BOOKS: Forbidden Creatures

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2010:

Forbidden creatures
by Peter Laufer, Ph.D.
Lyons Press (246 Goose Lane, Guilford, CT 06437), 2010.
272 pages, hardcover. $19.95.

“The chimp killed my friend,” screamed Sandra Herold into
the telephone on February 16, 2009 as her pet chimp Travis mauled
her friend Charla Nash. Nash had come to help corral the
out-of-control animal, who had previously behaved well for her,
but Travis pulled her from her car, bit and clawed off most of her
face, and tore her hands off. Cornered upon arrival in his patrol
car, police officer Frank Chiafri shot Travis dead after Travis
pulled the driver’s side door open.


The city of Stamford, Connecticut in February 2010 agreed to
pay Chiafri’s expenses for counseling to deal with post-traumatic
stress disorder. His feelings are easily understood. Photos of
what remained of Nash’s face (not in Forbidden Creatures) haunted me
for days. The incident haunts Peter Laufer, too, who weaves
discussion of it throughout Forbidden Creatures–a book which had a
much different starting point.
Sandra Herold, however, is no longer facing a $50 million
lawsuit from Nash’s family: Herold, 70, died on May 24, 2010 from
a heart attack.
An award winning writer, film maker, and broadcaster for
more than 40 years, Laufer became interesed in exotic pets through
his work on habitat issues in Latin America. The habitat research
evolved into his most recent previous book, The Danger-ous World of
Butterflies: The Startling Subculture of Criminals, Collectors,
and Conservationists (2009). That led to further exploration of the
world of animal smugglers who serve the people for whom “Fido and
Tabby aren’t enough.” Laufer journeyed from the swamps of Florida to
the desert Southwest to university scholars and beyond to find out
why people want “forbidden creatures” like Travis the chimp.
The import of endangered animals is regulated in the U.S. by
the 1973 Endangered Species Act, which is also the main U.S.
mechanism for enforcing the Convention on International Trade in
Endangered Species, brokered and administrated by the United
Nations. Once exotic and endangered animals are in the U.S.,
however, the applicable state and local laws are “a confusing
patchwork,” Laufer says. For example, until the gruesome attack
on Charla Nash, almost anyone could buy a captive-bred chimp. Now
21 states prohibit keeping chimps as pets, but the Captive Primate
Safety Act, originally introduced in Congress in 2007, remains
stalled in the U.S. Senate despite clearing the House of
Representatives 323-90 in 2009.
Even where legislation to restrain or prohibit private
possession of exotic animals is in effect, enforcement is often lax.
Breeders find ways to sell exotic species, and importers find ways
to sell trafficked species, often misrepresented as having been
captive-bred. Almost any kind of animal can be purchased via the
Internet, for example, with few questions asked.
The animals themselves are most often at risk from their
typically inexperienced and naive keepers, and from the other
people to whom the animals are shown off. But sometimes, as in the
Charla Nash case, exotic pets injure or kill humans.
Travis the chimp once wore diapers. He brushed his own
teeth, dined on filet mignon, and slept in his owner’s bed. Most
chimpanzees are not killing machines, though wildlife researchers
have learned that some individual chimps appear to be serial killers,
but forcing a chimp into a domesticated role is contrary to the
animal’s nature.
So why do people acquire exotic animals? Laufer encountered
many stated reasons. The buyer of a 12-day-old serval at a Missouri
exotic animal auction said, “He’ll suck on my face.” She did not
appear to know the Charla Nash story. Someone else bought a spider
money because it was cute. Missouri has virtually no laws that
interfere with keeping or selling exotic animals. Wildlife auctions
in Missouri sells everything from aardvarks to zebras.
Missouri also has about 3,200 licensed dog breeders, whose
lobbying clout within the state legislature has for decades killed
all efforts to restrain breeding animals for the pet industry. In
May 2010 a coalition called Missourians for the Protection of Dogs
presented 190,127 petition signatures to the Missouri Secretary of
State, seeking to take a proposed “Puppy Mill Cruelty Prevention
Act” directly to the voters on the November 2010 state ballot.
Breeders, allied with hunters and agribusiness, are already
fighting hard against the proposition. But even if it passes, it
will not address the exotic animal trade. Passage might, however,
weaken opposition to regulating the exotic animal industry.
Laufer traveled to the Florida swamps to investigate reports
that tens of thousands of feral Burmese pythons now inhabit the
Everglades. A pet python in July 2009 killed two-year-old Shaiunna
Hare in her crib in Oxford, Florida. On June 3, 2010 Florida
Governor Charlie Crist signed into law a ban on private possession of
pythons and six other reptile species.
Meanwhile, rather than surrender their now prohibited
reptiles, keepers continue to set them loose. In May 2010, for
example, days after the Florida legislature sent the python ban to
Crist, a four-foot-long tegu was photographed in the Ocala National
Forest. Native to Brazil, tegus are a carnivorous lizard known to
have bred in three other parts of Florida since the first tegu found
in Florida was discovered in 2006.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which investigates
illegal exotic animal peddling, has only 200 agents, a fraction of
the staff needed to enforce federal wildlife trafficking laws. The
Drug Enforcement Agency, by contrast, has 5,000 agents–who may
find exotic wildlife during their investigations as often as the
USFWS, since the illegal drug and exotic wildlife traffic are
closely linked.
Animal People readers already know that keeping a wild animal
as a pet is a bad idea. Recommend Forbidden Creatures to anyone who
thinks it is not. –Debra J. White

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