WASHINGTON -- At the root of the government's recent scramble to contain the outbreak of monkeypox lies a simple fact: anyone arriving in the United States carrying meat, fruit or a potted plant from any foreign destination is subject to a thorough inspection and confiscation of the item to ensure it isn't harboring diseases or parasites.
But an importer of live exotic animals, say Gambian giant pouched rats that are blamed for introducing the monkey pox virus into the United States from Africa and passing it to humans via pet prairie dogs, faces no such check. Gambian rats, and hundreds of other exotic wildlife species, have a far easier time entering the United States than dogs, cats, livestock, horses and people.
This latest outbreak of yet another alien disease results from the government's failure to regulate the flow of millions of wild creatures into this country for the pet trade. A veritable Noah's Ark of exotic wildlife carrying viruses, bacteria and parasites that can transmit endemic foreign contagions to humans and to native wildlife are being imported into the United States with scant federal regulation, restriction or precaution.
America's craze for exotic pets has created a freewheeling, virtually unregulated wildlife import industry that may account for nearly half of the roughly $30 billion market for pets and pet products in this country. The industry is in serious need of controls. Everything from dangerous carnivores to omnivorous fish to venomous reptiles and amphibians are sold in pet stores, on the Internet, by mail order catalog, at regional auctions and in local swap meets.
Animals have long been known to transmit zoonotic illnesses to humans. They include E. coli, rabies, salmonella, trichinosis, yellow fever, malaria, botulism, streptococcus and influenza.
What are known as "emerging diseases" recently have increasingly jumped from animals to humans as contact with exotic creatures has risen and opportunistic infectious agents have found new hosts. They include HIV/AIDS, Hepatitis B, the hemorrhagic Ebola and Marburg viruses, Lyme disease, hantavirus, mad cow disease, West Nile virus, the respiratory killer SARS and now monkeypox.
Experts believe this animal-human crossover could spawn dangerous new pathogens and increase the chances for another deadly disease outbreak.
The Humane Society of the United States began campaigning against exotic animal imports 30 years ago when it supported a successful petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ban the import and sale of small turtles that carry salmonella. In 1975, the government banned imports of all primates for the pet trade because they carry several dangerous diseases.
Following the monkeypox outbreak, the government banned the import, sale and distribution of Gambian rats and other African rodents and halted trade in native American prairie dogs. The government's practice of targeting wildlife after a disease outbreak illustrates a major flaw in public health protection -- closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are 9 million pet reptiles -- snakes, iguanas, lizards and turtles -- in the United States, and they are responsible for about 90,000 cases of salmonella poisoning annually. The disease causes severe diarrhea, fever, vomiting, even death -- with children and the elderly the most vulnerable. Four years ago the Humane Society petitioned the FDA for an import ban on all pet reptiles in response to the soaring incidence of salmonellosis. We are still awaiting the agency's response.
Government defenses against the exotic animal disease threat are fragmented among several federal agencies that regulate imports of dogs, cats, livestock, horses, meat and produce. Everything else gets waved through. Says an Agriculture Department spokesman: "We don't regulate importation of fish, reptiles, lions, tigers, bears, foxes, monkeys, endangered species, guinea pigs, hamsters, gerbils, mice, rats, chinchillas, squirrels, mongooses, chipmunks, ferrets and other rodents."
Exotics can also wreak ecological and financial havoc by introducing diseases to domestic wildlife, livestock, poultry and fish populations which have no natural resistance to them. A recent case: Exotic Newcastle Disease, carried into California this year by smuggled Mexican parakeets and initially spread to four other states by illegal cock fighters whose game fowl became infected. The disease has forced the government to destroy 3.5 million chickens and turkeys and has cost taxpayers more than $180 million.
When millions of surplus cats and dogs are euthanized every year because homes cannot be found for them, there is no good reason to take wild animals from their natural habitats and confine them to a tiny cage or a small enclosure for the rest of their lives. Consumers should consider the health risks and the humane issues associated with any species of wild animal -- exotic or native -- obtained as a pet.
Any time a wild creature is brought into the home, it can bring with it every bacteria, virus or parasite it has been exposed to. Even with a lengthy quarantine, there is no way to assure that these animals are healthy or will not pass on disease-causing pathogens to humans.
Until a sound system to protect public health is in place, the federal government should prohibit imports of all exotic mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds -- wild caught or captive bred -- destined for the pet trade. If someone wants a loving pet, there are plenty available for adoption at local humane societies and breed rescue groups.
Wayne Pacelle is a senior vice president of The Humane Society of the United States.