Many exotic pets suffer or die in transit, and beyond—and the U.S. government is failing to act

Often mailed dozens to a box, animals in the pet trade are subjected to inhumane conditions, experts say.

Dead frogs from the Solomon Islands, a remote archipelago in the South Pacific, set the tone for how the United States enforces animal welfare protections. And not for the better, experts say. 

It was back in 1995, and a wildlife inspector at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport was called to check a shipment of animals that had just arrived. When he opened one of the wooden boxes, the first thing he saw was skinks. The lizards looked healthy enough.

But in another compartment, he found several dozen dead and dying frogs “crushed together.” The compartment had no water or damp sponges to keep them hydrated, nor had the frogs been separated to prevent injuries. It was “not a normal way to ship frogs,” the inspector said later.

The importer, Bronx Reptiles, Inc., was a commercial wholesale animal dealer that brought in live animals from around the world about twice a week, according to court records. The company had previously received three civil violations from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for inhumane and improper shipment of wildlife.

This time, the government brought a criminal case. Bruce Edelman, the owner of Bronx Reptiles, was found guilty and sentenced to five years of probation and a $10,000 fine.

On appeal, his lawyers argued that he didn’t knowingly import the animals in substandard conditions and therefore couldn’t be held responsible. The court reversed the decision and found him not guilty.

Although this occurred more than two decades ago, it continues to have a chilling effect on attempts through the court system to combat the inhumane treatment of imported wildlife. The U.S. Department of Justice, says spokesperson Danielle Nichols, is not aware of any such prosecutions since the Bronx Reptiles case’s failure.

The lack of legal repercussions for the inhumane treatment of exotic pets has helped create an industry in which “animal suffering, abuse, and the human greed behind it constitutes” the norm, says Clifford Warwick, an independent reptile biologist and animal welfare specialist.

Traditionally, scientists, conservationists, and policymakers have kept mum on the issue of animal welfare in the wildlife trade, prioritizing the protection of species and ecosystems over the well-being of individual animals. But now, an increasing number of researchers have begun calling for animal welfare to be made a conservation priority.

The U.S. imported 3.24 billion live animals from 2000 to 2014, according to a 2020 paper in Scientific Data. Paperwork for the shipments indicate that about half came from the wild and nearly all were intended for commercial purposes, most likely the pet trade, according to the study authors.

As the biggest importer in the world of wild animals for pets, the U.S. ought to set the bar for standards of humane treatment in the exotic pet trade, but so far, it’s failing, Warwick says. (He says he expects the same of the European Union, which imports almost as many exotic animals as the U.S.) Weak regulations, few wildlife inspectors, and the difficulty of prosecuting cases mean violators are likely to go unpunished.

There are practical reasons for conservationists and policymakers to care about animal welfare: The more animals that die in trade because of ill treatment, the more that are captured from the wild to keep supplies coming, says Nitin Sekar, a conservation biologist with World Wildlife Fund-India and co-author of a paper in Science arguing that conservationists should strive to minimize animal suffering. Regardless of how well or badly animals are doing in the wild, he says, humans have an ethical responsibility not to cause harm.

From forest to cage

Whether they’re dealing in wild-caught or captive-bred animals, live animal traders supply pet stores, animal wholesalers, zoos, and biomedical research facilities with animals ranging from tropical fish to exotic mammals. The international import and export of certain at-risk species is regulated by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a global treaty that doesn’t cover most species.  

Wild-caught animals in the trade face extra stresses, traveling along bumpy roads in bags on motorbikes or stuffed into boxes in car trunks as they’re traded from hunter to middleman to exporter. During this journey, they may be deprived of food and water, and often come into contact with other captured animals, increasing the risk of disease spread and the possible emergence of novel zoonotic diseases that can jump to humans, Warwick says.

In the marine aquarium industry, which takes up to 41.5 million animals from the wild each year, mortality can range from less than 5 percent to more than 90 percent depending on the species, according to a 2012 report by Defenders of Wildlife. Reef fish are sometimes stunned with cyanide or forced to the surface with explosive blasts to make them easier to collect.

Birds too are at risk. Before 1992, when the U.S. banned the import of many wild-caught birds, conservationists estimated that for the 700,000 wild birds brought into the country each year, 3.5 million more died. For countries that continue to trade in wild-caught birds, there’s no evidence that the situation has improved, says Teresa Telecky, vice president for wildlife at Humane Society International.

One of the most egregious cases highlighting the need for change occurred in 2009, when authorities raided U.S. Global Exotics, a wildlife wholesaler in Arlington, Texas. They found more than 26,400 animals of 171 species, about 80 percent of them “grossly sick, injured, or dead,” according to a 2014 report about the raid, which followed a seven-month undercover investigation by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

The facility was shut down, but Jasen Shaw, the company’s owner, got what PETA’s Daphna Nachiminovitch, senior vice president of cruelty investigations, calls “a pathetic plea bargain.” He paid a penalty of $15,000 and was not barred from trading in wildlife.

Reviewing the case, investigators calculated that each week, the company disposed of some 3,500 dead or nearly dead animals, equating to a 72 percent mortality rate every six weeks. During the municipal court case, one witness cited a study suggesting that 70 percent of all reptiles in the pet trade die before reaching their final destination.

There’s no evidence that mortality rates across the industry have improved in the decade since the bust of U.S. Global Exotics, according to Warwick, who worked on the case.

Telecky is even more pointed. “Those who are in the live animal industry are getting away with murder, literally,” she says.

Those claims are strongly contested by Bob Likins, vice president of government affairs for the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council (PIJAC), the world’s largest pet trade association. “The exotic pet trade and the responsible pet care community as a whole is committed to ensuring the health and well-being of the animals in our care,” he says. “We will continue to work with enforcement officials to identify and address any evidence of a problem.”

On a national and global scale, though, the problem is difficult to tackle, because it’s difficult to define. No one knows what percentage of animals die before they’re exported from their country of origin, multiple critics of the industry say, and it’s also unknown how many die prematurely in private homes, either for lack of appropriate care or their unsuitability for life in captivity.

“It’s a completely black box,” says Sandra Altherr, co-founder of Pro Wildlife, a German conservation organization.

Clearance for parasites

The port of Los Angeles, which includes seven airports and seaports, has more wildlife moving in and out than any other port in the country. Yet in 2020, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had only six inspectors assigned to it.

“We can’t cover everything,” says Joseph Ventura, one of the six inspectors.

Given the logistical limits, usually they can pursue only the most extreme cases, Ventura says. “It’s kind of a given that oftentimes animals in the trade are not in the best health,” he says. “It’s something that we kind of accept, in a way.”

There are legal limitations too. When Jonathan Kolby was working as an inspector at the Port of Newark, New Jersey, in the 2000s, shipments from Africa addressed to a U.S. pet trader arrived containing reptiles infested with ticks and other parasites. Kolby says was concerned about the animals’ health and worried that the ticks could introduce diseases into the country. But he had to clear the shipments, because he had no legal basis for seizing or delaying them. (Read more from Kolby about how U.S. fails to screen imported wildlife for zoonotic diseases.)

CITES, the wildlife trade treaty, mandates that shipment of certain live animals must minimize injury or cruel treatment—but its regulations apply only to transport, not to how animals are captured, stockpiled, or eventually housed, says Sue Lieberman, vice president of international policy at the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Species covered by the treaty are supposed to be shipped according to the nearly 500 pages of rules outlined by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), to which 290 airlines belong. They detail everything from custom-fit nylon stretchers with fin cut-outs for transporting beluga whales to non-slip flooring material for use in flamingos’ crates. The rules look good on paper, says the Humane Society’s Telecky, but they don’t carry the force of law.

“The standards they have are really, really good,” Telecky says. “If everyone just implemented those, the world would be a better place for these animals in trade.”

Federal regulations provide some humane treatment protections for animals when they enter the U.S., but thousands of reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates fall between the cracks, critics say. A law called the Lacey Act makes it a misdemeanor for anyone “knowingly” to import wildlife under “inhumane or unhealthful conditions,” but the government has specified those conditions only for mammals and birds.

 Even identifying suffering reptiles and amphibians can be difficult, inspectors say, because they typically don’t exhibit the same symptoms of stress or disease as mammals, such as whining or crying and expressing distress through facial expressions.

“How does an inspector make a judgement call that the animals are ‘too sick’ or are unwell enough to take some sort of action?” says Kolby, who now works as a wildlife trade consultant. He says he never received any training to make such evaluations. “This issue used to be a big thorn in my side, with sometimes unclear boundaries for enforcement,” he says.   

When inspectors do happen upon a shipment that clearly warrants action, such as injured or dead animals, they can issue fines, Ventura says.

Usually, though, that’s where enforcement stops. Pointing to the Bronx Reptiles case, Bruce Weissgold, an independent consultant on wildlife trade, says that prosecutors attempting to pursue such incidents have “been unsuccessful in bringing a case to fruition, and this has jaded them on wanting to bring further cases.”  

“The pet industry is very powerful”

Hoping to update the rules to protect millions more imported animals, the Fish and Wildlife Service drafted regulations in the mid-1990s to define principles for humane transport of reptiles and amphibians. Weissgold, then a wildlife trade policy specialist with the service, was part of the effort.

A group of stakeholders from inside and outside government participated, and eventually they settled on a new set of guidelines, Weissgold says. But before the process to legally adopt the regulations began, the pet industry began to push back behind the scenes to pressure officials not to adopt the changes, Weissgold continues. PIJAC members also undertook a letter-writing campaign to protest the changes. The Fish and Wildlife Service ultimately dropped the effort.

“PIJAC didn’t want regulations because the importers didn’t want them, and the importers didn’t want them because it would raise the cost of shipping the animals,” Weissgold says. “They felt that increasing the price of the animals to cover those costs would drive away their bread-and-butter consumers from the pet stores.”

Telecky, who had been present at the meetings, also remembers this turn of events. “The pet industry is very powerful in all of this,” she says. 

When asked for comment, PIJAC’s Likins said that “historical documentation does not exist to comment on the mindset or actions taken by PIJAC staff or members 25 years ago.”

The International Air Transport Association ended up adopting guidelines in 1997 similar to those drafted by the service, but without federal regulations, Ventura says, “there’s really nothing we could do if [an importer] said, ‘Nope, we’re not complying.’”

Still, most U.S. reptile traders—at least those whose shipments come through Los Angeles—do voluntarily comply, he says.

The government is still interested in creating regulations to ensure the humane transport of reptiles and amphibians, but other priorities simply continue to take precedence, says Frank Kohn, a biologist with the service specializing in CITES.

“Entrenched interests”  

Many conservationists and policymakers are only beginning to awaken to these challenges, but conservation biologist Sekar says the trend is in the right direction. As scientific evidence that animals think and feel grows, so does the public call for improving animal welfare.

Still, he says, not enough exotic pet sellers and buyers think about this. Merchants are focused on profits, which may be reduced if high standards for animal welfare were imposed, Sekar says. And most consumers simply don’t consider how that snake or fish they're buying got to the pet store or whether the animal would be better off in the wild.

“Just like markets don’t necessarily account for harm done to the climate or human laborers, markets don’t automatically look out for the well-being of individual animals,” Sekar says. “Any effort to establish standards to safeguard the quality of animal life will require lots of political pressure and have to somehow address the entrenched interests of businesses profiting from the current model.”

Pet industry representatives insist that they’re in favor of such standards. “We want humane care and good science and veterinary practices,” says attorney Marshall Meyers, who serves on IATA’s Live Animals Board Advisory Panel and left PIJAC in 2010 after more than 30 years as executive vice president and general counsel. “We have not been opposed to regulations as long as they’re based on good data.”

But political will in the U.S. so far has been lacking, Weissgold says. “In my opinion, it comes down to a fear of controversy, a lack of imagination, a poor working relationship between international affairs and law enforcement programs, and a heavy workload in other areas,” he says.

Lieberman says the Wildlife Conservation Society and other non-governmental groups have recommended to President Joe Biden’s transition team that they work to improve international cooperation on wildlife trade-related issues, especially because regulating the trade in live animals is an important part of pandemic prevention.

“The U.S. has walked away from multilateralism on many fronts, and this is one of several issues that point to the critical need for increased collaboration between governments,” Lieberman says.

Should the U.S. and other countries commit to reforming the live wildlife trade, one suggestion Warwick and others offer is that trade should be permitted only for species on a “positive list”—animals for which ample scientific evidence exists that the they can be traded safely, sustainably, and without harm or distress.  

The Netherlands and Belgium have already implemented positive lists for exotic pet mammals, and Altherr and others are calling on the EU to apply the same approach for all exotic pets. “We shouldn’t allow for every animal that fits into a cage or glass tank to be kept as a pet,” Altherr says.

A positive list in the U.S. isn’t under consideration at the moment, but consumers themselves can make a difference, Telecky says. She encourages people shopping for an exotic pet to ask whether it was bred in captivity or captured in the wild.

“If you care about animal welfare, and you care about conservation,” she says, “don’t buy a wild animal.”

Wildlife Watch is an investigative reporting project between National Geographic Society and National Geographic Partners focusing on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and learn more about National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at nationalgeographic.org. Send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com.

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