Why You Should Worry About Illegal Wild Animal Parts That Pass Through Our Airports

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Each January, I can expect a plethora of new holiday pups to parade through my clinic. This year was no exception. The only difference was that five of the dozen or so new pups I examined were imported from overseas.

The American demand for purebreds has been outstripping the supply of dogs that small-scale hobby breeders are capable of producing. And when we want puppies, we have a way of getting them — from places like Eastern Europe and South America, where the laws can be more lax.

Part of the problem is that most of these pups are shipped at a very young age (as early as four weeks) — well before vaccination is advisable or completely effective. So the risk to us all — pets and humans alike — is a really big deal.

Surprising Airport Cargo: 55 Million Pounds of Animal Parts

But it’s not just unregulated pet imports that are posing a potentially huge infectious disease problem for animals and humans. In an article published last week, “ Zoonotic Viruses Associated with Illegally Imported Wildlife Products,” it was reported that the Centers for Disease Control has positively identified potentially human-transmissible viruses in illegally imported wildlife products confiscated at several U.S. international airports.

In a shocking revelation (to me, at least), the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service apparently logs in more than 55 million pounds of wildlife “products” every year. These raw, semi-raw or cooked animal parts are part of the global black market trade in wildlife items for their purported “medicinal” properties.

Even More Surprising Findings: Baboons and Chimpanzees

Thanks to sophisticated genetic tests pioneered by the American Museum of Natural History’s Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, Columbia University and the Wildlife Conservation Society, officials were able to identify that plenty of the virus-containing parts came from a variety of rodents, but primates like baboons and chimpanzees were also identified!

It’s a big concern for human health when you consider that, as the article reports, three quarters of emerging infectious diseases in humans originate from contact with wildlife. Although the results of this research are still preliminary, the writing is on the wall: The potential human health risk from the illegal wildlife trade is a colossal issue.

Thankfully, it now looks like we’re finally going to do something about it. But the uncomfortable question remains: Why is it that humans typically only protect animals when it becomes necessary to do so to safeguard our own safety and security?

For my part, I can only hope that next January is fraught with less import angst. But I‘m not holding my breath.


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