Prairie dogs with monkeypox blow the whistle on the exotic pet trade
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 2003:
CHICAGO, ATLANTA– With sentries ever
vigilant atop burrows, uttering different
whistles to denote flying, four-footed, and
two-footed gun-toting predators, what prairie
dogs do best is alert their whole habitat to the
approach of any danger.
In recent weeks prairie dogs alerted the
U.S. to the risk of little known lethal diseases
arriving from abroad through the exotic pet trade.
The triggering event was the arrival of
monkeypox, a milder cousin of smallpox, with 18
Gambian giant pouched rats and a number of
Ghanian dormice received on April 21 by Phillip
Moberly of Phil’s Pocket Pets in Villa Park,
Phil’s Pocket Pets received the Gambian
rats from Evelee Prokes, owner of Menagerie Hill
Farm near Cincinnati. Prokes, 54, a pet dealer
since 1978, had acquired the rats on April 15
from the importer, in Texas.
Prokes told Des Moines Register staff
writer Tony Leys on June 10 that federal
officials had not found monkeypox in any of the
rats she handled, which left the dormice the
main suspects as the vectors for transmission.
At Phil’s Pocket Pets the infected
Ghanian dormice apparently spread monkeypox to at
least 93 of about 200 prairie dogs who had
arrived in April from another Texas distributor,
Jason Shaw of U.S, Global Exotics, in Arlington.
Shaw had purchased 3,000 prairie dogs from Jacob
W. Vanderpool, 61, of Meade, Kansas.
Vanderpool has “harvested” prairie dogs
from his 840-acre ranch for the pet trade since
1996, he told Kansas City Star reporter Alan
U.S. dealers reportedly sell and export as many
as 20,000 prairie dogs per year. Prairie dogs
have become especially popular as pets in Japan
and Hong Kong, where they are seen as
well-suited to apartment living.
The first human victim of the monkeypox
outbreak, three-year-old Schyan Kautzer of
Dorchester, Illinois, fell ill on May 15. Her
mother, Tammy Kautzer, 28, had received two
prairie dogs from her father Steve Krautzer, 38,
as Mother’s Day gifts. One of the prairie dogs
died on May 20, the same day that Schyan Kautzer
developed a 103-degree fever. Recalling that her
daughter was bitten by the dead prairie dog,
Tammy Kautzer retrieved the remains for testing.
Schyan Kautzer was hospitalized on May 22
for 14 days. Both parents also developed
monkeypox. For days health officials struggled
to identify the illness, never before seen
outside a laboratory in the western hemisphere.
The Kautzers also keep horses, donkeys, goats,
dogs, and cats, about 30 animals total, and
zoonotic disease was immediately suspected–but
except for the prairie dogs and the people, all
The Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention in Atlanta was notified of the
monkeypox outbreak on June 4, and alerted the
public on June 7. On June 11 the Department of
Homeland Security barred imports of African
rodents and interstate transport of prairie dogs.
Vanderpool, eager to establish that
monkeypox was not at large among his prairie
dogs, called the CDCP as soon as he saw a report
about the disease on television.
Backtracking the case, investigators
learned that the Gambian rats and Ghanian dormice
who infected the prairie dogs at Phil’s Pocket
Pets were among 762 African rodents who were
imported by a Texas distributor on April 9.
Along with 50 Gambian rats and 510 Ghanian
dormice, the cargo included rope squirrels,
tree squirrels, brushtail porcupines, and
Among the 584 rodents whose destinations
were traced to pet dealers in 15 states, another
Gambian rat, three dormice, and two rope
squirrels were found to be carrying monkeypox.
No records could be found pertaining to the fate
of 178 rodents, who might either have died or
been distributed to parts unknown. Wildlife
officials hope none escaped to infect wild
prairie dogs, squirrels, rats, or other
potentially vulnerable species. Eleven Gambian
rats either died en route to Texas from Africa or
soon after receipt.
The CDCP eventually recommended that all
of the rodents from the infected shipment should
The number of suspected human victims of
monkeypox peaked at 93 in mid-June, then fell to
71 with 35 cases confirmed as of July 8, after
some possible victims turned out to have common
diseases such as chickenpox.
Actual human victims were treated
successfully with the smallpox vaccine.
Much as the Sudden Acute Respiratory
Syndrome scare originating in China alerted the
world to the disease threats from wildlife sold
for meat and unsanitary live markets [see page
one, lower right], the monkeypox scare at least
briefly brought regulatory attention to the trade
in exotic pets other than the big, the scary,
and the endangered.
The U.S. Senate Environment & Public
Works Committee even scheduled a July 17 public
hearing “to examine the importation of exotic
species and the impact on public health and
The outcome might be a much expanded and
reinforced form of the “Captive Wildlife Safety
Act,” the latest of a series of bills introduced
every few years since the 1970s in attempts to
restrict interstate and transborder commerce in
The current version, introduced in the
House of Representatives as HR 1006, was opposed
by U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service deputy director
Matt Hogan at a June 12 hearing convened by the
House Resources Committee Subcommittee on
Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans.
Hogan testified that as drafted, the bill “would
provide little additional protection to big cat
species in the wild,” and “may even fall short
of its goal of regulating big cat pet trade,” due
to exemptions given to various interest groups
and “because it does not cover all species that
are part of the problem.”
The city of Madison, Wisconsin, banned
possession of animals not normally domesticated
in the U.S. on May 26, before the monkeypox
outbreak was recognized. But monkeypox was an
evident consideration when Covington, Kentucky,
adopted a similar ban on June 25, followed on
July 7 by Asheboro, North Carolina.
Abroad, the European Union Standing
Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health on
June 17 voted unanimously to ban the importation
of prairie dogs and African rodents into the EU
The Companion Animal Welfare Council, of
Britain, on June 28 recommended that organizers
of pet fairs at which exotic animals are bought
and sold should be required to have veterinarians
on site, who would ensure the health of the
animals and instruct buyers on proper care of
their acquisitions. A CAWC report formally
presented to the House of Commons on July 9 made
14 recommendations pertaining to animal welfare
in all, and is expected to become the basis of
Threat was no news
The disease threat from private commerce
in imported wildlife was already well known to
the CDCP, the USDA Animal & Plant Health
Inspection Service, and the humane community. A
memorable heads-up for all concerned came in 1989
when Hazleton Research of Reston, Virginia,
imported crab-eating macaques from the
Philippines who had somehow become infected with
the deadly Ebola virus. Native to Africa, Ebola
was probably translocated to the Philippines with
green vervets captured for laboratory use.
The Reston outbreak was contained without
human fatalities, at cost of nearly 400 monkey
lives, chiefly because it occurred in a secure
facility. Had the macaques been in the pet
trade, they could have been distributed
throughout the country before the Ebola symptoms
Even earlier, in 1971, the worst-ever
U.S. outbreak of Newcastle disease spread into
the poultry industry from smuggled wild-caught
There have been many other close calls
and warnings, including thousands of salmonella
poisonings, some of them fatal, among children
who handled pet turtles in the 1960s and 1970s
and pet iguanas in the 1990s.
For decades, however, almost every mass
media mention of the hazards associated with
exotic pets fixated on either venomous snakes,
pythons, or backyard lions and tigers.
Television exposé after exposé featured video of
confiscations and captures of reptiles and big
cats who had either escaped or attacked someone.
Epidemiologists could not get a word in edgewise.
Tracking the growth of the exotic pet
trade in print since 1978, ANIMAL PEOPLE has
often mentioned to mainstream reporters the
zoonotic disease threat from exotic pet imports,
only to be pointedly told by one TV magazine host
that viruses are not photogenic.
ANIMAL PEOPLE had even mentioned
monkeypox, first identified in 1958. Not
actually a disease of monkeys, it has been used
to a limited extent in labs as a stand-in for
smallpox during vaccine experiments.
The ANIMAL PEOPLE file on monkeypox began
with World Health Organization dispatches about a
February 1996 outbreak in the Katako Kombe and
Lodja districts of the Democratic Republic of the
Congo. Spreading from squirrels, the outbreak
was at last contained in November 1997, after
afflicting at least 511 humans in 78 villages.
More than 85% of the victims were children,
including all five who died.
Because ANIMAL PEOPLE was among the few
sources on monkeypox found by reporters doing
online background searches, calls and e-mails
poured in on June 7 and June 8 from The New York
Times, La Van Guardia of Barcelona, Spain,
Hong Kong electronic media, and other
publications at points between.