the Paper Trail: Exposing the Trade of Exotic Animals
The Satya Interview
with Alan Green
Green is a professional journalist
who spent four years researching and writing the extraordinary book
Underworld: Inside Americas Black Market for Rare and Exotic
Species published last year by PublicAffairs. Green recently spoke
Clyne explaining the intricacies of the animal tradewhere
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
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
institutionssuch as zoos or university research laboratoriesand
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 theres a system thats 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
can say "well those werent 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 systemwhere they start their lives and where they end
upand to show with real paperwork how this kind of dont-ask-dont-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!
Youre 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. Lets
say I run a roadside zoo in Virginia, and I get animals in the spring
and close in the fall because Im 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 Im 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 arent in fact filing those documents.
So animals are moved in the middle of the nightin trucks with
no documentationand people are selling animals behind the scenes
(perhaps at an auction) so theres 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: "Heres
where an animal started its life, heres where it went to, heres
where it was sold, and heres who was buying at those auctions."
For the first time Im 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 agenciesits 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 Id be
able to chronicle the movement of one animal from its birth to its
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
Canada, then sold at an exotic animal auction in Missouri, and was
bought by an elderly couple who raised reindeer along with other animals
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
game farmer in Wisconsin. Ten days later a client flew in from Indiana
and shot Honker and, in the same day, shot two other animalsa
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
hunts because they dont encourage fair-chase hunting. Ironically,
Honker ended up as a trophy in this guys 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
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: Thats the legacy of zoos. They
dont 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 theyll dispute it, are in fact at the head end of the pipeline
because they dont 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 dont go to
the zoo to see the miniature hippo or the Père Davids 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 thats 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 theyll
have three giraffes: two adultsa male and a femaleand 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 cant keep it." If its a male, daddy is
going to fight with it; if its 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 knowbecause
history tells them sothat 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
Associationthe 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 theyre going to have to send a giraffe
outside of the club. If only accredited AZA members are good guys,
it outside the club more or less ensures that the standards you believe
are notable will not be met.
This isnt 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 giraffethe 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 Michaels neck, and killed
So the AZA zoos shirk their responsibility. Its expediency; we
dont want the animal, its not part of our master plan, lets
get rid of it, lets send it to a dealer and cross our fingers
that it never comes back to haunt us.
What would you say is the publics 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 dont 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, wasnt 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 theres a kind of trust going on.
I would say that once the public finds out about this phenomenon, if
they dont 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 institutionsfor the most part reputablethat
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
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 its
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 doesnt 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 dont want to pay more money,
but we dont want the animals sent to bad places." So are
we willing to approve humane euthanasia to ensure that animals dont
go to dealers and possibly end up in bad situations? A lot of people
cant 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 animalswhen they know
that everyone is watchingthey wont 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, theyre all in it together. That
isnt to say that all AZA members dont caresome have
taken steps to change. But all reputable zoos are doing business with
disreputable zoos and dealerswhich 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, its 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 theyre doing is
"good" for endangered specieschaining a tiger to a pipe
in the basement. They think theyre conservationists. But these
animals will never be repatriated into the wild and theyre not
doing them any good. Its a pet-of-the-month club that is fueled
by American fickleness. We have not thought through the consequences.
Lions for Sale!
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, cant be sold in commerce
until theyre two months old and fully weaned, but a day-old lion
may be carted to an auction and sold to the highest bidder. Whats
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