Exotic Pets in U.S. May Pose Health Risk

The Associated Press
Monday, November 27, 2006; 10:16 PM

WASHINGTON -- Exotic animals captured in the wild are streaming into the U.S. by the millions with little or no screening for disease, leaving Americans vulnerable to a virulent outbreak that could rival a terrorist act.

Demand for such wildlife is booming as parents try to get their kids the latest pets fancied by Hollywood stars and zoos and research scientists seek to fill their cages.

More than 650 million critters _ from kangaroos and kinkajous to iguanas and tropical fish _ were imported legally into the United States in the past three years, according to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.

That's more than two for every American.

Countless more pets _ along with animal parts and meats _ are smuggled across the borders as part of a $10 billion-a-year international black market, second only to illegal drugs.

Most wildlife arrive in the United States with no quarantine and minimal screening for disease. The government employs just 120 full-time inspectors to record and inspect arriving wildlife. There is no requirement they be trained to detect diseases.

"A wild animal will be in the bush, and in less than a week it's in a little girl's bedroom," said Darin Carroll, a disease hunter with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While exotic pets from Africa, Asia and South America can be cute and fashionable, scientists fear that bacteria and viruses they carry can jump to humans and native animals. Recent statistics raise the alarm.


Zoonotic diseases _ those that jump to humans _ account for three quarters of all emerging infectious threats, the CDC says. Five of the six diseases the agency regards as top threats to national security are zoonotic, and the CDC recently opened a center to better prepare and monitor such diseases.

The Journal of Internal Medicine this month estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000 and as many as 78,000 have died.

U.S. experts don't have complete totals for Americans, but partial numbers paint a serious picture:

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