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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Question: Is St. Lucia’s Exotic Pet Trade Industry creating a pathway for Invasive Alien Species (IAS)?

By: Dr. Ulrike Krauss & Timotheus Jn Baptiste

Have we noticed how big pet trading has become lately? As an emerging world issue our small island nation is not exempt from the potential threats of these exotic pets. The phrase “One man’s pet is frequently another man’s problem” springs to mind. Whilst we watch, this silent problem walks, crawls, flies or swims, into our homes, offices, farms and forests via numerous formal, informal, poorly-regulated or even illegal outlets.
The exotic pet trade will remain a silent problem until people are educated about the dangers, identify the victims, and are aware of the growing size of the problem. Education is a major component of a current drive to improve our understanding of the issues involved in the trading of exotic pets and to create a better relationship with persons within the pet trade industry. Although pets provide many emotional and psychological benefits, gaps in the industry can create many unwanted and severely detrimental situations for everyone.
The physical safety of the public is not only an issue for owners of exotic animals; the spread of disease is a much larger threat. Exotic animals often carry diseases such as herpes B, salmonella, monkey pox and rabies, all of which are easily transmittable to and potentially lethal to humans.
Most people who buy exotic animals have no idea what they're getting into. Even the most well-meaning person can become frustrated after trying to meet the high demands and special needs of a "pet" monkey for 30 years. As wild animals age they become more difficult to handle.
Even smaller pets like; parrots, reptiles (e.g. terrapin turtles) and small mammals, such as hamsters, are often mistakenly thought of as easy "starter pets" for children. The truth is these small exotic animals require very special care and maintenance and veterinary costs can be very high. When people discover that they are unprepared or unable to provide for their exotic pets' costly needs, these animals are often abandoned or die from inadequate care.
Ultimately, our local government and taxpayers bear enormous responsibility and costs when exotic animals are set loose or escape and must be recaptured, or when they are seized due to neglect or because they are endangering the community.
Current international regulations on the pet trade as a pathway for Invasive Alien Species (IAS) have very limited scope. Notwithstanding, national laws and regulations exist and are implemented through the Veterinary Department and the Forestry Department.  The Wildlife Act 1980 regulates pet import procedures and restricts the keeping of local wildlife as pets.
As pet keepers, we should not only follow the law, but also use good judgement on what species we can care for throughout their lifespan.  Under no circumstances should pets (including fish, live feed and aquarium plants!) be released into the wild.  Pet keepers need to ensure their animals do not escape accidentally either. 
Pet breeders and vendors have a vested interest in the safe and responsible running of the industry.  Their long-term business success depends on taking informed and professional actions.  This, in turn, requires regular capacity-building and seeking expert advice, e.g. from the Wildlife Unit of the Forestry Department (Tel. 468 5644).

Presenting a case study for your discussion, what do you think?

Case in Point Red-eared Slider Terrapins Wreak Havoc in Freshwater Ecosystems
The red-eared slider (Trachemys scripta elegans) enjoys great popularity as a pet.  Over 52 million individuals have been exported from its North-American origin to foreign markets between 1989 and 1997.  Its robustness, which renders it an uncomplicated pet even for children, is a two-edged sword: this terrapin has a remarkable ability to adapt to a range of climates and invade novel habitats.  Red-eared sliders are omnivores: they feed on plants and prey on small waterfowl, fish, amphibians, and invertebrates and are strong competitors to native fauna.  The basking behaviour of the slider may impact nesting water birds: if nests get pushed into the water, eggs are killed.  Red-eared sliders are also known to be carriers of Salmonella bacteria.  Given its longevity (up to 40 years) as well as invasive and destructive history, imports of T. scripta elegans into the European Union have been banned.