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ENVIRONMENT & TRAVEL January 2007
 
 Sometimes, it's the other way round.
Exotic pets: the dark side of a wild fad.
by VĂ©ronique JULLIEN

The exotic pet market is booming, especially in the United States. But is it a good idea to keep wild animals at home?

Crocodiles in the subway or wild cats living in your neighbour's back-yard are familiar urban legends which are often funny rather than really scary. There are exceptions though.
For the past few years an increasing number of Burmese pythons have been spotted in the Everglades. It is estimated that there are now around 1000 of them. They breed rapidly and have perfectly adapted to their new environment. They feed on small and not so small animals: half an alligator has been found inside one python. But these monster snakes -usually about 5 metres but up to 8 metres long- are not indigenous to the Everglades and have never been brought there officially at any stage. It is presumed that they were originally exotic pets set free by their owners.

It is estimated that 18.2 million people in the United States own exotic pets, from venomous spiders to lion cubs. Most of the tired owners will try to contact a zoo or an equivalent institution once they realize they can't keep their crocodile in their bathtub any longer, and the cases when dangerous animals are set free are still exceptional.
But still, owning exotic pets is such a popular phenomenon in the US that a number of issues need to be addressed sooner rather than later.

First of all the care of these animals. Not everybody is fit and knowledgeable enough to take care of an exotic animal which needs special treatment and special food. 98% of exotic animals die within their first two years as pets.
Another issue is the health and safety factor. Some exotic animals carry diseases and there have already been cases where they almost caused a full scale epidemic. For instance in 2003, there was a monkeypox outbreak when imported diseased African rodents contaminated American ones.

These two issues are greatly worsened by the fact that the black market is so large. It is estimated that a quarter of the world's exotic pet trade - amounting to billions of dollars every year - is illegal. This means less sanitary control and probably worse conditions for the animals in terms of transport and control of the caring abilities of the future owner.

19 American states have either full or partial bans on the private ownership of large exotic animals, and now both states and federal lawmakers are raising the issue of wild animals as pets in general.

Sources:
"Burmese days," The Economist 30 November 2006.
"Huge, Freed Pet Pythons Invade Florida Everglades," http://news.nationalgeographic.com, 3 June 2004
"The Whims and Dangers of the Exotic Pet Market," www.hsus.org (website of an American animal protection organization)
"Animal Abuse," www.bigcatrescue.org (website of a non profit sanctuary for wild cats in Florida)
"Update: Multistate Outbreak of Monkeypox--- Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Wisconsin, 2003", 11 July 2003, www.cdc.gov (website of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, part of the Department of Health and Human Services, a US government agency)


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