Exotic Pets Can Quickly Become Invasive Species
by Annie Shao, age 17
Every year, wild snakes, lizards, scorpions, and other animals make long journeys from their homes to the U.S. to feed consumers’ cravings for exotic pets. If these foreign animals happen to escape, they migrate to places with conditions similar to their native habitats. When they find a suitable place, they invade.
A story like this one unfolded in Florida. After Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992, the Burmese python population spun out of control. In the course of the storm, many zoos and pet stores were damaged, and animals were accidentally released into the wild. Although some animals were returned, many, including Burmese pythons, escaped into the Florida Everglades.
In addition, it is likely that unwanted pet snakes were released into the wild by overwhelmed pet owners. Typically, people buy the snakes while they’re still small, but then can’t handle them when they reach their adult size. Regardless of route, most rogue snakes end up in the Everglades, where the climate suits them perfectly.
The warmth and humidity of the Florida Everglades mirrors that of the snakes’ habitat in Asia. With their high breeding rate (an average of 30 healthy eggs per clutch annually), adept survival skills, and lack of predators in the area, the Burmese pythons were able to dominate the marsh.
Today, the python continues to expand its range unchecked. These snakes now pose a significant threat to Florida’s native species and have become the undisputed top predators. Worse, according to many experts, the vast numbers of pythons make efforts to eradicate them much more challenging.
The Everglade python problem is just one example of how imported wildlife can get out of control, but the story typifies the effects any invasive species can have on the environment. The pythons have damaged America’s precious Everglades marsh—one of the country’s largest preserved wetlands. The Everglades’ unique animals may become endangered even to the point of extinction, because of these invaders. Wildlife experts and biologist say we must learn from this damaging situation. Exotic wildlife can be beautiful, but extreme caution must be used.
In response, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is currently trying to designate the Burmese python and eight other snakes as injurious species. This designation would ban exports of these animals except to zoos. Environmentalists and animal welfare groups however, believe this designation should not stop with snakes. Some scientists suggest that many other animals could be injurious to the environment as well; therefore, restricting more of these potentially harmful animal species is necessary. By limiting the number of incoming non-indigenous species, we can preserve the balance of our natural environment, they say.
Apart from stopping invasions, these import regulations would have other benefits. For example, preventing wild animals from entering the country could dramatically slow the spread of infectious diseases. Statistics show that since 1940, around 60 percent of infectious diseases originated in animals. Diseases like acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian flu and H1N1 all spread from animals to humans through pet trade, butchering techniques, and other vectors. Limiting animal imports could mean controlling disease, making the world safer for everyone.
Humans are not the only group harmed by animal imports—so are the animals being imported. Wildlife biologist D.J. Schubert of the Animal Welfare Institute explains that animals being imported are often at risk, sometimes kept in improper containers without adequate water or food. In 2009, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service discovered a shocking scene of animal abuse at the U.S. Global Exotics in Arlington, Texas. More than 26,000 animals, including snakes, wallabies, hamsters and sloths, were living in filthy conditions. Some were dying from lack of food and water. Schubert says “the entire [import] industry facilitates cruelty, not because people are trying to be mean, but because they don’t know any better.”
Indeed, the government addressed the problem of Burmese pythons and other foreign animals by introducing a bill in Congress that would limit imports on certain species in order to prevent similar invasions in the future. Not everyone, unfortunately, wants to restrict imports on wild animals. Vocal wildlife owners and members of the pet industry successfully prevented this bill from being passed.
They offer weak arguments for allowing imports. The trade group Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council claims that “import limits represent an extreme response to problems caused by a few species.” But a strong response is exactly what this kind of situation needs. Beth Priess from the Humane Society of the United States asserts that “if the federal government had listed the Burmese python as injurious 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have this problem [of an invasion].”
Efforts to fix the problem have not yet been successful, likely because the failure to act has allowed the problem to grow to unmanageable levels. The most effective method of controlling invasions is prevention, which can require extreme efforts, like imposing new laws.
Opponents to import regulations also point out that the freezing Florida temperatures of 2009 may have killed many pythons in the Everglades. Although this can be viewed as a positive event, it does not mean we should stop efforts to prevent other invasions. Clearly, because the python problem still exists today, this cold snap did not drastically decrease the python population.
Others argue that import limits will “cost jobs.” This logic does not follow; wouldn’t the tougher restrictions create more jobs? Inspecting wildlife shipments is not an easy task. The job requires the inspectors to recognize various species, and the diseases they might carry, requiring training by experts in these skills, as well as specific instruction in safety procedures. Establishing appropriate restrictions is a good investment for the government because it would preserve the environment in the short and long run.
The final argument of opponents to import regulations is that restrictions would “undermine a beneficial pastime that fosters in children an appreciation of science and nature.” In reality, children can’t properly appreciate nature through wild animals forcibly taken out of their natural environment. There are many better ways for children to learn to appreciate nature, without the costs associated with exotic pets. For example, zoos, where animals are intended to be kept in habitats similar to their natural environment, are better options for people to observe animals. Encouraging children to observe animals outdoors is also a healthier and more educational method than keeping imported exotic pets. Inspiring children to do research on wildlife that interests them builds their critical thinking skills and exposes them to information on science and nature.
The government needs to act on the issue of wildlife imports. The import of exotic species is having a negative impact on both humans and animals. Importation of exotic pets will potentially lead to invasive species, spread of disease, and animal cruelty. Import regulations need to be established to protect the safety and well being of both animals and humans.
[Sources: Associated Press; Wisconsin State Journal; South Florida Sun-Sentinel; reptileknowledge.com].