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Old June 15th, 2003, 08:18 AM
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Owning exotic pets carries risks

Exotic pets have boomed in popularity, but the recent outbreak of monkeypox has some people rethinking the wisdom of owning such animals.

By CHARITY VOGEL
News Staff Reporter

The little guy sits in a cage or tank, beady eyes shining brightly, and tail - if he has one - wagging merrily.
And the price tag seems so reasonable. It's love at first sight.

That's the way the story usually begins for many people who become owners of exotic pets, which have boomed in popularity over the past decade.

Name the species, and it's probably available at shops in Western New York and around the country: iguanas, tortoises, pythons, prairie dogs, hedgehogs and squirrels, not to mention exotic birds and fish.

Check the Internet and you can find more wildlife for sale: raccoons, foxes, bobcats, lynx - even black bears, which run $600.

But now that some pet prairie dogs sold in the Midwest have been linked to at least 56 possible cases of the rare contagious disease monkeypox over a 15-state area - including New York - some people are taking a second look at the advisability of keeping exotic animals as house pets.

There can be serious health risks associated with owning these animals, experts are warning pet owners.

"These pets are, in fact, wild animals," said Donna M. Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo, which gets lots of phone calls from anxious people looking to give away their exotic pets when the animals get sick, too big or too aggressive. As a rule, the zoo does not accept house pets from private owners.

"As soon as a raccoon reaches sexual maturity, it's horrible," Fernandes said. "These animals don't really make good pets long-term."


Contagious disease risk

Experts at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warn that exotic pets carry some contagious diseases that are not as risky when found in domestic animals.

For example, birds - including parrots and macaws - can carry psittacosis, a respiratory disease; reptiles can carry salmonella infection. Small mammals can carry other diseases, including monkeypox. No one has died of monkeypox in the United States.

The federal government Wednesday banned the sale of prairie dogs - which are actually rodents - and the importation of African rodents.

States where possibly infected prairie dogs were being sought include Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and South Carolina, federal officials said.

But some residents of the Buffalo Niagara region said they think their own exotic pets are as safe as a cat or dog. It comes down to cleanliness and taking precautions, they said.

"I've always been really careful," said Richelle Yurek, a Niagara County resident who owns a macaw, a "bearded dragon" lizard, a tortoise and a hedgehog, among other critters.

Yurek's biggest pet ever?

A 16-foot albino Burmese python that she had to get rid of when it got a bit too aggressive after she became pregnant and her body started to change.

"People, all in all, just need to learn more about it before they try it," Yurek said. But why own them in the first place? "I just like them," Yurek said.

Knowledge and caution are messages that both fanciers of exotic pets and public health officials are stressing these days, in the wake of the monkeypox outbreak that started in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana.

That outbreak, the first in the Western Hemisphere, involved humans who caught the disease from prairie dogs, which were sold as house pets, according to the CDC..

Some of the humans might also have been infected by contact with other infected animals, including a Gambian giant rat, which was also purchased as a pet, the CDC reported.

Monkeypox is similar to smallpox, which generally occurs in central and western Africa, according to the CDC. It was first detected in 1958. In Africa, where the disease is most prevalent, human death rates from monkeypox hover around 10 percent, CDC figures show, which makes the virus less virulent than smallpox, which has a death rate around 30 percent.


A need to be well-informed

Dr. Anthony J. Billittier IV, Erie County's health commissioner, said research shows that monkeypox does not seem to be as contagious as other poxes.

Both monkeypox and smallpox are transmitted by "large droplets" of infected fluids, he said.

"The disease really is an animal disease," Billittier said. "You'd have to be right in the animal's face."

While people in Western New York don't need to panic and get rid of their exotic pets following the monkeypox outbreak, the doctor said, they do need to be careful and well-informed about their animals.

"If you do have one, you really do need to know all about it," he said. "People who have exotic pets have responsibilities to themselves and to everyone else. They really need to know what diseases their pet may have, so if they see symptoms they can get it to the vet."

Fernandes, the Buffalo Zoo president, said that level of responsibility is important now that exotic pets are much more popular than they were 10 years ago.

A decade ago, if you walked into a pet shop, tarantulas were about the most exotic animal you would find, she said.

"Now you can get bearded dragons and collared lizards and flying squirrels and prairie dogs and hedgehogs from Africa," Fernandes said. "These aren't just highbrow New York City fashionable pet stores. In small towns throughout the U.S. now, there are tiny pet stores with these exotic pets."

Recently, Gov. George E. Pataki signed into law a measure that requires New York residents who keep exotic pets at home to inform local authorities about the presence of the animals.

That's so police, firefighters and other emergency personnel don't accidentally come upon a large or nasty exotic pet while entering a house, according to supporters of the measure.


State has some restrictions

On the state level, there are certain restrictions on what kinds of pets people in New York can have and whose permission they need to have them. But there are gaps in the state's laws and regulations.

For example, the Department of Environmental Conservation licenses some exotic animals but not others. The department does not issue licenses for people who want to keep the animals as private pets, said spokeswoman Maureen Wren.

But the DEC does issue licenses for zoos and people who use the animals for exhibits and educational purposes, Wren said. Those licenses apply to exotic animals that are indigenous to New York State, migratory birds, and endangered animals that are protected by the U.S. Department of the Interior, she said.

For other species of exotics - such as prairie dogs, which are neither indigenous to New York State nor endangered - licenses aren't issued by the DEC, Wren said.

"Most pet stores, they sell more species that are not licensed than those that are," she said. "By far."

That seems to be true. At some local pet stores this week, the following exotic animals were available for sale:

Ball pythons for $40 to $50 and a 3-foot-long boa constrictor for $169.

Ferrets for $129 and chinchillas at similar prices.

Lizards of all types, including some very exotic varieties, starting at $3.99 and increasing steeply from there.

Prairie dogs typically run $79 to $119, depending on the demand for them, said Tom Mueller, who works as a manager at the Blue Lagoon pet shop on Harlem Road in Cheektowaga.

"They're excellent. They're like little dogs," he said of prairie dogs, in an interview before the federal government outlawed the little pets. "They rarely bite, unless you get them out of the wild. Hamsters are the worst. They're the worst biters."

The Blue Lagoon's exotic pets are all bred locally in captivity, not trapped in the wild, Mueller said.

The shop also sells hedgehogs and flying squirrels; the former cost $129, the latter $99.


Exotics have "wow' factor

Still, Mueller said, traditional household pets, such as parakeets, guinea pigs and hamsters, are far and away the best sellers for pet businesses.

Often, the exotics are just there for the "wow" factor, he said. "People very rarely buy a prairie dog," he said. "We keep them so people will walk in and say, "Cool.' "

In Minnesota, a couple runs a Web site called "Awesome Exotics," which sells even more unusual varieties of wild animals.

The owner of the business, who asked that her name not be used but who is identified as "Missy" on the company's Web site, said that demand from buyers has stayed steady during her five years in the business. "People want something different," she said. "They want a challenge."

Awesome Exotics sells, via the Internet, home-bred and bottle-raised raccoons, woodchucks, mink, foxes, bobcats, lynx, squirrels, porcupines, opossums and black bears. The bears cost $600.


Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
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