International Trade in Wild-Caught Reptiles
- James M. Green
- Animal Legal & Historical Center
- Publish Date: 2005
- Place of Publication: Michigan State University College of Law
Wildlife smuggling is certainly on the rise. The wildlife trade business is the second-largest illegal trade in the world after drugs. The World Wildlife Fund states that the global trade, both legal and illegal, is estimated to be around US$159 billion per year in declared import values. See http://www.wwf.org.uk/filelibrary/pdf/switchingchannels.pdf. Reptiles play largely in the realm of exotic trade and illegal trade, but the reptiles that appear to be affected the most are the wild-caught reptiles.
The Humane Society of the United States, the nation's largest animal protection organization, released a landmark report on September 6, 2001 that called on the federal government to ban the import, export, and retail sales of live reptiles in the United States, whether wild-caught or captive-bred. The report, Reptiles as Pets: An Examination of the Trade in Live Reptiles in the United States, documents and exposes the abuses of the $2 billion dollar a year industry and cites health threats to humans in the form of Salmonellosis, wildlife agricultural animals in the form of heartwater disease, as well as conservation and humane concerns, as reasons for banning the trade. See http://www.hsus.org for information on obtaining the report.
Several Herpetological Societies have banded together to fight this proposed ban. Addressing the arguments of the Humane Society, the Herpetological Societies state that education should alleviate problems with Salmonella. Further, a counter argument is that only bans on animals that pose a risk to native wildlife and livestock should be supported as opposed to an all out ban. Finally, they argue that conservation concerns and inhumane treatment can be better addressed through education and pet trade directed regulatory actions.
While a total ban may neither be feasible nor warranted, certainly the trade in wild-caught reptiles is too prevalent in our global economy. This article seeks to discuss the wild-caught reptile dilemma with specific reference to the effects on the animals, the legal implications of importing or exporting these animals and the potential conflicts with public safety, both from the animals themselves and the other organisms they may be carrying. The article concludes by suggesting areas for improvement within the current system, supplemented by a few new regulations.
Reptiles Are Animals
Reptiles are animals, as are amphibians. Physiologically, they are similar and are sometimes collectively called “herpetofauna.” All of the excepted scientific classification systems regard reptiles as such. Under the two most common classification systems, reptiles are either grouped as the Class Reptilia or the Class Diapsida under the Kingdom Animalia, meaning “animals”. Moreover, under most legal definitions, reptiles are considered to be animals as well. For example, Connecticut defines an animal as including “birds, quadrupeds, reptiles and amphibians.” Con. Gen. Stat. §26-1(1) (2004). Wisconsin is equally specific: "’Animal’ includes every living: (a) Warm-blooded creature, except a human being; (b) Reptile; or (c) Amphibian.” Wis. Stat. §951.01 (2004). Florida, albeit in an unflattering way, also defines “animal” to include reptiles as “the word ‘animal’ shall be held to include every living dumb creature.” Fla. Stat. §828.02 (2005). An unsettling discrepancy lies in the Federal Government’s Animal Welfare Act. 7 U.S.C. §§2131 et seq. There, the “term ‘animal’ means any live or dead dog, cat, monkey (nonhuman primate mammal), guinea pig, hamster, rabbit, or such other warm-blooded animal, as the Secretary may determine is being used, or is intended for use, for research, testing, experimentation, or exhibition purposes, or as a pet;” but excludes birds, mice, rats, horses and farm animals. 7 U.S.C. §2132(g). Conspicuously absent from the list are fish, amphibians and reptiles. Id.
Unfortunately, many people, unaware of the backings from science and the law, do not consider reptiles to be animals. In his article entitled “Herpetofauna Keeping By Secondary School Students: Causes For Concern”, David Bride complied the results of some alarming graduate studies that currently remain unpublished. See http://www.psyeta.org/sa/sa6.1/bride.html. His compilation refers to a study by Martin and Nicholls (Martin, D. & Nicholls, M. (1993). The importance of children's provenance in the understanding of "animal" - a comparison of town and village primary school children in Kent. Christ Church College, Canterbury: Ecology Research Group) of 400 five- to eleven-year-olds found between 10-40% of those surveyed did not recognize either snakes or frogs as animals. Similarly, Tinkler (Tinkler, D. (1993) Zoo visitors' perceptions of animals - and the short-term effect of a zoo visit upon them. Unpublished M.S. dissertation. University of Kent at Canterbury, DICE) recorded 60% of 150 adult zoo visitors failed to classify a lizard as an animal. From his investigation into unpublished studies, Bride hypothesized that this may be due to a confusion of term "mammal" with "animal." He recently found that of 228 respondents to a questionnaire about wildlife, at least 25% appeared to confuse the two. Bride found this view, that "animal" equals "mammal," to be interesting as it gives an entirely new perspective to what many people's interpretations of such concepts as "animal protection," "animal welfare," and "animal rights" may entail. See http://www.psyeta.org/sa/sa6.1/bride.html. Knowledge of what a reptile actually is may go far in soliciting the sympathy of the public.
A very common myth is that reptiles are “cold-blooded.” In addition to describing a general temperature of reptilian blood, the term also entails the negative connotations of evil and lifelessness. To be sure, in the Biblical story of Adam and Eve, it was a serpent that deceived mankind. However, reptiles are not “cold-blooded.” On occasion, they are quite the contrary and can even be “hot-blooded.” This gradation results in reptiles being “poikilothermic.” Poikilotherms have a body temperature that is variable with environmental conditions. If the ambient temperature is warm or even hot, that leads to a reptile having warm or hot blood. Another physiological term that accurately depicts reptiles is “ectothemy.” Ectotherms control the uptake of heat from the environment as a way to control internal body temperature. Reptiles are both poikilothermic and ectothemic, but are not cold-blooded. Moreover, some larger reptiles, such as large crocodilians, sea turtles and large monitor lizards approach a level of homeothermy. That is, their temperature does not fluctuate as much based upon the environment. This results from a physiology process known as gigantothermy, where a very large animal will maintain a constant body temperature with little input from the environment.
Another popular assumption is that since reptiles are “cold-blooded,” they therefore feel little or no pain. In fact, they have little physiological control over their internal body temperature and are instead almost completely reliant on external heat sources to provide them with enough warmth for their natural activities and for metabolic processes to operate. This makes these animals extremely sensitive even to subtle changes in temperature and humidity in their captive environment.
Added to the problems arising from their “cold-blooded” reputation, reptiles lack the repertoire of facial expressions and vocalizations that would alert keepers to their pain and distress. A sick, hurt, or chronically stressed reptile will typically suffer in silence. The suffering will often be far more prolonged than that experienced by mammals, due to reptiles' slow metabolic rate. Blood loss and the healing of injuries are both relatively slow, as are the consequent risk of infection and further complications.
Most reptiles have a preferred optimum temperature zone, a zone of temperature that they try to maintain while performing daily activities. Their entire physiology, including their immune defense mechanism, is temperature dependent and operates optimally at this optimal zone. Reptiles in captivity often are maintained at suboptimal temperatures, which results in a compromised immune system. Such animals are subject to infection by a great variety of secondary invaders, including the gram-negative microorganisms commonly isolated from their oral cavity. A reptile that is kept at its preferred optimum temperature (with all other environmental conditions being ideal) and receives proper nutrition is often a healthy reptile. For a more complete discussion of reptile physiology, see 18 Carl Gans & David Crews, Biology of the Reptilia, Physiology E, (1991). The cumulative effect of these common misconceptions may play a large factor in the cruel treatment and neglect of reptiles in captivity.
There is an immense pressure from buyers who desire reptiles as pets. According to TRAFFIC (http://www.traffic.org), the exotic animal trade is second only to the drug trade on a global scale. An old adage of economics dictates that when there is demand, there will be sellers. Moreover, the greater the demand, especially when the supply is limited (either due to resources or legal regulations/ramifications), the more people will take on risks to sell for a profit.
The collection of reptiles, and all wild-caught exotics, does provide much needed income for indigenous people. A native farmer may make a paltry sum in farming, which may be supplemented generously by supplying animals to the foreign marker.
An article appearing in the East African Standard (Nairobi) detailed just how important collecting wild animals may be for poor locals. Hundreds of villagers who were eager to get rich flocked a rural market armed with chameleons they hoped to sell. However, the much awaited buyer failed to arrive leaving villagers unsure what to do with the animals. Many were abandoned at the market. In all, about 3,000 chameleons had been captured and brought to the market. The get-rich frenzy spread through word of mouth and attracted people from considerable distances. The villagers were reacting to some posters claiming a chameleon buyer would come to the market. One woman had trekked for about four kilometers to the market. One octogenarian proved that age was not a deterrent as he managed to take four from his coffee estate. He claimed he would return the animals to his farm if the transaction turned out to be illegal. Amos Kareithi, Hundreds At Chameleon Market That Never Was, The East African Standard (Nairobi) (May 2, 2005).
Reptilian Hot Spots
Most of the world’s terrestrial biodiversity comes from the tropics, the area of land between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn, across the globe. These “hot spots” of animal, and reptilian, diversity lead a great variety of desirable species. While many of these animals are exquisite in their markings, and unique in their morphology, the sheer fact they are “exotic” may be enough to make them desirable. Moreover, the sheer number of species available from these regions lends them to be involved in the pet trade.
However, most of the reptile keepers, herpetoculturalists, reside in more temperate zones: Japan, most of Europe and the United States. It is not coincidental that the countries in these regions are considerably wealthy. Residents of these regions have money to spend and typically seek something exotic. The normal progression of people who keep reptiles tends to involve an initial experience with a native species, followed by forays with increasingly more attractive, more rare, more venomous or more lengthy species. In fact, your author’s first pet reptile was a native garter snake kept at age 8, followed later by extensive research on crocodilians as an undergraduate and culminating with a graduate degree studying venomous snakes.
As most of the regions where the most desirable reptiles may be found are third world countries, an innate socio-economic characteristic interjects itself into an already dicey situation. As people from wealthier countries continue to desire reptiles from less wealthy countries, the economic demand will surely continue to propel some to engage in the wild-caught trade. This then creates a host of ethical and legal issues in the never-ending game of supply and demand.
A study by Schlaepfer, Hoover and Dodd concluded there was no conclusive evidence of widespread, unsustainable collections. Schlaepfer, Martin A.; Hoover, Craig; Dodd, C. Kenneth Jr., Challenges in evaluating the impact of the trade in amphibians and reptiles on wild populations, 55 Bioscience 3, 256 (2005). They do, however, reveal that the volume of animals taken from the wild (for the US market alone, let alone globally) is large enough to potentially extirpate populations or species. The analyses also revealed deficiencies in the current accounting of traded organisms, and identify groups of species that are most likely to be at risk from over-collection. The trade of wild-caught amphibians and reptiles is largely unregulated, with only a small minority of species monitored by an international convention known as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES). Furthermore, the removal of wild-caught organisms, including CITES-listed species, generally occurs in a void of knowledge with respect to each species' ability to tolerate current levels of take.
What happens during shipment
According to Human Society International Asia, the number of pet reptiles hit nine million in 2000, which is an increase of more than one million in two years. Each year the United States imports nearly two million live reptiles and exports about nine million. This poorly regulated trade harms wild populations and their habitats. Poor capture techniques, compounded by poor shipping methods or inadequate care, kill many reptiles before they reach the pet store. An estimated 90% of wild-caught reptiles die in their first year of captivity because of physical trauma prior to purchase or because their owners cannot meet their complex dietary and habitat needs. See http://www.hsiasia.org.
Reptiles are among the most inhumanely treated animals in the pet trade. Because they are cheap and easily replaceable, dealers, captive breeders, and retailers factor huge mortality into their operating costs.
The majority of reptiles destined for the pet-trade are wild-caught, using nooses, nets and dogs. The death rate during capture and transportation to pre-export holding sites is rarely recorded but, injuries include paralysis, claws wrenched from toes by sacking material, bites and scratches. Many are dehydrated, starving, emaciated and diseased. The survivors are put into poorly regulated cargo holds for shipping that frequently lasts up to 80 hours. CITES found that the average mortality rates during shipping of reptiles was 3.8 per cent. A similar number usually die soon after arrival.
Under the guise of hypocrisy, many reptile shows still permit wild caught specimens to be sold. Claiming that shows which permit only captive bred animals do indeed allow wild caught specimens to be traded there, the reptile and exotic animal show series in its FAQ section clearly announces that wild caught specimens are permitted. See http://www.reptileandexoticanimalshow.com. A recent news article reporting on exotic shows contained a quotation from North Carolina dealer Jonathan McMillan, who brought 300 of his 1,000-reptile inventory to a certain exposition. He said that losing 10 to 15 percent of a shipment is just part of the business. "You can lose up to 50 or 60 ball pythons a day," says McMillan. "It's going to happen. Nothing you can do about it."
The usual effect on the pet owner is that a pet is lost. Unfortunately, with the cost of veterinary treatment so disproportional to the purchase price of a new pet, most owners would rather let their animal perish and simply replace it. Moreover, the physiology of reptiles and general makes it more difficult for a keeper to even recognize there is a problem with their pet until it may be too late.
The American Veterinary Medical Association’s “1992 Companion Animal” survey shows that only 6.85% of turtle owners seek vet care for their turtles. Of those that do, many vets report that most turtle health problems stem from ignorance – the turtles are fed the wrong diet, kept in the wrong habitat, or given no basking platform or place to hide. See http://gctts.org/HSreport.html.
Today, the USA accounts for 82 per cent of the reported international trade in live reptiles covered under CITES, according to a September 1998 study by TRAFFIC North America. See http://www.traffic.org. The study, published in the report The US Role in the International Live Reptile Trade: Amazon Tree Boas to Zululand Dwarf Chameleons by Craig Hoover, analyzed global trade data and reviewed trade in approximately 100 species, many covered under CITES. The findings indicate that the USA is now the world's largest consumer of live reptiles for the pet industry, importing 2.5 million reptiles annually in recent years. US exports are dominated by one species, the US native Red-eared Slider Turtle. This turtle continually makes up more than 80 per cent of the eight to 10 million reptiles exported annually. The majority of Red-eared Slider Turtles are produced on farms, but it is unclear how much wild stock is needed to sustain these farms and therefore what impact they may have upon wild populations. Red-eared Slider Turtle exports have also caused great concern because of the turtle's potential threat as an invasive species that may out-compete native turtle populations. It has been introduced to Africa, Asia, the Indo-Pacific and Europe. Imports to the European Union have since been banned. The trade in US native turtle species may be of particular concern. It supplies two very different markets: the pet trade nearly throughout the world, and the food market, primarily in East and Southeast Asia. For an excellent summary of possible legal actions for wildlife traffic cases, complete with their associated fines and suggestions for prosecution, see John T. Webb, Prosecuting Wildlife Traffickers: Important Cases, Many Tools, Good Results, 2 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 2 (2000). The laws that exist to protect reptiles include the Endangered Species Act, CITES, the Lacey Act and anti-smuggling laws. Penalties for breaking these laws can lead to heavy fines and lengthy imprisonment.
The Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act (ESA), 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531-43, enacted in 1973, is one of the country's most significant wildlife laws. ESA authorizes a listing of wildlife species considered by the Federal Government to be in imminent danger or threat of extinction, and requires government action to restore populations of those species. Both exotic and domestic species are listed, matching many of those listed by CITES. 50 C.F.R. § 17.11.
The ESA also helps interdict wildlife traffickers. First, the statute and implementing regulations make it illegal for any person subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to import, export, offer, or sell in interstate or foreign commerce, or to receive, carry, transport, or ship in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of a commercial activity, any endangered or threatened species. See 16 U.S.C. § 1538(a)(1). Lists of endangered and threatened species appear in regulations published by the Department of the Interior. 50 C.F.R. §17.11.
Second, the ESA also carries out our CITES obligations, designates the United States Fish and Wildlife Service to carry out its functions, and prescribes penalties for anyone caught importing, exporting, or possessing CITES-listed specimens traded in violation of the treaty. 16 U.S.C. §§1537a, 1538(c)(1), 1540(b)(1). Currently, CITES has 67 species of reptiles listed as Appendix I (with 3 subspecies and 4 populations), 508 species listed as Appendix II (with 3 subspecies and 4 populations) and 25 species listed as Appendix III.
CITES is an international agreement to which countries adhere voluntarily. Countries that have agreed to be bound by the Convention are known as parties. Although CITES is legally binding on the Parties, in other words they have to implement the Convention, it does not take the place of national laws. Rather, it provides a framework to be respected by each Party, which must then adopt its own domestic legislation to ensure that CITES is implemented at the national level.
CITES recognizes the status of listed species as either endangered (E) or threatened (T). Some species may be under great pressure in one area while doing well in others, and these are distinguished in the treaty. The treaty is revised annually at the end of October. Depending on the condition of the species, the treaty provides for Appendices which rank the species category as Appendices I, II, or III, Appendix I being the most threatened species. Many factors are considered when placing species in their respective categories: including population size, distribution, reproductive rate and habitat loss.
Appendix I species are threatened with extinction. Any attempt to import or export any of these species is subjected to the appropriate level of scrutiny. For example, importation for primarily commercial purposes is prohibited in the US. Similarly in many of the Western nations, permits are needed from both the country of export and country of import. Permits are only granted when the applicant has established that the purpose complies and that the import or export of the animal will not be detrimental to the survival of the species.
Appendix II species are not threatened with extinction at the moment, rather the regulations are in place to prevent their extinction. For an Appendix II species, only a CITES permit from the export country is needed. Import permits are not needed, however an export permit or re-export certificate (for example, species imported to the US and subsequently exported to Canada) from the exporting country is required. This category of permit may be issued for any purpose, with the sole test being that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of the species. Most species which are collected that are CITES animals will fall into Appendix II.
Appendix III species are regulated by their country of origin and self-regulation is to prevent or restrict exploitation which requires the cooperation of other countries to accomplish. The country of origin must issue an export permit for any species leaving the country. If the appendix III species was born in another country, a Certificate of Origin must be issued. As well, if the Appendix III species was imported into one country to then be exported, a re-export Certificate is required.
When importing/exporting any listed animal into or out of a country, when either the exporting or importing country is a signatory to the treaty, an application must be made for appropriate documents. All animals listed in Appendix I and II require a CITES permit from the country of origin. Species listed in Appendix I also require a permit from the country of import. These documents must be presented at the time of import/export. As well, some species listed in CITES may be subject to regulation by in the importing or exporting country over and above the normal restrictions placed by CITES. This varies quite dramatically by country with countries like the US being one of the more restrictive. The obligation to satisfy all applicable regulations is on the applicant. The usual length of time required for CITES permits to be issued, if they are issued, is 60 days or longer.
However, most importing and exporting countries do not adequately enforce CITES requirements. In the United States, fewer than 25% of live animal shipments are inspected by FWS agents. When shipments are inspected and violations are found, FWS agents often give the importer a warning rather than taking the stricter measures allowed by law. When cases involving violations make it to federal court, rarely the case, judges generally don't impose stiff penalties. See http://www.hsiasia.org/Wildlife/Wlife_Live%20Reptile%20Trade.htm.
The most significant work that has evaluated the success of the CITES treaty is by Mark Trexler. Trexler, Mark C. 1990. 'The convention on international trade in endangered species - political or conservation success'. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Harvard. Trexler expresses a great deal of scepticism about its merits as a conservation initiative. According to Trexler, CITES is “often labelled the most successful international wildlife conservation instrument,” but the grounds for this are shaky in the absence of any indicators of success. Implementation costs are not borne by developed countries, and implementation is itself often counterproductive to conservation. Further the relationship between trade flows and the status of wild populations is generally obscure, and there is in any case no evidence that overexploitation of any species has been halted by the convention. The real successes of CITES, he continues, are not directly linked to its putative conservation mission, but in enhancing awareness and understanding of the wildlife trade and the associated problems, especially in animal welfare, and encouraging conservation-related research. Trexler recommends that CITES could be made more effective if it combined focusing implementation on the minority of species actually affected by the trade and expanding its mandate to include a much broader range of policy goals.
The Lacey Act
The Lacey Act, enacted in 1900, is the United States' oldest national wildlife protection statute. After 100 years and many revisions, the Lacey Act is now an anti-trafficking statute protecting a broad range of wildlife. The Lacey Act applies to all "wild" (i.e., not domesticated) animals, alive or dead, and to any part, product, egg, or offspring. 16 U.S.C. § 3371(a). The Act's prohibitions have two prongs: wildlife trafficking, both domestic and international, and false labeling (the wildlife equivalent of an 18 U.S.C. § 1001 offense).
The Lacey Act attacks wildlife trafficking by making it unlawful to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any fish or wildlife already taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of state, federal, American Indian tribal, or foreign laws, or regulations that are fish or wildlife-related (the so-called "underlying law" or "predicate offense"). 16 U.S.C. § 3372 (a). An interstate or foreign commerce nexus is required when the "underlying law" violated is state or foreign, but none when it is federal or tribal law. 16 U.S.C. § 3372(a)(1)- (2). A two-tiered penalty scheme exists, creating both misdemeanor and felony offenses, distinguished by the defendant's knowledge of the underlying law violations. 16 U.S.C. § 3373(d)(1) and (2). For a felony, the defendant must "know" about, or be generally aware of, the illegal nature of the wildlife, but not necessarily the specific law violated. Felony violations can result in up to five years imprisonment, a $250,000 fine ($500,000 for organizations), and forfeiture of equipment involved in the offense, while the maximum Class A misdemeanor penalty is one year imprisonment and a $100,000 fine ($200,000 for organizations). 16 U.S.C. §§ 3373(d) and 3374(b).
One unique feature of the Lacey Act is its ability to incorporate foreign laws as an underlying law or predicate offense to "trigger" a Lacey Act violation. The defendant need not be the one who violated the foreign law; the wildlife itself becomes "tainted" even if someone else commits the foreign law violation, but the defendant must know or should know, in the exercise of due care, about its illegal nature. The Lacey Act applies to a wider array of wildlife than any other single protection law, including the Endangered Species Act.
Cases Involving the Lacey Act
Several high-profile cases in recent years have centered around the Federal Government’s “crackdown” of this highly profitable trade and has reiterated the U.S., and other countries determination to protect many endangered species.
Keng Liang "Anson" Wong, an international wildlife dealer, who spent nearly two years in a Mexican prison fighting extradition to the United States, was sentenced in federal court in 1998 to 71 months incarceration and a fine of $60,000, after pleading guilty to 40 felony charges stemming from 1998 and 1992 indictments for trafficking in some of the most rare and endangered reptile species in the world. United States v. Anson Wong, No. CR98-00165 MJJ (9th Cir. filed July 8, 1998). The charges to which Wong pleaded guilty included money laundering, conspiracy, smuggling, making false statements, and violating the Lacey Act, the federal law that prohibits trade in animals protected under federal, state, or international law.
Between 1996 and 1998, Wong spearheaded an international smuggling ring that illegally imported and sold more than 300 protected reptiles native to Asia and Africa. An undercover federal investigation successfully infiltrated this reptile trade, revealing that Wong illegally imported the reptiles by concealing them in express delivery packages, airline baggage, and large commercial shipments of legally declared animals.
In addition to Wong, seven other defendants have been convicted or pleaded guilty to federal crimes associated with the smuggling ring. James Michael Burroughs pleaded guilty in 1999 to conspiracy and two felony smuggling charges in connection with his role as a human courier of smuggled animals in airline baggage. Arizona reptile dealer Jeffery Charles Miller pleaded guilty in February 2001 to conspiracy and four smuggling violations in connection with his role in receiving FedEx shipments of animals from Wong and selling them to buyers in the United States. Arizona reptile dealer Beau Lee Lewis was convicted by a federal jury in March 2001 of 16 federal felonies, including conspiracy, money laundering, smuggling and wildlife offenses, in connection with his receipt of six smuggled FedEx shipments of animals from Wong in 1997 and 1998. Former FedEx employee Robert Paluch, tried along with Lewis, was convicted of four federal felonies, including conspiracy, smuggling and wildlife crimes, for his role in facilitating, with Lewis, the importation of FedEx shipments from Wong which contained smuggled animals. Both Lewis and Paluch appealed their decisions on different grounds and are discussed further below. Arizona residents Brian Luebking and Nancy Mott also pleaded guilty to misdemeanor federal crimes in connection with their facilitation of the scheme and have been sentenced in the District of Arizona: both received fines and probation. California reptile fancier Mark Biancaniello pleaded guilty to a federal felony wildlife offense for receiving smuggled animals from Wong. A ninth individual, indicted with Wong and his U.S. associates, Yuk Wah "Oscar" Shiu, a Hong Kong resident who runs a wildlife import/export business in that city, is a fugitive.
Illustrating the necessity for a multinational effort, the undercover federal probe of Wong and his business associates was conducted by special agents from the Fish and Wildlife Service's Branch of Special Operations, an enforcement unit specializing in covert investigations of illegal wildlife trade, with assistance from the U.S. Customs Service, the Mexican Attorney General's Office, INTERPOL, and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in Canada. The case was prosecuted by the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Northern District of California and the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section of the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division.
While the Wong case shows a successful application of the Lacey Act, the road to conviction is still quite difficult. Courts have held that to be convicted of a Lacey Act violation, an animal possessor must know that the conditions are inhumane. United States v. Bronx Reptiles, Inc., 217 F.3d 82 (2d Cir. 2000). The defendant, Bronx Reptiles, Inc., appealed from a final order of the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York affirming a judgment of Magistrate Judge convicting the defendant of violating that portion of the Lacey Act, as amended, that makes it a misdemeanor "knowingly to cause or permit any wild animal . . . to be transported to the United States . . . under inhumane or unhealthful conditions." 18 U.S.C. § 42(c). The Second Circuit held that the government's burden under § 42(c) is to prove not only that the defendant knowingly caused or permitted the transportation to the United States of a wild animal, but also that the defendant knew the conditions under which the animal was transported were "inhumane or unhealthful." As a result, the case was reversed and remanded.
Despite the outcome in Bronx Reptiles, constitutional attacks upon Lacey Act have been largely unsuccessful. In United States v. Guthrie, 50 F.3d 936 (11th Cir. 1995), Guthrie pleaded conditionally guilty to charges that he took, possessed, sold, and transported Alabama red-bellied turtles in violation of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 1531 et seq. ("ESA"), and that he conspired to sell alligator snapping turtles in violation of the Lacey Act Amendments of 1981, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371 et seq. ("Lacey Act"). Consistent with the conditional nature of his guilty plea, Guthrie challenged the validity of his prosecution under the Lacey Act for violation of Alabama regulations that make it unlawful to sell alligator snapping turtles without a permit. He contended that the Lacey Act is an unconstitutional delegation of federal legislative authority; and that the state regulations that formed the basis for his prosecution were promulgated under state laws that violate the Alabama Constitution. The Court held that his collateral attack upon the Alabama regulation protecting alligator snapping turtles failed, because it is clear that the state regulation is valid. Guthrie's collateral challenge to the Secretary's regulation designating the Alabama red-bellied turtle as an endangered species likewise fails, because the federal regulation withstands even the scope of review applicable to direct review of agency regulations. The convictions regarding both turtle species were affirmed.
Further, challenges to the predicate law upon which the Lacey Act was applied have also been rejected by courts. The Tenth Circuit affirmed a conviction for a Lacey Act violation in United States v. Lewis, 240 F.3d 866 (10th Cir. 2001). John Lewis was convicted by a jury of one count of violating the Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3371-3378. In part, that statute makes it illegal "to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire or purchase in interstate or foreign commerce, any fish or wildlife taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of any law or regulation of any State." 16 U.S.C. § 3372. The jury found that Mr. Lewis had violated Oklahoma law governing the commercial hunting of captive elk, by capturing wild elk, holding them captive, and organizing at least one commercial elk hunt, without a license for these activities. Mr. Lewis was sentenced to twelve months and one day of imprisonment, and fined $ 30,000. Importantly, the Court found that a violation of a state hunting law can be grounds for a Lacey Act violation.
Similarly, in United States v. Molt, 599 F.2d 1217 (3d Cir. 1979), Defendants were indicted in six indictments containing numerous counts charging a conspiracy to smuggle snakes and other reptiles into the United States in violation of the Act of December 5, 1969, 18 U.S.C. 43, commonly known as the Lacey Act. The District Court granted defendants' motion to dismiss counts based upon alleged violations of the law of Fiji and upon alleged violations of the law of Papua New Guinea. The Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that the Fiji law is not a law for the protection of wildlife, but a revenue law. The expert witness testified that at the relevant time period Fiji had no laws relating to prohibition of export of wildlife. The Customs ordinance upon which the Government relies is plainly merely a revenue law and does not trigger the applicability of the Lacey Act. However, with respect to the Papua New Guinea law, the Third Circuit held the pertinent provision does amount to a protection of wildlife. They clearly indicated that protection is contemplated for wildlife other than the conventional products of commercial agriculture and fisheries. (For other cases stemming from the same facts, see United States v. Molt, 631 F.2d 258 (3d Cir. 1980) (affirming the judgment of two violations, first, of the Lacey Act, 18 U.S.C. § 43 (1976), which prohibits transportation of wildlife in violation of state, national, or foreign laws, sale or receipt of such wildlife, or falsification of records or improper marking of containers pertaining to such wildlife; and second, of an act prohibiting smuggling goods into the United States, 18 U.S.C. § 545 (1976)); and United States. v. Molt, 615 F.2d 141 (3d Cir. 1980) (affirming the conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 545 of knowingly importing merchandise, i.e. reptiles indigenous to Fiji, contrary to the Tariff Act of 1930, 19 U.S.C. § 1481 et seq. (1976) and reversing the conviction under 18 U.S.C. § 371 (1976) of conspiring to violate 18 U.S.C. § 545 (1976) as the government failed in its burden to show that he knew the animals were illegally imported)).
Vagueness in the terminology of a statute has also failed to strike down a Lacey Act charge. Edward Tierney was convicted and sentenced to probation for Unlawful Mailing of Injurious Article in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1716 (a) and Unlawful Transportation and Sale of Reptile in violation of the Lacey Act, 16 U.S.C. §§ 3372(a)(2)(A) & 3373(d)(2). United States v. Tierney, 38 Fed. Appx. 424; 2002 U.S. App. LEXIS 4635 (9th Cir. 2002); cert. denied Tierney v. United States, 2002 U.S. LEXIS 5941 (U.S. Oct. 7, 2002). On appeal, Tierney argued that the district court committed a reversible error by failing to allow a jury instruction on entrapment and that the Nevada state law upon which the Lacey Act offense was based was unconstitutionally vague. The Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding the meaning of "wildlife" as used in NAC 504.471 is not unconstitutionally vague. When read in conjunction with the Nevada Revised Statutes, the Court found it clear that "wildlife" includes all wildlife, "whether indigenous to Nevada or not." NRS 501.097.
Intimate knowledge of all importation and exportation laws is not required to receive a non-mitigated sentence for a violation of the Lacey Act. In United States v. Tomono, 143 F.3d 1401 (11th Cir. 1998), the Eleventh Circuit held that ignorance of import/export laws was not a valid grounds for a sentence reduction by the district court. A grand jury returned a five-count indictment against Tomono and Iseya, charging them with violations of the federal anti-smuggling statute and the Lacey Act. The anti-smuggling statute makes it a crime to fraudulently or knowingly import goods contrary to law. Counts One and Three charged Tomono with bringing the turtles and snakes, respectively, into the country without declaring them to Customs, in violation of the anti-smuggling statute. Counts Two and Five charged Tomono with Lacey Act violations in connection with his sale of the turtles to Crutchfield and his attempted sale of the snakes. Pursuant to a plea agreement containing stipulated facts that Tomono adopted during the plea colloquy, Tomono pleaded guilty to Counts Two and Three.
The government appealed the district court’s reduction in sentence based upon Tomono's claimed ignorance, presumably arising from "cultural differences," of the consequences of his actions under United States law. In not permitting a reduction of the sentence, it was important to the Court that Tomono's business was the importation and exportation of wildlife and that he did know of some regulation on the sale of turtles. By definition, imported wildlife comes from other countries; presumably, a significant portion of illegally imported wildlife will be imported by people from other countries, many of whom will have an imperfect understanding of United States customs law
Anti-Smuggling Law and Others
In addition to the Lacey Act, Congress has provided other avenues of prosecution for individuals illegally tracking in reptiles. Some Title 18 offenses, dealing with crimes and criminal procedures, are particularly well suited for prosecuting wildlife traffickers' conduct. The smuggling statute, 18 U.S.C. § 545, a Class D felony, is a charging option whenever wildlife is illegally imported into the country. The anti-smuggling statute provides:
Whoever knowingly and willfully, with intent to defraud the United States, smuggles, or clandestinely introduces or attempts to smuggle or clandestinely introduce into the United States any merchandise which should have been invoiced, or makes out or passes, or attempts to pass, through the custom house any false, forged, or fraudulent invoice, or other document or paper; or Whoever fraudulently or knowingly imports or brings into the United States, any merchandise contrary to law, or receives, conceals, buys, sells, or in any manner facilitates the transportation, concealment, or sale of such merchandise after importation, knowing the same to have been imported or brought into the United States contrary to law - Shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both. Proof of defendant's possession of such goods, unless explained to the satisfaction of the jury, shall be deemed evidence sufficient to authorize conviction for violation of this section. Merchandise introduced into the United States in violation of this section, or the value thereof, to be recovered from any person described in the first or second paragraph of this section, shall be forfeited to the United States. The term "United States", as used in this section, shall not include the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Wake Island, Midway Islands, Kingman Reef, Johnston Island, or Guam.
18 U.S.C. § 545 (1994).
Concealing contraband upon importation is one obvious smuggling violation, but the statute has a much broader reach. For example, all wildlife entering the United States must be cleared, and all persons entering the United States must accurately declare any wildlife in their possession. 50 C.F.R. § 14.61. Violation of any of these requirements may trigger a smuggling charge. False statements made in Customs entry documents have been considered contrary to the Customs laws which require the submission of accurate information to import merchandise, e.g., the importation was "contrary to 19 U.S.C. §§ 1481, 1484, or 1485."
In cases involving the unlawful importation of fish or wildlife where the defendant violated both a foreign law and another U.S. law or regulation upon importation, a choice exists between prosecuting a defendant under 18 U.S.C. § 545 or the Lacey Act. Generally, the smuggling statute is preferable. Where the government charges smuggling, instead of Lacey Act, the law requires no specific proof of the applicable foreign law. Further, a smuggling charge can support a money laundering charge.
Other Title 18 offenses can apply. Lying on any declaration form or to government inspectors would also constitute a felony "false statement" offense. 18 U.S.C. § 1001. Conspiracies not only to commit substantive offenses, but also to defraud the United States, often arise. 18 U.S.C. § 371. The conspiracy statute if the U.S. provides:
If two or more persons conspire either to commit any offense against the United States, or to defraud the United States, or any agency thereof in any manner or for any purpose, and one or more of such persons do any act to effect the object of the conspiracy, each shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than five years, or both. If, however, the offense, the commission of which is the object of the conspiracy, is a misdemeanor only, the punishment for such conspiracy shall not exceed the maximum punishment provided for such misdemeanor.
Where applicable, the government may bring tax violations against the wildlife smuggler who fails to report or otherwise conceals income derived from wildlife trafficking. See 26 U.S.C. § 7201 et seq. Today, wildlife traffickers can expect to have the book thrown at them. See, e.g., United States v. Kloe et al., No. 96-131-CR-ORL-22 (M.D. Fla., Jan. 10, 1997) (defendant convicted of conspiracy, Lacey Act, Endangered Species Act, smuggling, and money laundering offenses connected with his illegal import of Malagasy reptiles, taken illegally in that country, and transported to the United States through Germany and Canada for pet sale; sentenced to 46 months imprisonment and fined $10,000
Cases Involving the Anti-Smuggling Statute
Tom Crutchfield, a Florida businessman, was convicted for wildlife smuggling, violations of the Lacey Act, conspiracy and money laundering for his involvement in a ring that was believed to have transported hundreds of boas and tortoises found only in Madagascar to Germany and North America. Reported by the U.S. Department of Justice; see http://www.usdoj.gov/opa/pr/1999/April/140enr.htm. Crutchfield was apprehended after being expelled from Belize. Crutchfield was the 18th person to be charged in a five-year investigation spanning six continents into trade in endangered species. He was on supervised release following completion of a 5-month prison sentence for a 1995 conviction for smuggling endangered Fiji Island iguanas when he fled to Belize after being notified by the Justice Department that he was under investigation. His 1995 conviction was the result of a remand from the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. See United States v. Crutchfield, 26 F.3d 1098 (11th Cir. 1994) (overruling the case on the grounds of extreme prosecutorial misconduct where the prosecutor repeatedly made the courtroom a forum for his impressing upon the jury how much he knew about reptiles and repeatedly ignored the court’s orders to cease).
Crutchfield pled guilty and was sentenced to 30 months in prison. The investigation also led to charges from authorities in Germany and Canada have taken legal action against two Germans, a South African, and a Canadian for their involvement in illegal reptile trade.
Robert Paluch challenged his conviction of smuggling on several grounds; however, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed his conviction. United States v. Paluch, 84 Fed. Appx. 740 (9th Cir. 2003), cert. denied Paluch v. United States, 2004 U.S. LEXIS 2269 (U.S., Mar. 22, 2004). Robert Paluch was convicted of three counts of smuggling merchandise into the United States in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 545, and one count of conspiracy to smuggle merchandise, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 371. The district court sentenced him to 24 months in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release. He challenged his conviction and sentence on several grounds; however, none of the grounds were under the Speedy Trial Act, as were the grounds of his co-defendant, Beau Lee Lewis. As such, the Ninth Circuit could only consider the grounds initially raised by Paluch and the district court’s decision was affirmed on all counts. But see United States v. Lewis, 349 F.3d 1116 (9th Cir. 2003) (holding that a charged smuggler is still entitled to a speedy trial, even if the prosecution has yet been able to extradite another party to the smuggling)
Other Legal Actions
State agencies have been acting to reduce the amount of traffic in wild-caught reptiles. In April, the Michigan Attorney General's office began working with officers from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR) in a covert multi-state effort against those involved in the illegal trade of reptiles and amphibians. On January 22, 2004, the last of the misdemeanor charges will filed against fourteen men for violating Michigan's Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act.
Operation Slither, as it was known in Michigan, focused on reptile dealers -- also called herpeteculturists -- suspected of dealing animals illegally captured from the wilds of Michigan, and exotic species that are otherwise illegal for possession and sale. Collectors value reptiles based on specimen quality and rarity. Michigan is home to more than a dozen protected reptile species. Officers had long suspected that certain Michigan reptile dealers were trafficking in wild-caught, protected Michigan species, but the dealer network was known to be a tightly knit community. After more than a decade of unsuccessful undercover attempts, an MDNR undercover officer infiltrated the dealer network in June 2001. (See http://www.michigan.gov/dnr/0,1607,%207-153-10371_10402-113266--M_2005_3,00.html for more).
The MDNR cooperated with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife officers, as federal undercover investigators were investigating similar activities in other states. The sharing of resources and evidence resulted in several cases within the State. The maximum penalty for each count is 90 days and/or $500.00, or both. Because each turtle or snake illegally traded is an individual count, it is anticipated that fines and penalties will total thousands of dollars.
Efforts Abroad: The United Kingdom
There are several laws in the UK that concern reptiles and amphibians. The most important are the Wildlife and Countryside Act, 1981, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, 1976, and the Endangered Species (Import & Export) Act 1976. More information regarding these laws can be found at http://www.threadnaught.net/~caleb/uklaw.html.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act makes it a criminal offense to trade in any native species of amphibian or reptile without appropriate licensing with captive bred animals being exempt. In addition, all native reptile species are protected from deliberate killing or injuring. Further protection is offered to the rarest species. Any form of deliberate or reckless disturbance to these species is a criminal offense. The Act also makes it an offence to deliberately release any non-native species into the wild. This includes releasing any of the non-native species already established in the wild in the UK.
The Wildlife and Countryside Act also offers some protection to habitats in which reptiles and amphibians may occur. Valuable wildlife sites may be designated as Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and damage to a site of this type is an offence.
The Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 regulates the keeping of animals which are regarded as dangerous. An individual wishing to keep any of these species must apply to their local authority for a license. Pet shops and zoos are exempted from this Act, as they are licensed under other systems. All venomous snakes and some non-venomous snakes are incorporated into this act.
This Endangered Species Act of 1976 implements the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) into UK legislation. This controls the movement of endangered species, live or dead, part or whole organism, across international borders. All but a very few species are controlled by some form of import or export law. Any controlled species to be brought into the UK will require an import license granted by the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). These licenses are usually only granted where an export license from the country of origin is already held. Licenses may be subject to annual quotas on species, and/or country of origin. Some species may be completely prohibited from trade.
An alarming study was released from Mexico in February 2005 from TRAFFIC. http://www.traffic.org. This study revealed that over 130 amphibian and reptile species of the Chihuahuan Desert are subject to domestic and international trade, including some species classified as highly endangered, according to TRAFFIC, the wildlife trade monitoring network of WWF and IUCN-The World Conservation Union. Although Mexico prohibits almost all exportation of reptiles and amphibians, these species are sold in pet markets and shops, at intersections of roads or from the side of the highway in Mexico.
There are 131 reptiles in this desert. Of these, at least 82 species are traded and more than 60% are listed under Mexican threatened species legislation. Four of the species are classified as threatened by the IUCN Red List and six are listed in Appendix I or II of the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species in Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). The Bolson Tortoise and the soft shell turtles of Cuatrociénegas are listed in Appendix 1 of CITES, which means any commercial international trade of these species is prohibited. The TRAFFIC study found that 67 species, including the highly endangered turtles, are found in pet shops.
Other countries have imposed equally strict standards. Dutch law prohibits the import and possession of many species of tortoise. This can be found in the Endangered Exotic Animal and Plant Species law (BUDEP law). The European and North African species (Testudo hermanni, Testudo (graeca) ibera, Testudo marginata and Testudo kleinmanni) are among the most strictly protected. To keep these animals, a person needs a governmental exemption on the prohibition of possession. Further, breaking the BUDEP law is punishable by a large fine and/or time in jail. Compiled from http://www.podarcis.nl.
Australia also has a very strict policy on the import/export of reptiles. In October, 2003, a news article from the Australian Associated Press Party, Ltd. by Emma Ambler reported that Australian customs had foiled a smuggling attempt of 47 native reptiles. The illegal cargo, bound for the Czech Republic, included 30 geckos, 15 lizards, a skink, a Nobby dragon and a snake. It was halted by air freight workers at Sydney's Mascot airport on Friday evening, when movement was spotted during a mandatory x-ray check, customs officials said. A 25-year-old Czech male, in Australia on a student visa, was arrested over the attempted export after customs officials raided his Arncliffe home in Sydney. If found guilty, he could face fines of up to $100,000 and ten years jail. The Australian Customs Minister said the interception sent "a clear message to wildlife thieves that Australia is determined to quash the illegal trafficking of Australia's unique wildlife".
A recent interception was reported in the CBC News on June 23, 2005 by Canadian officials. Wildlife officers in Halifax have seized several rare and endangered reptiles that were illegally shipped from Haiti. Four dwarf boa constrictors, one Hispanolian tree boa, a lizard and a giant toad were included as promotional items in a shipment of legally exported exotic animals destined for a local pet store. Customs officers at the Halifax International Airport seized the reptiles four months ago and turned them over to the wild trade enforcement division of the Canadian Wildlife Service. Authorities waited until after an international investigation to announce the seizure. Les Sampson, enforcement coordinator of the Canadian Wildlife Service,said the exporter in Haiti was responsible for illegally shipping the reptiles and stands to lose his exporting license. See http://novascotia.cbc.ca/regional/servlet/View?filename=ns-reptiles-seize20050623.
More recently, local units of government in the United States have begun to restrict residents’ ownership of reptiles and other exotic pets. Such measures are generally accepted as valid exercises of police powers, as a public health and safety concern. For example, in Dehart v. Town of Austin, Indiana, 39 F.3d 718 (7th Cir. 1994), it was argued that a local ordinance banning dangerous reptiles was preempted by the Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. § 2131, et seq., and by certain provisions in the Indiana Code (Ind. Code §§ 14-2-1-2 (since repealed)); it was further argued that removal of the animals was a taking of property. The Court agreed with the Town of Austin that the Ordinance is within the Town's police powers and is not preempted by federal or state statute.
Permits and Prohibitions
Many states, cities and towns have prohibitions on ownership of reptiles. Some classify them by species, some by whether they are dangerous, some by whether they are non-native. A discussion of every statute and ordinance would be inappropriate here as it would be a quite voluminous work. However, it should be stated that even states that have prohibitions, most will allow a permit to be obtained, provided the proper information is provided. Again, there are numerous caveats to this general statement. For example, some governments will issue a permit with merely the registration of the animal, others will the payment of the fee. In a more extreme example, Australia will only issue permits for keepings certain venomous snakes after a certification and a requisite number of hours spent with the desired species. This acts as a class-like system where more hours and more experience may result in a license that permits a more dangerous snake to be kept.
Venomous reptiles provide an excellent illustration of the variance in husbandry guidelines, even within the United States. A recent survey of venomous reptile laws in the United States, collaborated from John Levell’s book entitled “A Field Guide to Reptiles and the Law,” details the permit regulations for both native venomous snakes and non-native venomous snakes for each state. Surprisingly, as the time the book was published, 29 states allowed native venomous species to be kept as pets with no special permit although some states required a valid fishing license (Montana) in order to keep them. Further, 25 states required no permit in order to keep non-indigenous species. A few states maintained a “limit” on the number of individuals that could be kept. For a comprehensive list of per state regulations, it is recommended to consult Levell’s book or the local game and fish department of the particular state. As more individuals are envenomated by non-indigenous snakes, states, cities and towns are enacted more stringent codes and regulations in order to qualify for a permit.
Concerns over public welfare have factored heavily into restrictions and ordinances enacted by states and localities. Further, as situations become more problematic, the federal government has not been reluctant to intervene. Reptiles and public safety can intersect in a variety of ways. Reptiles can not only inflict harm or death themselves, but they can also carry diseases, which can contracted by humans (zoonoses). Further, non-indigenous species can become established in our environments, upsetting delicate ecosystems and may even lead to the extinction of our native species. Reptiles may carry disease that could potentially affect us as an agent, either through a natural “terrorism” or bioterrorism, carrying a disease that could affect humans or have a significant affect on our supply of beef.
Salmonellosis is an infection with a bacterium called Salmonella. Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days, and most persons recover without treatment. However, in some persons the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness. A small number of persons who are infected with Salmonella, will go on to develop pains in their joints, irritation of the eyes, and painful urination. This is called Reiter's syndrome. It can last for months or years, and can lead to chronic arthritis, which is difficult to treat. Antibiotic treatment does not make a difference in whether or not the person later develops arthritis. Overview taken from the Center for Disease Control’s website (http://www.cdc.gov).
Salmonella live in the intestinal tracts of humans and other animals, including birds. Salmonella are usually transmitted to humans by eating foods contaminated with animal feces. Salmonella may also be found in the feces of some pets, especially those with diarrhea, and people can become infected if they do not wash their hands after contact with these feces. Reptiles are particularly likely to harbor Salmonella and people should always wash their hands immediately after handling a reptile, even if the reptile is healthy. Adults should also be careful that children wash their hands after handling a reptile.
Salmonellosis is serious and potentially fatal, especially in young children or anyone with a weakened immune system. The CDC estimates that 74,000 cases of Salmonellosis per year are associated with exposure to reptiles or amphibians (directly or indirectly), which makes this a significant public health concern. The CDC report also notes that children are at greatest risk from reptile associated Salmonellosis, and that many reptile and amphibian owners are still not aware of the risks.
Perhaps more than any other reptile, pet turtles have been recognized as a major source of human salmonellosis since Hershey and Mason isolated Salmonella hartford from the pet turtle of a 7-month-old infant with Salmonella hartford gastroenteritis. Subsequent investigations established that 14% of the estimated 2 million cases of human salmonellosis in the United States between 1970 and 1971 were linked to pet turtles, mainly the red eared turtle (Pseudemys scripta elegans). With annual sales of 15 million turtles zoonotic salmonellosis was a growing problem. By 1975 commercial distribution of turtles less than 4 inches long was banned within the United States by the Food and Drug Administration. A 77% decrease in turtle-associated salmonellosis was noted after enactment. Nevertheless an estimated 3 to 4 million turtles are shipped annually from the United States and sold all around the world. Several outbreaks have been reported in Japan, Great Britain, Puerto Rico, Israel and France. For further discussion, see http://www.anapsid.org/mainzoonoses.html.
Another example of a Salmonella outbreak caused by indirect transmission occurred in 1996. According to the October 15th, 1996 edition of The Medical Post, nearly 600 people were infected with Salmonella enteriditis after visiting an exhibit of Komodo dragons at the Denver Zoo. Komodo dragons are the world’s largest lizards, potentially growing to lengths of more than 10 feet and several hundred pounds in weight. In the wild, they inhabit several remote Indonesian islands. Local health officials were puzzled when S. enteriditis was identified in the stools of 20 patients, all of whom had visited the Komodo dragon exhibit at the Denver Zoo. Additional cases soon surfaced, with the majority involving young children. The median age was seven years. All patients experienced diarrhea, with 58% having more severe bloody diarrhea. Six patients required hospitalization.
Plesiomonas shigelloides causes progressive ulcerative stomatitis in snakes ("mouth-rot disease"). It may further lead to gastroenteritis in humans as there is a reported case of acute gastroenteritis from a zoo animal keeper infected after handling a sick boa constrictor. There has also been one recorded case of human infection from Edwardsiella tarda, stemming from contact with a pet turtle. The organism may also be found in other reptiles and fish. See http://www.anapsid.org/mainzoonoses.html.
Many people who keep reptiles fail to realize that humans may become infected with diseases born by the ectoparasites of reptiles, as well as become infected with organisms that pass through the reptile's digestive tract (known as the fecal-oral route). See http:www.anapsid.org/zoonoses. Some reptiles have been known to host tick parasites that carry Lyme Disease. An account of a family presented with an eruption of the skin was found to be caused by a snake mite. A pet python was the primary host. Human infestation by Ophionyssus natricis snake mite. Schultz H. Br J Dermatol 1975 Dec;93(6):695-7.
Humans can also be incidental/intermediate hosts for reptilian pentastomes. One study of snakes in Zambia found pentasome parasites in both pythons and spitting cobras, illuminating the wide range of snake hosts for this parasite. Snakes are the definitive hosts and many wild rodents, on which snakes feed, are the intermediate hosts. The female parasite deposits eggs in the respiratory cavities of the reptiles. The eggs are expectorated or swallowed and then eliminated with the feces. Humans can be accidentaI hosts, by handling infected reptiles and placing contaminated hands to the mouth. In humans the infection is usually asymptomatic. Pentastomes (Pentastomida, Armillifer armillatus Wyman, 1848) in snakes from Zambia. De Meneghi D. Dipartimento di Produzioni Animali, Epidemiologia ed Ecologia, Universita degli Studi DI Torino, Italy. Parassitologia 1999 Dec;41(4):573-4. Parassitologia 1999 DEC;41(4):573-4.
Bioterrorism and Other Safety Concerns
On May 11, 2005, Dr. Harvey Fineberg, the President of the Institute of Medicine gave a speech to the Committee on Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Subcommittee on Bioterrorism and Public Health Preparedness. In his address, he suggested future bioterroristic activities could include the use of reptiles and other exotic pets commonly traded. Although not stemming from bioterrorism, an example of how it could be used effectively can be seen in the ticks carried by an African tortoise. In March 2000, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued an emergency ban on the importation and interstate commerce of three species of African tortoise known to carry species of ticks that harbor bacteria that cause heartwater disease. If heartwater, a degenerative wasting disease of ruminants, were to become established in the United States, the USDA estimates that mortality rates of livestock (cattle, sheep, goats) and wildlife (deer, bison, antelope) could be expected to reach between 40 and 100 percent. The USDA is currently attempting to mandate a quarantine period for all imported reptiles. In addition, the release of unwanted pet reptiles into the wild has introduced viruses and bacteria common in captive reptiles into wild populations, posing a threat to natural stocks that hold little immunity to these exotic pathogens.
Injuries and Deaths Directly from Contact with Reptiles
The Animal Protection Institute maintains a cumulative partial list of pet reptile attacks and escapes since 1995. The list is currently over 200 incidents long and includes such incidents as a man in Oregon getting bitten on the lip by his pet rattlesnakes when he tried to kiss the snake. See http://www.api4animals.org/380.htm.
Large reptiles pose a threat. People are attacked and sometimes killed by large crocodilians and large snakes. Rarely does an alligator attack and kill a human, but it has happened. However, a significantly greater number of people are killed by Nile Crocodiles and Salt-Water crocodiles, crocodilians non-indigenous to the United States. These are species that are regularly imported into the United States. They potentially pose a threat to the owner, and his or her friends, neighbors or children. Further, there have been many documented cases of people being attacked and killed by non-indigenous snakes in the United States and in other countries. Although some of the attacks have come from large animals that were captive born and captive raised, the fact remains that wild-caught individuals have less-relaxed disposition. The same is true for venomous snakes. It is next to impossible to separate out what physical dangers are present from wild-caught reptiles as opposed to captive-bred ones; however, it is a very real danger that wild-caught reptiles may pose.
Non-Indigenous Species Issue
A great concern for the United States and other countries in their regulation of wild-caught reptiles is the threat of non-indigenous species becoming established in a host country, or becoming feral. Unfortunately, this is a very real threat. Hawai’i has been virtually overrun by feral animals, virtually extirpating the entire native avifauna. The island of Guam has had a similar situation, only with a certain snake species, Boiga irregularis, the brown tree snake. The snakes has become so abundant on Guam that it is known to cause a power outage at least several times a day, merely by the number of snakes canvassing the power lines. While Guam, sadly, has lost its native ground-nesting birds, Hawai’i seeks to avoid a similar fate through regulations both of the state and the federal government. Hawai’i even has “snake-sniffing” dogs at the airport to detect any attempt of a wild snake.
Florida has its own problems, such non-native reptiles have permanently established themselves in Florida as the South American caiman, Burmese python, Central American green iguana and South American basilisk lizard. Not only do these invasive species out-compete some of Florida’s native reptiles, they also have a deleterious effect on the native environment by preying upon organisms in unhealthy numbers and upsetting the delicate balance of the natural ecosystem. For an eye-opening example of the prevalence of non-native species in Florida, see a recent news story from CNN where a feral snake attempted to consume an American alligator - http://www.cnn.com/2005/US/10/05/gater.python.ap/?section=cnn_mostpopular.
The U.S. Congress enacted the Lacey Act in 1900 in an attempt to control the introduction of non-indigenous species (NIS) by keeping them out of the country. The Lacey Act uses a "listing" approach whereby animals, reptiles, amphibians, and their offspring and eggs that are found to be injurious are placed onto a list, which the Secretary of the Interior, along with the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) determines. However, Mike Prather has noted the limitations of the Lacey Act when it comes to non-indigenous species. Mike J. Prather, International Trade and the Bioinvasion: A Price for Everything and Everything for a Price, 10 WTR Currents: Int’; Trade L.J. 45 (2001).
Professor Prather notes the Lacey Act is really little more than a minor impediment. For persons to bring in a NIS that is excluded under the Lacey Act, they merely need to declare the NIS and in some cases obtain a permit for the NIS. Another problem with the Lacey Act, cited by Professor Prather, is that it only covers NIS that have been put on its list. The Lacey Act is also limited in its effectiveness because of what it regulates. Additionally, the Lacey Act does not regulate any diseases, viruses, parasites, or other pathogens except in limited circumstances. The Lacey Act focuses mainly on the prevention and control of NIS that are dangerous to agriculture and economic assets and does not focuses on strictly environmental concerns.
The trade in wild-caught reptiles is truly global in nature. Millions of animals are imported and exported each year. However, the trade in wild-caught reptiles should be separate and distinct from the trade in reptiles, mutually exclusive on a ban of all reptiles as pets. Granted, inspectors viewing a reptile have no true way of determining whether a particular individual is wild-caught or captive-bred. But, improved regulations, especially documentation may help ameliorate this. Improved education of customs inspectors and more frequent inspections may also aid in limiting this trade. More severe punishments and fines, i.e. making examples of those who break the law, on all levels - from the importer/exporter, to the courier, to the ultimate owner should further decrease the number of illegal reptiles to pass through our borders. Sadly, the fact remains that as long as the demand is high and buyers are willing to purchase a wild-caught reptile, the trade will surely continue. Educating the public on laws and ecology may stifle some of this demand. By attacking both ends of the trade, the supply and demand, with a simultaneous attack on the middle through stricter regulation at the state or locality level regarding keeping and selling reptiles, the goal might more readily be reached.
The classification system used by Australia, whereby a keeper needs more hours and more experience that may result in a license keep a more dangerous snake, has not been developed in the United States. However, it has the potential of being a successful system, not only with venomous snakes, but reptiles in general. Not only would this permit more regulation of what species of reptiles are kept, it would also encourage and require more education on the part of the buyer on order to obtain a desired reptile.
The current system, permitting several legal avenues for prosecutors to pursue when charging those involved in the illegal trade of reptiles appears to be in place, at least structurally. Through more local regulation and education, the current legal net could be significantly tightened to drastically reduce the number of reptiles entering and exiting our borders.