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The Bad And Ugly Of Exotic Pets

The recent monkeypox outbreak underlines a point that animal advocates and public health officials have been making for years: Wild animals such as prairie dogs should not be taken in as pets.

A year ago, a prairie dog called Timothy was living in the basement of a New York City apartment building, forgotten and neglected by its owner. Now, it is happily living at the East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue Sanctuary in Fairfield, Pa.

Susan Murray is the owner and she takes in unwanted exotic animals. She says, "The most popular way is through the private pet trade. People get these animals and then they realize they can't take care of them any longer - their situation changes."

There are dozens of sanctuaries like hers around the country, homes to the thousands of exotic animals that are bought and sold through specialty pet stores, swap meets, and classified ads.

Murray says, "The way they're advertised as being raised in the home with other animals, other pets, and children is just ridiculous. But if you look on the Internet they're out there. And it's a shame."

The category of so-called "exotic pets" includes animals that may surprise you, from prairie dogs, parrots and iguanas to squirrels, marmosets and lemurs to cougars, tortoises and tigers.

Dr. Kim Haddad says, "These animals are bred and sold as commodities, so profit is a major motivation for these breeders." She is the manager of the captive wild animal protection coalition.

Dr. Haddad says, "These animals are absolutely adorable. There's no denying that they are the cutest things in the world. When you see a tiger cub, or a lion cub, your natural instinct is, 'I want to touch one, I want to pet one,' and that's what these breeders and dealers feed on."

A big cat, for example, ended up at the East Coast Sanctuary after an owner learned that what was once a cute cub very quickly became a large menacing tiger.

Murray says, "I wish I could tell you differently, but it's true. And we got him out of a privately owned home; they had him in a dog kennel underneath their carport."

Coatimundis were also once kept as pets. To demonstrate the potential danger in owning them, Murray jangles some keys and they react wildly. She says if a person would have been inside their cage, they would have attacked.

Dr. Haddad says, "There is a tremendous amount of evidence that when wild animals and people get too close, there is a potential for diseases to jump from animals of wild populations to the human population."

The current monkeypox outbreak is just one of many public health concerns surrounding exotic animals as pets.

Dr. Haddad says, "Some of the diseases would include things like Salmonella, shigella, you've got roundworm the whipworm infections, some of the more basic diseases. You've got-- monkeypox, clearly, SARS virus is potentially as well. People who are immunocompromised have a much higher risk of things like Chlamydia or Candida from birds. And there are a variety of other diseases that we can get from wild animals as pets."

Legislation on this issue currently consists of a patchwork of local and state ordinances with plenty of loopholes. For instance, it's illegal to sell a turtle in New Jersey, but go over to New York, and no problem.

Dr. Haddad says, "Wild animals are not appropriate pets; they're dangerous to people, they can bite, they injure and kill children and adults on a regular basis, they can transmit potentially deadly diseases, they can wreak havoc on the local environment and the indigenous wildlife population when they're released."

Some would argue that with the proper training, these animals can be domesticated. Murray doesn't agree. In fact if she had her way, there'd be no need for sanctuaries like hers.

Murray says, "You're always a cage behind and a dollar short. It's a struggle to maintain what you have. If I had it my way, I would have days off. I wouldn't be doing this... I wish they were all in the wild where they belong. I'd have a much better life and a lot less worries. And they would, too."

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