Throughout the US, thousands of animals arrive at Customs borders every year, destined to become someone’s pet. At least for a few days. Some owners fall in love with the newest additions to their household, and go on to love and cherish the animal for the rest of it’s days. Other owners, however, are overwhelmed, unprepared, or simply no longer willing to care for the animals. This is where the real danger of the exotic pet trade comes in. If an animal not native to the region/country is simply released into the environment without any deliberations or tests, that animal could potentially start an epidemic. Non-native species that are imported could look totally healthy on the surface, but actually be carriers for a wide variety of diseases that the native populations have never been exposed to. If these diseases are released into wild, native populations, they have the potential of spreading like wildfire in the extremely susceptible naive populations and could even destroy those populations.
Veterinarian Elizabeth Daut has been studying the potential effects of the spread of infectious diseases through the exotic pet trade as a post-doc project. Her interest in the field began when she was doing her dissertation research in Peru. She noted that when the Peruvian government confiscates illegally traded animals, they have to let them out into the wild. They do not have the facilities or the staff members to take care of these animals or at the very least make sure that they are free of potentially harmful diseases. The confiscated animals are simply let loose. Daut observed what was happening, and decided that something should be done.
So, Daut set off to create a model that predicts which countries have the highest risk of exporting an infected animal, and which are most susceptible to the transfer and spread of infectious disease. Daut used data from the US Fish and Wildlife Services to make her model, including every species that entered the country, their country of origin and port of entry. Then she considered around 60 demographic, ecological and socio-economic factors to determine every country’s ability to respond to infectious disease outbreaks. Factors used included number of veterinarians in the country, GDP and percentage of forested areas. Now that Daut has this framework for predicting which countries are most at risk for infectious disease outbreaks due to the exotic pet trade, she says that the next step is to confirm the predictions and then start coming up with mitigation pathways to lessen the outcomes of such outbreaks.
Hopefully we can one day totally eliminate such problems and stop the spread of invasive species across the globe. (I said hopefully).
Figures and facts taken from: https://news.mongabay.com/2017/02/field-notes-predicting-how-the-pet-trade-spreads-infectious-disease/