Exotic Pets Can Be Cute but Deadly

ByJEFFREY KOFMAN via via logo

Dec. 11, 2006 — -- It may seem like a stretch to think of exotic animals as a threat to national security, but that's exactly what a recently released report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention concluded.

The millions of animals being brought into the United States as pets can carry diseases that can be deadly for humans.

ABC News was present when two small crates were opened for inspection at Miami International Airport. They contained a surprisingly large number of little creatures -- 2,000 baby iguanas that traveled all the way from Suriname in South America.

For the animals, the journey doesn't end there.

"In a very short time, [they] will be sold to a pet shop," Scott Rice, an inspector for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service told ABC News. "The pet shop owner will sell it to the public and little Johnny will grab his mom and dad, and maybe ask for an iguana for his Christmas present."

Many of these exotic creatures carry a certain cachet, but they can also carry bacteria and viruses that can easily jump to humans.

Paris Hilton proudly carried her pet kinkajou on her shoulder until it landed her in the hospital this summer after a nasty bite and fears of a bacterial infection.

Reptiles can transmit salmonella, but monkeys can be even more lethal. In 1997, Beth Griffin, a young researcher at Emory University, died from herpes B after being splashed by a research monkey.

"The monkey that infected Beth was one of the most popular monkeys we have," said Caryl Griffin, Elizabeth's mother, who helped create the Elizabeth Griffin Research Foundation. "It's the organ grinder monkey from the circus, but this adorable monkey is a wild animal and it can turn in a moment to bite, scratch, splash in the eye, and without realizing, there is a fatal illness."

Most monkeys kept as pets and used in research can be carriers of herpes B. In the monkeys, it simply causes sores. But in humans, the virus attacks the spine, the brain, and has mortality rate of 70 percent.

A CDC report made public this month estimates that diseases that jump from animals to humans account for three-fourths of all infectious threats.

Some of the scariest and deadliest transmittable infections come from exotic animals: Asian bird flu, SARS and monkeypox.

"We don't really know what can happen if we adopt some cute animal," said Heather Bare-Brake, a CDC veterinarian. "We don't really understand a lot of the diseases that are associated with these animals."

There have been several reports of exotic pets turning on their owners and of owners who mistreat their demanding pets. But this CDC report makes it clear there is another reason to resist the allure of the exotic -- the animals may not harm you, but the diseases they carry can.

And when it comes to animal imports, no one is checking for potential diseases. Those inspectors who monitor imports are there only verify that a shipment is what it claims to be; they are not asked to check for disease.

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