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Exotic Pets Pose Medical Risks for Humans

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The Gwinnett Civic & Cultural Center was crawling with snakes, lizards, spiders.

The animals were merchandise at last fall's Atlanta Reptile and Exotic Animal Show. Thousands of visitors from at least 30 states paid $7 apiece to get through the door, then stood in line at booth after booth to buy exotic pets.

A Brazilian rainbow boa, $175. A goliath bird-eating tarantula, $100. A Bengal cat kitten, $400. A Moluccan cockatoo, $1,500.

A small boy beamed over the 10-inch-long Argentine boa curled in a covered plastic dish his father bought for $100. A teenage girl showed off the 5-inch-long African fat-tail gecko that cost her $30.

Over 400 expos like the one in Gwinnett are held across the nation each year. The events, offering animals from every part of the world, draw as many as 10,000 people each. Other buyers find exotic animals in pet shops or through the Internet.

As the monkeypox outbreak shows, the popularity of unusual animals can be a public health menace. Diseases caused by human contact with wild animals can sicken and kill people and livestock and trigger epidemics.

The SARS epidemic, for example, is thought to have originated in civet cats, eaten as game food in China. And scientists speculate that West Nile virus may have reached the United States in an infected wild bird through the pet trade.

"We have exotic animals in people's back yards or in their pockets," said Ruth Berkelman of Emory University's Rollins School of Public Health. "We're monkeying with nature."

Officials have reported at least 89 possible monkeypox cases, mostly in the Midwest. It has been traced to pet prairie dogs that apparently caught the virus from infected Gambian giant pouched rats. The rats were imported from Africa and sold as exotic pets.

The infected prairie dogs, native to the American West, were distributed to several pet stores. Some apparently were traded at informal "swap meets," complicating efforts to trace them.

Last week, health officials prohibited the sale and shipment of prairie dogs and banned the importation of Gambian rats and five other species of African rodents --- tree squirrels, rope squirrels, brush-tailed porcupines, striped mice and dormice.

Yet those animals represent just a small part of the global trade in exotic pets.

"The market is huge, and it's growing," said Simon Habel of the World Wildlife Fund in Washington. 'Something different'

Nearly 7 million U.S. households have a pet bird, and 4 million have a pet snake, iguana or turtle, says the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association.

Bill Albright, who runs Animal House Pets in Loganville, recently ordered 1,000 baby ball pythons from a captive breeding operation in Africa. "I will sell every one of them," he said. "I'm holding back about 200 just for Christmas sales."

People have kept animals as companions since ancient times, but only in recent decades has there been an explosion in the number of wild species sold as pets.

Sugar gliders and marmosets --- both small mammals --- are widely popular. Before the monkeypox outbreak, prairie dogs were becoming popular too.

The greatest demand, however, is for birds and reptiles. Some see the animals as low-maintenance pets that can live in small apartments and don't trigger allergies as dogs and cats do. But the animals also serve as novelties and attention-getters.

"People acquire wild animals . . . because they like to possess unusual pets or regard them as status symbols," says the American Veterinary Medical Association.

"People want something different," said Silke Rech, owner of Wildside pet shop in Oakwood in North Georgia, a store that specializes in exotics. "They want an interesting hobby, and these animals provide that."

Chris Lenz, whose ranch-style home sits alongside a shady street in northeast Atlanta, has closed off the garage and populated it with more than 30 iguanas, lizards, geckos and snakes.

It's difficult to explain his passion for reptiles, said Lenz, a home remodeler. Perhaps it stems from his boyhood, when he chased after snakes and salamanders slithering and creeping over the rolling mountains near his Pennsylvania home.

"Some people like motorcycles; some like boats," he said. "I like reptiles. I've always been a person who wants to have stuff other people don't have."

Some animal owners, in contrast, want what other people do have, or at least what shows up in popular culture.

Cockatoos became more popular with the 1970s television show "Baretta," whose star, Robert Blake, paraded around with one of the birds on his shoulder. Later, the "Jurassic Park" movies fueled sales of lizards and iguanas. And now the gecko featured in Geico insurance commercials has spurred interest in those lizards.

The popularity of such creatures poses threats beyond those to human health. The capture of wild animals is pushing some rare species toward extinction. And millions of captured wild animals suffer and die in shipment every year, raising animal welfare concerns as well.

"We're dealing with a huge problem," said Jeff Bender, assistant professor of veterinary medicine at the University of Minnesota.

The American Veterinary Medical Association opposes domesticating wild animals, especially carnivores, reptiles and amphibians considered dangerous to humans. "Veterinarians should exert their influence to discourage the keeping of wild animals as pets," the association recommends.

Many pet owners come to the same conclusion themselves. Fads and novelties wear off, and small, manageable animals get big and hard to handle. 'Ban all exotic pets'

In Peachtree City, Connie Haynes takes in exotic pets that people no longer want.

"I have a house full of animals --- most of them dumped pets," said Haynes, a state-licensed animal rehabilitator. "Many people buy exotic animals because it's cool, but they have no idea how to take care of them or how big and dangerous they might get."

Among the creatures now in her care are three African monitor lizards --- abandoned, presumably, when their previous owners discovered their downside as pets. "These animals can badly bite you," she said. "They have terrible bacteria in their mouths. They can injure you with their tails."

Still, many exotic pet stores stand ready to sell a monitor --- or a boa constrictor or python or other potentially dangerous animal --- to anyone who walks in the door.

"People who buy exotic animals should know the implications," Haynes said. A cute baby boa constrictor bought when it is 10 inches long can become several feet long in maturity, able to asphyxiate a child.

Animal owners grow tired of mammals as well as reptiles. In Gainesville, Fla., Kari Bagnall runs Jungle Friends, a sanctuary for cast-off monkeys and other primates.

"I am full to the brim with unwanted pet monkeys," she said, "as is every other primate sanctuary in the country."

Said Haynes: "I wish they'd ban all exotic pets."

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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