The illegal trade in wildlife is second only to that of drugs in the United States, according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS). A former FWS chief of law enforcement said, “There is no stigma attached to being an animal smuggler. If you get caught illegally transporting animals on a first offense, it’s possible you won't even do jail time. You can’t say the same for running drugs.”
Every year, thousands of animals enter the exotic pet trade. Some are captured from their native habitat and smuggled in or legally imported. Others are “surplus” from various roadside menageries and other zoos, or come from backyard breeders. Many are sold at auctions, pet stores, or over the Internet.
Exotic animals are sold at dozens of auctions held across the United States every year. Sellers realize instant profits and quick sales, as tigers, lions, bears, non-human primates, birds, reptiles, and other exotic animals are sold to the highest bidder.
Auctions can be most unpleasant. Squawks, squeals, screeches, screams, and roars are ever present and almost deafening. The animals endure dismal conditions. Hundreds of people gather from all across the country to gather to buy, sell, or trade almost every animal you can imagine. Animal buyers are not questioned about their knowledge and expertise about possessing these animals, nor are they required to verify that they reside in a state which permits ownership of the purchased species.
Backyard breeding began in the 1960s and 1970s and is today a multi-million dollar industry. Very little protection exists for these captive-bred animals whose offspring contribute to the abundance of exotic animals entering the pet trade. The majority of state laws only require the breeder to obtain a permit. On the federal level, all persons breeding these animals are required to obtain a breeder’s license pursuant to the federal Animal Welfare Act. However these federal regulations only require that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred.
The losers in this commodity exchange are the animals. Frequently the animals bought on the Internet go to people who have no knowledge about how to care for their new “pet” and, consequently, the animals themselves suffer. And the sellers of these animals make no mention of the state or local laws regulating private possession of exotics, or of the dangers, difficulties, or physical and psychological needs of the animals they peddle. The suffering of the animals in the hands of unqualified and hapless buyers appears to be of no concern in the lucrative exotic pet trade.
Trafficking in rare and exotic wildlife is a global business, worth $10-$20 billion annually. And while the breeding, selling, and transporting of exotic wildlife is technically legal on a federal level, as well as in many states, many of the animals bred and sold within the United States arrive here illegally. Nevertheless, because the chances of getting caught are so slim and the financial gains are so huge, exotic animal traffickers and breeders gladly take the risks associated with breaking the law — especially since the penalties exacted are little more than a monetary fine or, in extreme cases, a short jail stay.
Pet shops such as Petco offer a marketplace to those who wish to cash in on the exotic animals and other fad “pets.” By displaying live animals in their stores, they encouraging impulse buying. Many animals are also likely purchased by parents as a result of “pester power” of children. Children have a wonderful natural affinity for animals but tend to lose interest in them once they acquire them, and unwilling to provide the ongoing daily care required for the lifetime of the animal.
The in-store care of animals in pet shops is always suspect because store managers are often faced with conflicting responsibilities of making a store profitable and caring for animals — even when the animals are sick. Since the cost of veterinary care can easily exceed the commercial value of an animal, common sense leads to the conclusion that profits and animal care inherently conflict, especially in a retail environment.
It is the responsibility of animal advocates to help make the sale of live animals unprofitable by not supporting pet shops that sell live animals and by investigating those that do for violations of state pet shop and anticruelty laws.