PAWS Magazine

Issue 44, Winter 2000

Exposing the Exotic Animal Market

Review by Diane Venberg

Animal Underworld by Alan Green

Sugar glider babies at $40 each, bear cubs for $395, a breeding pair of baboons for $2,250--every exotic animal imaginable is available for a price if the customer knows just where to look. Exotic and wild animals, once the domain of zoos and theme parks, are now widely marketed to the general public via the Internet, auctions, and specialty publications. The new book, Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, by Alan Green and the Center for Public Integrity delves into this disturbing industry.

Using public records and personal interviews, the author demonstrates the difficulty in tracking the animals dumped by research laboratories and zoos into the hands of unscrupulous dealers, the final "owner" may claim to be a conservationist and continuously breed the animals for profit, or operate a game farm where hunters pay per kill. Veterinarian may falsify health records, thereby allowing diseased animals into homes and breeding farms where livestock and wildlife may be affected. The transient nature of animal dealers and brokers allows them to slip through loopholes in USDA or fish and wildlife department regulations.

Most exotic animal are acquired as "pets" when they are infants and easily controlled. As they reach adolescence however, the animals’ natural and instinctive behaviors start to appear, such as biting, spitting, and aggressive reactions to humans. Big cats are typically declawed on all four paws, monkeys and primates may have their canine teeth pulled. Despite these mutilations, they are generally not affectionate and docile and wind up caged in a basement or garage. An estimated six or seven thousand tigers live as "pet" animals in the United States, compared with the 250 tigers living in accredited zoos.

Animal Underworld does an excellent job of exposing the miserable lives these animals suffer, the very real threat of disease to a community, and the horrifying number of animals involved. An overwhelming litany of solutions include rewriting the Animal Welfare Act to insure humane treatment of nonnative species, and reworking the Endangered Species Act and the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health inspection Service (APHIS). Green also suggests imposing sales tax on exotics and earmarking those funds for state-funded sanctuaries, mandatory sterilization of exotic "pets", and banning private ownership of monkeys and non-human primates.

Consumer education isn’t simply about not purchasing exotic animals as "pets" but also about the public’s demand on zoos and animal acts to see babies. Surplus adults become sporting game for a trophy hunter, are sold as exotic meat, or are quietly fed to carnivorous animals. By supporting only legitimate sanctuaries and preserves that do not breed or exploit their animals for commercial enterprises, consumers can be reasonably sure they are not contributing to the underground business of exotic animals.

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