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MILWAUKEE -- Something wasn't right about the shipment of prairie dogs that Hoffer's Tropic Life pet store received here.
''When they came in, they were coughing and sneezing. We recognized it right away and kept them off the (sales) floor,'' Mike Hoffer says.
Even that precaution didn't prevent the veterinarian and an employee from coming down last month with symptoms of monkeypox, the rare virus that the prairie dogs were carrying.
As of Tuesday, more than 50 people in three Midwestern states and New Jersey are believed to have become infected with the monkeypox virus, a close but weaker relative of smallpox. All the victims are believed to have come into contact with prairie dogs or other exotic pets.
The monkeypox outbreak underscores the health hazards posed by the burgeoning trade in alternative pets, which runs the gamut from hedgehogs to raccoons.
Health officials say the U.S. monkeypox outbreak can be traced in the distribution chain to an infected Gambian giant rat, which in turn infected prairie dogs. An unknown number of infected prairie dogs were sold at pet stores in the region and at ''swap meets'' where animals are sold and traded.
''It doesn't take a genius to figure out there's a potential for disease to be passed,'' says Alan Green, author of the book Animal Underworld: Inside America's Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species.
For public health officials, the outbreak represents a wake-up call to how quickly an unusual virus can spread through the exotic-pet trade. Live animals are ferried from Asia, Africa or other continents at jet speed, then they often are kept in close contact with other species. They are eventually sold as pets to American pet owners who often have only rudimentary knowledge about them.
''Any illness in the world can appear on the American doorstep in a matter of hours,'' says Seth Foldy, Milwaukee's health commissioner.
Looking for something new
As soon as monkeypox was diagnosed and the source determined, officials took immediate steps. On Friday, Wisconsin officials banned the sale of prairie dogs in the state. Hoffer says the seven prairie dogs that he had in stock were euthanized, and he's temporarily barred from selling other small furry animals.
Hoffer says unusual animals such as prairie dogs, which he sold for a decade without problems, are popular.
''You get bored looking at mice, gerbils and rats,'' he says. ''Customers want to see something new and fresh. It's like last year's model on a car. We're doing the same thing, trying to come up with something new every once in a while.''
Indeed, experts say exotic animals often get fad status.
Though there are questions about how big the trade in exotic pets has become, ''it's bigger than we would like to see it,'' says Stephen Zawistowski , science adviser to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
There are occasional reports of exotic or unusual pets passing on a virus. The National Center for Infectious Diseases has warned about the risk of plague in prairie dogs and other rodents.
Green, the author, says another rodent-like creature that was being imported from Egypt, the Jerboa, was believed to have caused a rash in some of its owners. Raccoons, which are sometimes kept as pets, can pass on a roundworm parasite to humans through their feces.
Critics say government regulation is spotty. The Agriculture Department's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service licenses dealers and breeders. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service monitors the Endangered Species Act. But the rules for the keeping of the animals by pet owners fall under a hodgepodge of state and local government regulations.
In 2001, the service had 1,166 licensed dealers, including those of prairie dogs, spokesman Jim Rogers says.
Quarantined at home
The Kautzer family of Dorchester, Wis., brought home a pair of male prairie dogs May 11.
''We had one before that was real friendly,'' says Steve Kautzer, 38, reached by telephone at his home. ''You could pet it. . . . It would gently nibble at you, it was playful.''
Two days after bringing them home, his 3-year-old daughter, Schyan (pronounced Shy-ANN) was bitten on the right index finger. ''It was like a scratch, barely broke the skin,'' her father says. Three or four days later, a sore emerged at the bite site. Then a high fever started, and Schyan was hospitalized for eight days. Today, she is home and feeling much better. The animal that bit her died, Kautzer says, and the other one, Chuckles, is quarantined in a cage on the porch.
Steve and his wife, Tammy, became ill with symptoms of monkeypox. The family is recuperating under quarantine and feeling better, Steve says, at least physically.
''Mentally, it's kind of getting to us, just being cooped up inside,'' he says.
Kautzer, a lumberyard worker, and his wife, who works in a frozen-pizza warehouse, are on temporary disability.
Kautzer says they probably won't get prairie dogs again.
''Right now, it's kind of up in the air, I guess,'' he says. ''But we're looking more away from them.''
Prairie-dog advocates say the rodent gets a bad rap. They say that it's a wild creature that should be protected in nature, not kept as a pet, and that the monkeypox virus isn't native to the species.
Rebecca Fischer, director of Prairie Dog Rescue of New England, says she is occasionally bitten by one of the 30 or 40 prairie dogs she keeps in her Connecticut shelter. ''The average pet owner can't deal with that,'' she says.
She says she often counsels owners who find them undesirable as pets.
''The bottom line is wildlife should stay in the wild,'' Fischer says.
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