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Covid-19 wake-up call for exotic pet trade

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By Josh Loeb

Growing public awareness about Covid-19 and the disease risks associated with wild animals should prompt a sea change in how exotic animals are traded across the world.

That is the view from animal welfare charities working hard to stop the trade.

They say the Covid-19 pandemic highlights public health risks involved in keeping exotic pets and they are renewing calls for a Europe-wide ban on keeping certain species.

Animal Advocacy and Protection (AAP), a Dutch foundation that rescues exotic mammals from poor conditions in captivity, says there is now growing support to establish a list of which animals are safe to keep as pets – and for that to be enforced across Europe.

Such a list has already been successfully introduced in Belgium and Luxembourg, and is being developed in the Netherlands.

Raquel García Hermida, AAP’s head of public policy, said primates and some reptiles should not be on that list – they should be banned from being kept as pets on public health grounds.

‘Comprehensive preventive legislation is needed in the medium to long term. This is why AAP advocates for a so-called “positive list” for pets, stating which animal species are suitable and safe to be kept as pets. Zoonotic risk would be one of the criteria used to determine suitability,’ she told Vet Record.

‘We must not forget that imports are only part of the problem. Many of these animals are already in Europe, although nobody knows exactly which species are kept where or what their sanitary status is.’

Hermida said the appetite for action was growing. ‘Thousands of wild animal species are traded, transported and kept as pets in EU citizens’ homes, with no sanitary controls,’ she said. ‘The Covid-19 pandemic could easily have emerged from within the European Union. The fact that it has not happened yet is almost a miracle.’

The charity has arranged for an urgent question to be submitted to the European parliament asking why bats, which are notoriously well adapted to carrying a huge variety of viruses, are still being sold as pets in parts of Europe.

Pangolins and bats have been advanced as the likely wildlife reservoir for Covid-19

The Covid-19 pathogen is believed to have originated from a market in Wuhan, China, where wild animals – reportedly including live turtles, snakes and hedgehogs – were traded and slaughtered. It is still not known for sure from which species the virus made the jump. Pangolins and bats have been advanced as the likely wildlife reservoir, however.

Disease experts have pointed out that it is extremely rare for a virus to make the jump from animals to people – as the new coronavirus is believed to have done – and so the risk from exotic pets is regarded as low and depends on factors such as the level of surveillance and testing, as well as animal-human proximity. ‘Wet markets’ where exotic wildlife is traded as meat are seen as much more of a risk because of the close contact between people and many different species of wild-caught animals.

In March, Chinese state media announced a sweeping ban on the transportation and sale of wildlife amid calls from conservation groups for other countries to follow suit. However, since the lifting of lockdown restrictions in Wuhan, wet markets have now begun to reopen.

At the time, Christian Walzer, from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, said: ‘The banning of such sales [in China] will help end the possibility of future outbreaks of zoonotic diseases, such as the Wuhan coronavirus. We learned this lesson with the outbreak of another zoonotic disease, SARS, in 2002. The pattern will keep repeating itself until we ban, not only in China, but in other countries, the sale of wildlife, specifically for food and in food markets.’

Peter Kemple Hardy, campaigns manager at World Animal Protection, said that quite apart from the welfare implications of importing wild animals for pet trade, there were ‘enormous’ public health consequences. ‘Add in the presence of an illegal trade in exotic pets into and within the UK and it becomes clear that we should not be complacent about the risks from and to these animals.’

The Born Free Foundation agreed. Chris Draper, associate director for animal welfare, said: ‘While the UK has some biosecurity measures in place to minimise the risks from certain diseases in exotic pets, these are by no means complete.’

Last month this journal revealed how venomous snakes from across the globe were for sale in UK pet shops (VR, 21 March 2020, vol 186, pp 336–337). ●

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