transmission of disease to new owners: Smuggled animals certainly have not undergone good health examinations and quarantines, and can carry a host of potentially harmful microorganisms. This can put buyers and their families at risk.
Despite being a huge industry, there are things that everyone can and should do to reduce animal smuggling:
- Don't buy animals that you know were or may have been illegally imported. Doing so contributes to the death of countless other animals for every animal that survives.
- Don't buy wild-caught animals like birds and reptiles. Wild caught doesn't mean smuggled, but it may be hard to tell the two apart. Some of the disease risks, particularly to individual buyers, are the same with legally and illegally imported wild-caught animals. These days there are good, reputable and ethical breeders of many animal species around that can supply animals. If the species is so rare that there aren't any good breeders around, then don't buy it. It might be rare because the animals don't survive well in captivity, or are hard to find in the wild. You don't want to contribute to either of those situations. In some instances, you can find both wild-caught and captive-bred animals for sale. While the captive-bred version will almost certainly be more expensive, the extra cost is not so great when you consider the overall lifetime costs of the animal. And how much money do you really save if you end up with a sick or dead animal?
- If a deal sounds too good to be true, it probably is. That animal that you're getting for such a "great deal" might have been smuggled or be otherwise unhealthy.
- If, for some reason, you are determined to get a wild-caught animal, make sure that it comes from a reputable source who imported the animal legally. Ask how it was caught, stored and transported. A good supplier should be able to tell you everything that happened from the time of capture to its arrival, or at least be able to find that out. If they don't know or don't care, walk away.