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July 2000
Following the Paper Trail: Exposing the Trade of Exotic Animals

The Satya Interview with Alan Green


Alan Green is a professional journalist who spent four years researching and writing the extraordinary book Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species published last year by PublicAffairs. Green recently spoke with Catherine Clyne explaining the intricacies of the animal trade—where they come from and where they end up.

How would you describe Animal Underworld to people who are not familiar with the book?
Animal Underworld is about the laundering of exotic species and I mean that almost in the way that drug money is laundered from one bank to another. What I learned and what I try to document in the book is that exotic species are moved from place to place to place. You can think of it as if they are relayed, being handed off from one person to another, kind of shunted through this pipeline in hopes of making them disappear. They start their lives in what we think of as legitimate institutions—such as zoos or university research laboratories—and when those animals are no longer necessary or wanted, when there are too many in the collection, those so-called "surplus" animals have to be moved out. And there’s a system that’s been developed to move those animals out and sell them, resell them, sell them again, move them on down the line; so ultimately the paper trail disappears and everyone along the line has deniability if it becomes known that an animal has ended up in a bad place.

If we see for example a canned hunt (or private hunting preserve) and someone shooting exotic animals in a cage; if we see animals ending up in a basement cage in horrendous conditions: everyone along the line can say "well those weren’t my animals," and in most cases no one will be able to prove where the animals came from. Animal Underworld is an attempt to document how those animals are indeed moved through a system—where they start their lives and where they end up—and to show with real paperwork how this kind of don’t-ask-don’t-tell system works and how everyone plays this game with a wink and a nod: "Here take my animal, move it along down the line," so that ultimately no one will be able to point a finger and say "Aha! You’re doing bad things with your animals!"

Can you give an example of a paper trail?
Papers must be filed, typically in the state Department of Agriculture, that chronicle the movement of animals from one state to another. Let’s say I run a roadside zoo in Virginia, and I get animals in the spring and close in the fall because I’m a seasonal operation. If I want to send animals to an auction, say, in Ohio, I need to file paperwork with the Virginia Department of Agriculture that shows I’m sending those animals out of state. So there is a paper trail. The trick is to figure out whether people are indeed filing the required paperwork and then to find it all. What we find is that in perhaps 85 percent of cases people aren’t in fact filing those documents.

So animals are moved in the middle of the night—in trucks with no documentation—and people are selling animals behind the scenes (perhaps at an auction) so there’s no record of the transaction. But in at least some cases records do exist and I try to follow the trail from point A to B to C so that I can say with certainty: "Here’s where an animal started its life, here’s where it went to, here’s where it was sold, and here’s who was buying at those auctions." For the first time I’m able to reveal the system by which all these animals are being moved from place to place.

There are many levels of record keeping. They may be at different federal agencies, for example, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state and local agencies, police agencies—it’s all a matter of getting and piecing them all together, hoping that you can figure out the truth about individual animals as they move during their lives from perhaps dozens of venues until, in many cases, a bad fate awaits them at the end of their lives.

Were you able to track the life of an individual animal?
When I set out to do this project, my hope was that I’d be able to chronicle the movement of one animal from its birth to its death. Through all the paperwork I collected I was actually able to do that in the case of a reindeer. He was born on a game farm in the Yukon in Canada, then sold at an exotic animal auction in Missouri, and was bought by an elderly couple who raised reindeer along with other animals on their game farm in Iowa.

The reindeer was named Honker by this couple. When the husband died, caring for the animals became too hard for his wife so she sold Honker and the other animals. She resold Honker at the same auction in Missouri where he had been bought a few years earlier. Honker was bought by a game farmer in Wisconsin. Ten days later a client flew in from Indiana and shot Honker and, in the same day, shot two other animals—a white tailed deer and a mule deer. The records were falsified to make it look as if he shot three white tailed deer. Honker was then brought to a local taxidermist.

It turns out that the guy who shot Honker was an official supporter of Safari Club International, an organization that claims to abhor canned hunts because they don’t encourage fair-chase hunting. Ironically, Honker ended up as a trophy in this guy’s house in Indiana. That was what happened. But finding the records, linking them to show that this was Honker was the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Do zoos have a role in the trade of exotic animals in the U.S.?
If you look at the front-end of the pipeline through which animals are sent, zoos are indeed there. Zoos have been among the greatest providers of animals to the exotic animal trade. There are a huge number of tigers in private hands in the U.S. being bred like beagles by dealers who find ready places to sell them: That’s the legacy of zoos. They don’t sell tigers anymore because they know people are watching.

So now we are seeing other species on the market instead. Zoos have a huge so-called surplus problem. They have nowhere to send the surplus animals so they dump them on dealers who re-sell them. So zoos, even though they’ll dispute it, are in fact at the head end of the pipeline because they don’t want to breed responsibly and are always looking for new species to replace the ones that the public has grown tired of. Zoos are creating ready markets for new batches of animals that become big in the trade.

What do you mean by "breeding responsibly"?
Giraffes, for example, are a big pull at zoos. Zoos have what they refer to as "charismatic megafauna." These are the flagship species, the animals that are a great draw. People don’t go to the zoo to see the miniature hippo or the Père David’s deer. They go to see the panda and the giraffes and just about any kind of baby. Zoos are by and large a baby factory because that’s what brings people through the door.

Zoos have master plans for collections. A classic example is the National Zoo, which has determined as part of its master plan that they’ll have three giraffes: two adults—a male and a female—and one baby born every two years. Each time a baby giraffe is born every TV station in Washington does a story, which in turn brings out the public in huge numbers. But with the new baby, there are now four giraffes because a baby was born two years earlier. All of a sudden that two year old giraffe is shunted to the background. Two years earlier an adoring public was standing there pointing at that spindly-legged baby giraffe, but now what are they going to do with it? The zoo will say "well we can’t keep it." If it’s a male, daddy is going to fight with it; if it’s a female, daddy is going to want to breed with it, so we better get that two year old out of here.

I would call that irresponsible breeding because the zoo knows that they will have to get rid of that giraffe and they know—because history tells them so—that there is no good place to send it. At any given moment, when they try to find a home for that unwanted giraffe, there are probably going to be 50 or so AZA [American Zoo and Aquarium Association—the self-regulating organization of accredited zoos] zoos that are also looking for a home for their unwanted giraffes. As an AZA accredited zoo they are saying: "We are a cut above. We are members of an elite club. We trust other members of this club to be good trading partners and so we can entrust our animals to these zoos with great comfort."

But there are a lot of giraffes in search of homes and very few zoos that are looking for them. Where are they going to send it? There are no takers. That means that they’re going to have to send a giraffe outside of the club. If only accredited AZA members are good guys, sending it outside the club more or less ensures that the standards you believe are notable will not be met.

This isn’t pure speculation. Early in the 1990s the National Zoo had a year old surplus giraffe named Michael whom they entrusted to a dealer who brought him to an unaccredited roadside zoo in central New Jersey. Michael was paired with an adult male giraffe—the very scenario that the National Zoo wanted to avoid and the sort of thing they claim they will never do, because Michael would be threatened by daddy. The adult male kicked and broke Michael’s neck, and killed him.

So the AZA zoos shirk their responsibility. It’s expediency; we don’t want the animal, it’s not part of our master plan, let’s get rid of it, let’s send it to a dealer and cross our fingers that it never comes back to haunt us.

What would you say is the public’s involvement in the continuation of this trade of surplus animals?
I would say that by and large, the public is in total ignorance. When the public comes out to see a new-born, everyone is goo-goo eyed over the baby, and I admit there is a great allure about baby animals. Before I started doing this research I was just as ignorant. If one day, the zoo has six zebras and next time you go back there are five, who would know? No one counts. With the new babies, people never ask: "where did the other animals go?" because if you think about it, why should we?

We have entrusted people who work at the zoo to do right by us; they are the ones who care for the animals on a daily basis. When you go to the zoo everything at least looks good; you don’t see abuse. Concrete and steel are changing to what looks like a natural habitat. Certainly, fake trees are not the same as real trees in the wild, but the illusion is powerful and we feel comforted that they are trying to do right by the animals. If you talk to zoo keepers they do indeed care about the welfare of the animals and work hard to care for them.

If we ever ask the question "Hey mister, wasn’t there another giraffe here? Where did it go?", "It went to another zoo," "Well, OK, that sounds good enough to me." Most AZA zoos are municipally funded, certainly they are not taking our tax dollars and doing bad things, are they? So there’s a kind of trust going on. I would say that once the public finds out about this phenomenon, if they don’t take steps to force the zoos to change, then the public is equally culpable.

The whole exotic animal trade is like a pyramid. At the top there are a small number of institutions—for the most part reputable—that have a lot of animals that flow to the bottom, to auctions, dealers, canned hunts, roadside zoos, etc. If you cut off the flow from the top of the pyramid, from AZA zoos and universities, you can cut off the industry. If you cut off access to surplus animals, it will reverse the trickle-down effect.

The public can make that choice. If indeed the problem is that it’s a baby game and there is only room for a fixed number of species, will the public be willing to put up with a birth every four, six or eight years to ensure that the two year old doesn’t get sent to a bad place? Is the public willing to spend money for a retirement facility for animals that are off exhibit? Is the public going to decide they want some combination? "Well, we don’t want to pay more money, but we don’t want the animals sent to bad places." So are we willing to approve humane euthanasia to ensure that animals don’t go to dealers and possibly end up in bad situations? A lot of people can’t deal with the idea of euthanasia.

If zoos and other establishments are unwilling to change, the public should demand disclosure of where surplus animals are going. As a matter of public record, these institutions will be forced to disclose what they are doing. Once you embarrass these institutions by exposing their involvement in the trading of endangered animals—when they know that everyone is watching—they won’t be so cavalier.

What was the greatest shock and/or disappointment that you had while doing this project?
The most troubling revelation was that I realized that no matter who trumpets how much they care, they’re all in it together. That isn’t to say that all AZA members don’t care—some have taken steps to change. But all reputable zoos are doing business with disreputable zoos and dealers—which they ridicule. They are hypocrites. If you look at the pipeline, as the animals move further and further down there are any number of terrible places they can end up.

The greatest shock for me was to see how the animals become product or fodder. At the auctions, for example, it’s as if people are selling carpets. No one knows anything about the animals. They become nameless, walked anonymously through the display ring like replaceable cogs in money-making ventures. Everyone seems to be capitalizing.

Even those who own exotic pets think that what they’re doing is "good" for endangered species—chaining a tiger to a pipe in the basement. They think they’re conservationists. But these animals will never be repatriated into the wild and they’re not doing them any good. It’s a pet-of-the-month club that is fueled by American fickleness. We have not thought through the consequences.

Baby Lions for Sale!

The USDA, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, has nearly 17 pages of regulations pertaining to the handling and transportation of dogs and cats, but the care of snow leopards and other wild animals is dismissed in just seven pages. And the exotic species are guaranteed much less protection: Domestic kittens, for example, can’t be sold in commerce until they’re two months old and fully weaned, but a day-old lion may be carted to an auction and sold to the highest bidder. What’s more, government prosecutors, as a rule, have virtually no interest in protecting these animals. Given a choice between pursuing a drug-trafficking case or an animal-permit violation, prosecutors rarely opt for the latter.—From Animal Underworld


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