Animal Wrongs

The growing trade in animals, some of them rare species, poses dangers to public health and safety - and to the animals themselves

Susan McClelland January 22 2001

Animal Wrongs

The growing trade in animals, some of them rare species, poses dangers to public health and safety - and to the animals themselves

Susan McClelland January 22 2001

At first, all that can be seen of Subira, a 2½-year-old lioness, are her amber eyes and a tuft of golden hair. Peering out from behind a shed at Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, 300 km north of Toronto, the big cat stands completely still, her head tilted and her gaze set on two people walking towards her pen. When the couple gets about 10 m away, Subira springs forward, closing the gap in huge bounds. Stopped by the wall of her cage, she paces back and forth, curiously sizing up the newcomers. When she recognizes her keeper, she turns kitten-like, languidly rubbing her back and side against the cages steel meshing. Such a cute image. Such a sordid story. Subira means “endurance” in Swahili, and the big cat has needed that quality in her initially miserable life. She was dumped into the exotic pet trade as a month-old cub—likely, authorities say, from an overstocked zoo. She was purchased at an auction in Alberta by a 17-year-old Vancouver girl, who soon realized she could not care for the growing lion and just locked it in a garage. She eventually sold Subira to two Penticton, B.C., men, but they, too, found lion ownership taxing. They couldn’t find another buyer, however, and considered having the lion put down before Aspen Valley agreed to take the cat in.

When Subira arrived at the sanctuary, she was severely malnourished—at nine months of age, she weighed only 25 lb., the average size of a two-month-old cub. As well, the pads on her feet were cut, her nose was badly scratched and blood oozed from two large wounds on her forehead. She was in such a pathetic state that sanctuary founder Audrey Tournay felt compelled to take care of the lion even though her facility usually only rehabilitates animals native to Ontario. “I have seen many tragedies because of the wildlife trade,” Tournay told Maclean's, “but I never get used to it.”

A lion as a pet? It might sound outrageous, but there are few restrictions on ownership of wildlife, so the trade flourishes legally through classified advertisements in newspapers or trade magazines, at auctions and on the Internet. The majority of those exotic animals are imported birds and lizards that are sold by local shops to good homes. But more rare— and dangerous—imports are streaming into Canada, so the folks next door might someday acquire a wild cat, or a venomous snake or a rare monkey. That doesn’t necessarily pose a problem if the animals are housed in enclosures that protect public safety, and if their owners are capable of caring for them. But too often, the animals suffer at the hands of ignorant or abusive owners. Lucky ones such as Subira are rescued and rehabilitated, but others end up dying prematurely from living in deplorable conditions, being killed for their body parts or sold to shooting ranches.

In Canada, there is little to stop that from continuing. The maximum sentence for cruelty to animals under the Criminal Code is six months in jail and a $2,000 fine. Some species are protected in certain provinces—Quebec has an Act Respecting the Conservation and Development of Wildlife, which, among other things, regulates animals in captivity. But there are no national endangered-species or animal-welfare laws. In fact, when the federal Liberals suspended Parliament prior to last fall’s election, the species-at-risk act, which would have offered some protection to wild animals on the Canadian Endangered Species List, died before gaining final approval. The suspension also killed proposed Criminal Code amendments that would have imposed longer sentences and heftier fines for animal abuse. “The public thinks there is more protection out there for animals than there is,” says Shelagh MacDonald, program director for the Canadian Federation of Humane Societies in Ottawa.

There is more than just a shortfall of legislation. Traditional animal-welfare organizations such as local humane societies are generally geared to caring for domestic animals like cats and dogs. And the few wildlife sanctuaries, such as the one north of Toronto, are strained beyond capacity. “When they hear about abuse of captive wildlife, Canadians are outraged,” MacDonald says. “What they don’t realize is how much of this we actually see.”

The trade of wildlife is a huge industry. No single agency keeps global statistics, but experts calculate that the legal side of the business is annually worth $15 billion worldwide, and millions in Canada. Law-enforcement agencies conservatively estimate the worldwide value of the illicit trade in wild animals at more than $ 10 billion a year. That makes the black market for things such as rare species and animal body parts worth more annually than the illegal traffic in arms (page 40). It is exceeded by the traffic in illegal drugs.

The pet trade has long been linked to narcotic smuggling. A U.S. fish and wildlife service report claimed that more than one-third of all cocaine seized in 1993 was connected to pet importation. That year, officials at Miami International Airport found several hundred boa constrictors from Colombia stuffed with 35 kg of cocaine. Most of the snakes were dead on arrival. Bruce Bagley, an international relations professor and drug-trade expert at the University of Miami, says narcotic smugglers frequently started out in the legal business of exporting animals. “Since the 1960s, Colombian drug lords have been involved in dealing wildlife,” says Bagley. “They would get known by customs, so no one was suspicious later when cocaine got smuggled with the animals.”

Usually, though, the pets themselves are the contraband, and because the United States is the biggest market, dealers often route their illicit cargo through Canada. Last year, Michael and Harold Flikkema of Fenwick, Ont., were convicted of smuggling as many as 12,000 tropical and rare finches from Africa into Europe and Canada, and then to the United States. “Enforcement at the borders isn’t always secure,” says Nathalie Chalifour of World Wildlife Fund, “making Canada a good conduit to the United States.”

The problem is not new. Back in 1973, alarmed by the impact of the commercial trade on populations of rare animals, wildlife experts drafted the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora— known as CITES. Today, Canada is one of 152 nations that are signatories to CITES, which, among other things, bans international trade in endangered species and attempts to control traffic in threatened species through a permit system. But while CITES has made it more difficult to legally trade certain animals, the industry has still grown exponentially. In Canada, 7,400 live animals were imported or exported in 1993 with CITES permits. By 1997, the most recent year for which Canadian import-export statistics are available, more than 25,000 CITES permits were issued.

Even conventional pets can be hazards. Dogs can bite; cats can scratch. But exotic species pose a far more serious threat to public health, particularly since there are no federal licensing standards for pet-shop operators. Salmonella bacteria, including strains resistant to antibiotics, have been found on pets such as turtles, snakes, iguanas and lizards. And some primates, which are increasingly popular as pets, are suspected by scientists of carrying a number of deadly viruses. In 1997, a 22-year-old lab assistant at Atlanta’s Emory University died from herpes B after coming into contact with bodily fluid from a rhesus macaque. And there are fears that some primates even carry HIV and the Ebola virus. “HIV appears to have come from chimpanzees,” says Darrel Cook, lab manager at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control in Vancouver, “the same with herpes viruses that don’t cause problems for the monkeys but are fatal to humans.” Cook added ominously: “There are all kinds of health risks in the wildlife trade. We just don’t know what they all are yet.”

There are other safety risks. In 1994, a 16-year-old boy in Hanover, Ont., died of a broken neck after being bitten by one of his uncle’s two Siberian tigers. In 1999, a 71-year-old woman in Clearview, N.B., required 409 stitches to close gashes on and around her head after she was attacked by her neighbour’s Eurasian lynx. The victim had stopped by the house to drop off a birthday present. And last spring, a venomous saw-scale viper—considered one of the most deadly snakes on earth—caused the evacuation of a city block in Toronto when it slithered free from its terrarium. A single bite from a saw-scale viper can be fatal, and at that time the closest facility known to have antivenene was in the United States. The snake was eventually found behind a baseboard. Despite a Toronto bylaw banning the ownership of venomous snakes, the saw-scale viper was one of 13 reptiles and a tarantula that Kent Parsons kept in his apartment. Many of the snakes have since been put down by the local health authority, and Parsons was fined $14,000.

The proliferation of such pets has forced some governments to act. Since 1976, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act has required pet owners in Great Britain to license their hazardous animals and pass inspections ensuring that both the public and the animals are protected. Yet in Canada, such regulations are rare. Fewer than a quarter of all municipalities have an exotic-animal bylaw, and even one that does, King Township north of Toronto, is currently having to take legal action to force a local motorcycle gang to give up its pet lion. Still, Maple Ridge, about 45 km east of Vancouver, is at least attempting to implement a bylaw that would ban the ownership of dangerous animals, including venomous reptiles. The law would also prohibit the trading of some species, including big cats such as lions and tigers, bears and crocodiles.

Port Colborne, Ont., a tourist town southwest of Niagara Falls, hadn’t seen the need to outlaw private ownership of wildlife until recently. “If we ban these pets, the problems won’t go away—people will still own these animals,” says Mayor Vance Badawey. Yet the city’s council is scheduled to debate its new exotic-pet bylaw in the next few weeks. Why? Because of the arrival last year of Michael Baran and his $2-million snake collection. Baran claims to have 3,000 venomous snakes, including East African gaboon vipers, green mambas, king cobras and blackheaded bushmasters, which he sells on his company’s Web site for as much as $4,500 each.

His business, Dragon Farms, is located in a warehouse a block from City Hall. In the approximately 150-square-metre facility, the snakes reside in large terrariums stacked atop one another. Narrow corridors allow staff, who visit only twice a week, to get in to feed and water the snakes. One staff member told British biologist and snake expert Clifford Warwick the cages are cleaned only when they begin to smell rancid. “These snakes are living in deplorable conditions,” says Warwick, who toured Dragon Farms last November. “And there is little preventing the animals from escaping to the street. Any number of scenarios can lead to a person touching or falling against mesh lids and being bitten.” Baran, however, claims his collection poses no threat to the public because his snakes cannot escape. He also says the city is wrongfully bullying him to close his doors. “They can’t dictate to me,” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”

There is a patchwork of restrictions on wildlife sales in Canada. Ottawa has jurisdiction over international and province-to-province transactions, and each province controls trade within its own borders. But with too few wildlife officers, enforcement is sketchy at best. The national wildlife service currently operates with only 38 full-and part-time officers. A dozen of them patrol Ontario, annually home to more than 50 per cent of imports into Canada and hundreds of smuggling operations. And there are only two wildlife officers assigned to CITES-related cases for all of the Atlantic provinces. Last year, they helped uncover a huge shipment of products made from illegal animal parts—including elephant ivory trinkets, purses made from caiman skins (a type of alligator), and fur clothing from endangered species.

Officers say far more escapes their notice, and last year, Environment Canada asked the federal Treasury Board to boost its wildlife staff to 165. The request was denied. “It’s ludicrous,” says Gary Colgan, Ontario chief of Environment Canada’s wildlife enforcement division in Guelph, Ont. “Right now, we are not even scratching the surface. We just don’t have the resources.”

And so the trade thrives. It is sometimes easier to buy poisonous reptiles, primates and wild cats than it is to buy some pedigreed dogs or cats. There are Web sites that list exotic-animal associations, chat groups and forthcoming wildlife auctions in the United States and Canada. In last November’s issue of Animal Finders Guide, an American trade magazine, there were advertisements offering silver foxes for $ 150 each, tiger cubs and coyote pups for $450 each, a pair of Himalayan bears were listed at $3,750 each and giant zebras were going for $6,750.

Even protected animals are easy to acquire. When a Maclean's reporter, posing as a buyer, asked a Newfoundland-based dealer over the Internet last month about purchasing a Canadian lynx, the dealer claimed he had access to 190 suppliers, 23 of them in Canada, and as many as 25,000 cats. He was willing to sell one for as little as $300, even though the trade in wild Canadian lynx is regulated under CITES. Collectors are not surprised. Matthew Todd Paproski, a film producer in Maple Ridge who keeps cougars for use in his TV work, doubts that legislation can regulate the pet trade. “It will just create a black market,” Paproski says. “The animals will continue to be sold.”

Zoos have often been suppliers to the trade. They turn over older animals, or excess animals from breeding programs, to brokers who then sell to stores, auctions and even hunting ranches in Canada and the United States. As part of being accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums, larger zoos are not supposed to sell to dealers who are known suppliers of the pet trade. Yet animals from esteemed operations still end up in the pet trade. “None of this is illegal, which makes it pretty damn hard to control,” says Calvin White, chief executive officer of the Toronto Zoo, which has sold thousands of mammals, birds and reptiles. “We can do all the things we can to control where our animals go, but that’s a small piece of the whole puzzle.”

CAZA represents only 23 zoos. There are about 170 quasizoo operations in Canada that are not accredited by CAZA. In an investigation last year of nine Alberta and Saskatchewan zoos by Zoocheck Canada Inc., a nonprofit organization that monitors captive wildlife, and the World Society for the Protection of Animals, all nine housed some animals in substandard conditions. And Lynn Gustafson, owner of GuZoo Animal Farm in Three Hills, Alta., was convicted of illegally possessing Sika deer and cruelty to an animal. The cruelty conviction resulted in a $300 fine and 30 days in jail, yet Gustafson was not stripped of his provincial zoo permit and continues to operate.

Some aspects of the trade are completely unregulated. There are no federal standards governing breeders, and not surprisingly, there is confusion over what is and isn’t legal. One Saskatchewan breeder, Russell Hanson, who has raised Canadian and Eurasian lynx, recently decided to get out of the business. Last year, Hanson was falsely charged by Alberta wildlife officials with exporting Canadian lynx into Alberta without permits, even though no law required him to have them. The charges were dropped, but not before Hanson’s reputation was sullied and he had been made a target of militant animal-rights activists. At one point last year, RCMP officers warned him not to open mail from New York City because a group there was threatening to send letter bombs to Canadian breeders.

The poster animal for the worst aspects of the pet trade could be Oso, a grizzly bear. Oso was captured as a cub in the wild after a hunter killed his mother. His first home in captivity was a travelling circus, where, like most performing bears, he was declawed and had his front teeth removed.

When he outgrew his cubby cuteness, he was sold to a man in Sudbury, Ont., and when the man moved away, Oso was left behind, locked in a cage with no food or water.

Barely alive when he was discovered more than three weeks later, Oso was taken in and partially rehabilitated by people in Belleville, Ont., who then sold Oso to a collector. Over time, his weight dropped to 300 lb. from 750, and at one point in 1997, he was nearly sold for his organs. But he was rescued by Bear With Us, a sanctuary near Huntsville, Ont. “No matter what people say, there is no education value to owning wildlife,” says Michael McIntosh, founder of Bear With Us. “It’s just a fulfilment of someone’s ego.”

Last summer, Oso died of a heart attack at age 15—less than half the usual lifespan of a grizzly. A veterinarian said the premature death was caused by years of abuse, although none of Oso's previous owners were ever charged. But that’s how it goes in the wildlife trade. Animals are often sold with little regard for their welfare, or for the safety of the public at large. And without a serious commitment to legislative protection and enforcement in Canada, there is little hope for change.*

With Ruth Atherley in Vancouver