Researchers estimate that millions of pets, animal parts and meats are covertly smuggled across the border totaling a $10 billion industry, second only to illegal drugs.

These exotic animals, captured in the wild are entering the homes of Americans as parents try to get their kids the latest in demand pet seen on the should of their favorite Hollywood star.

The legal importation of exotic animals totals more than 650 million for the past three years making that figure nearly two for every American. A key problem to the influx of these animals is that there is little or no screening for disease and medical professionals believe that Americans become vulnerable to dangerous outbreaks of disease.

The process for wildlife entry into the United States currently involves no quarantine and minimal screening for disease. The United States government employs only 120 full time people to inspect and record imported wildlife. These inspectors are not required to be trained in disease detection. Therefore this team of 120 people is faced with the daunting task of reviewing over 200 million animals per year or over 540,000 animals per day if they were to work 365 days in a year.

Many of these pets are in their wild habitat one day and then in the household of a family one week later after a long journey into the United States.

Potential Diseases

Most exotic pets come from South America, Africa and Asia and those that are not properly screened could transmit bacteria and viruses to humans and native animals.

Zoonotic Diseasease

Zoonotic diseases are those that jump to humans. According to the CDC, three quarters of all emerging infectious threats are Zoonotic diseases. In the Journal of Medicine's last report on Zoonotic diseases, the journal found that an estimated 50 million people worldwide have been infected since 2000 and 78,000 people have died of Zoonotic diseases.

Types of Zoonotic Diseases

  • Hantavirus - carried by rodents and can cause severe respiratory problems or death. Since 1996 the disease has sickened 317 Americans and killed 93 Americans.
  • Tularmia - virulent disease can be contracted from rodents, rabbits and hamsters.
  • Lymphcytic Choriomingitis - carried by hamsters and the cause of 34 United States death cases since 1993.
  • Salmonella - 210,000 Americans sickened between 2000 and 2004 resulting in 89 deaths. Most infections come from contaminated food, however up to 5 percent comes from pets including iguanas, turtles and other reptiles.

Other Types of Diseases From Animals

  • Asian Bird Flu - this disease has been tied to exotic animals and was found when eagles smuggled aboard a plane to Europe were discovered to have the virus.
  • Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) - believed to have jumped to people from caged civet cats in a Chinese market. The cats were reported to have been infected from the bite of bats.

Loopholes in screening of legal pets

There are numerous loopholes with legal imports regarding screening and quarantine of the animals. The biggest challenge occurs with illegal smuggling.

Smugglers have been known to tape small tubes filled with birds on their legs in order to smuggle the birds through airports. Smugglers also cut deep boxes into car seats and fill it with exotic wildlife in order to drive across the Mexican border.

In 2004, a man was caught smuggling two Crested Hawk Eagles on flight from Bangkok Thailand to Brussels Belgium. The smuggler had wrapped the birds in a white cloth and stuffed them into handmade wicker tubes that he carried on the plane.

Crested Hawk Eagle

The birds were to be delivered to a reputable bird collector who ordered the eagles for thousands of dollars. The birds were quickly tested and found to be infected with the HSN1 bird flu virus. No humans were affected.

A Bureaucratic Mess

The United States defenses are a nightmare as the laws are archaic and there is not one single agency that controls this problem.

  • The CDC oversees human health and the quarantine of imported monkeys.
  • The Department of the Agriculture oversees livestock health and quarantines live birds and wild cud chewing animals.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Service checks for the smuggling and enforces the laws concerning endangered species and exotic animals.

Smugglers Animal Body Pouch

The agencies do not work together and many animals are not screened before they enter a family's home. Clearly changes must be made in order to prevent the illegal importation of animals into the United States.


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