image: Gambian Rat
Sara, a Gambian pouch rat, endeared herself to her owner, Mary Ann Isaksen, with her playfulness and willingness to be cuddled. But critics of the exotic pet industry say such creatures should remain in their native habitats.
By Mike Brunker Projects editor
msnbc.com

Nocturnal by nature, the Gambian pouch rat is nevertheless shining a bright light on the thriving but cloistered community of pet owners who consider exotic rodents to be ideal animal companions. “They’re just wonderful little critters. They climb right into your heart and they stay there,” said Mary Ann Isaksen, who put up with chewed furniture and tattered carpet to raise a small horde of Gambian rats, the outsized African rodent believed to be responsible for the current outbreak of monkeypox in the United States.

The Monkeypox outbreak, which health officials believe occurred as the result of an infected Gambian rat being brought into the country by an exotic animal dealer, has rekindled a debate over the wisdom of keeping exotic animals as pets — be they tigers, chimpanzees or African Pygmy Dormice.

It has particularly focused attention on the importation of exotic rodents, a niche of the exotic animal trade that has previously received little scrutiny.

“I was surprised by the the variety of gerbils, jerboa and other small animals that are being imported,” said Craig Hoover, deputy director of TRAFFIC North America, the trade-monitoring arm of the World Wildlife Fund. “I don’t have any idea of the total volume.”

Nor has the U.S. government been paying much attention to the rodents entering the country.

Sheila Einsweiller, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said all that is required to import a rodent is a health certificate that is issued in the originating country.

“The credibility of some of those certificates could be, I suppose, called into question,” she said. ”(It means) they weren’t falling over or looking sick at time of export … but they haven’t been subjected to the kind of exams that one thinks of as going along with a health certificate.”

Imported rodents have been generating increased interest among pet owners and veterinarians specializing in the treatment of exotic animals, said Marc Kramer, a veterinarian at the Avian and Exotic Animal Medical Center in Miami.

'Growing interest'
“Most major cities have at least one or two exotic animal specialists, and there is definitely growing interest in the field,” Kramer said, explaining that the “exotic” label encompasses anything that isn’t a dog, cat or a domesticated farm animal.

Among the rodents he’s seen recently at his clinic are flying squirrels and degu, a hamster-like creature native to South America. A spot check suggests that he may soon be taking the pulses of jirds, shrews, voles and jerboa, to name just a few of the exotic rodents being imported as pets.

Keeping exotic animals as pets, especially those that were removed from the wild, has become increasingly controversial, with animal rights advocates and some local and state lawmakers seeking to rein in or eliminate the practice.

Image: Wisconsin Family In Quarantine For Monekypox
Tammy Kautzer of Dorchester, Wis., pets her prairie dog Chuckles on Tuesday. Kautzer, her husband Steve and 3-year-old daughter, Schyan, were in quarantine at their home as they recover from monkeypox transmitted by another prairie dog that later died.
Monica Engebretson, a spokeswoman for the Animal Protection Institute of Sacramento, Calif., which has drawn up model legislation for lawmakers looking to ban the keeping of certain species of animals as pets, said placing wild animals in the home denies them “their natural behaviors” and amounts to inhumane treatment.

It also poses a health risk — not just to humans, but to native animals, she said.

“You’re going to have disease outbreaks because you’re combining animals that in nature never come in contact,” Engebretson said. “… And if a disease gets loose in the wild, it could devastate our native species populations.”

Animal rights advocates also say that there is an increasing problem with owners dumping “fad pets” after they tire of them.

“I get probably three or four calls a week, and I don’t advertise and most vets don’t know about me,” said Rebecca Fisher, who runs Prairie Dog Rescue of New England from her home in Connecticut, far outside the normal range of the Midwestern rodent. “About 30 percent of them are found running around in someone’s back yard after being dumped by their owners,” said Fisher.

Kathleen Mehrens of Carnation, Wash., experienced the gradual disenchantment that can come with ownership of an exotic animal with a hedgehog her family inherited from her son’s school, after it’s term as a natural science exhibit was over.

An anti-social hedgehog
“They don’t give you anything back,” she said of the small spiny mammal. “You can play with them, but they really don’t even like other hedgehogs.”

The hedgehog — which is an insectivore, not a rodent — also was continually disappearing, prompting massive searches of the house and grounds.

“She kept escaping, and that worried me,” Mehrens said. “One time we found her after three days inside a plastic army tank in the toy box.”

After passing briefly to Mehrens’ mother, the hedgehog is now living out its days at an animal rescue center, she said.

Such criticism of exotic pets has led some owners to fight back against what they consider to be a campaign to deprive potential owners of their right to the animal companion of their choice.

“We’ve determined that exotic animal owners have no rights,” said Kendra Lester of Montgomery, Ala., a spokeswoman for the National Alternative Pet Association, referring to recently enacted state and local laws banning ownership of certain species. “If they did the same thing to gun owners it would be World War III.”

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Recent moves by the federal government to at least temporarily halt the import of African rodents and ban the sale or transport of prairie dogs and six species of African rodents have fanned the worst fears of NAPA and its supporters.

Members of the group say that, while some regulation of the exotic animal trade is needed, the government should not overreact to the current monkeypox outbreak by barring the importation or ownership of specific non-endangered species.

“Regulation we don’t have a problem with, but bans are usually based on fear with little fact,” said Lester. “... If you make people go underground, (the animals) don’t get adequate care because you get veterinarians who are afraid they’ll lose their licenses. I don’t want to see it that way. I want to see it up front, where it’s regulated and the animals are healthy.”

Giant rats pose challenge
Caught in the middle of the increasing clamor are rodent fanciers like Isaksen, founder of the Rat & Mouse Club of America.

The club has taken no position on the importation of wild rodents, said Isaksen, adding that its members are divided on the issue.

“Personally, as long as we know how to properly care for and medically treat and give the right environment to each animal, then I think it’s OK,” she said. “If we’re not (able to), then no.”

Isaksen acknowledged that some exotic rodents, such as Gambian pouch rats, pose a challenge that would daunt all but the hardiest of pet owners.

Gambian pouch rats, which can grow to be 7 pounds - the size of a hefty housecat - have a habit of gnawing anything they can sink their razor-sharp teeth into, she said. The handful of Gambians she raised several years ago bored their way through a dresser backboard and munched carpet and carpet padding when she briefly left them alone in a room. Male Gambian rats also can be “testosterone butt-heads,” she said, and have been known to fight to the death if placed in close proximity.

But even though they could be destructive, the chubby-cheeked rodents were a delight, she said.

“They are very playful,” she said. “They run around and jump up in the air, all excited, and then come back for more.”

The rats, which typically retail for $100 or less, also have their gentler side.

“You can hold them in your arms, just like a baby,” Isaksen said. “And I had one that would hang out with our domestic rat. She would lay down on the bed with a blanket across her belly and cuddle with her. They were the best of buds.”

In addition to closely monitoring such pets when they’re not in their cages, Isaksen says it is necessary to “rat-proof” a room — such as placing any electrical wires into conduits — before they are allowed to roam. But such preparation isn’t foolproof, she said.

Animal turns arsonist
“I had one rat that got in my dresser and opened a box of strike-anywhere matches,” she said. “He chewed on one and lit it and caught my dresser on fire. ... He was lucky, though, he didn’t singe a whisker.”

Prairie dogs, which typically retail for less than $100 but can sell for $700 or more for the rare snow-white variety, present a different challenge, owners say.

“When they’re happy to see you, they stand up on their hind legs and say ‘yahoo, yahoo, yahoo,’” said Sky Cockrum of Cherokee, Texas, who plays host to a pack of prairie dogs that she either “rescued” before they could be killed by local ranchers or inherited from disenchanted previous owners.

“But they’re like 2-year-olds — when they get tired of playing they get very temperamental,” she said, adding that she has heard of owners being bitten by their pets because they didn’t properly “read their behavior.”

That is the main reason that so many prairie dogs end up being released into the wild or taken to rescue centers, said Fisher, of Prairie Dog Rescue of New England.

“An animal that is programmed to be raised in a social structure gets a little nutty if it’s raised alone,” she said. “They’re very high-maintenance animals ... and the average family can’t deal with that.”

Cockrum said she would not support keeping prairie dog as pets if it weren’t for the fact that ranchers consider them pests and shoot or poison them whenever they encounter them.

“As long as it’s legal to kill them ... it’s the only survivable solution,” she said.

But Fischer says the only way to save the prairie dog, which is in severe decline in its natural habitat, is to educate the public about the key role it plays in the prairie ecosystem.

“The way to save a species is not to make them captive and put them in people’s kitchens,” she said.

One thing that Cockrum and Fischer agree on is that the news about monkeypox will likely play into people’s misconceptions that prairie dogs are disease-carrying vermin.

“This was bound to happen because people are just being stupid,” Fischer said, referring to the transmission of monkeypox from animal to human.

“Who’s watching these people bringing these animals into the country, making sure they’re washing their hands after touching each animal and placing animals in quarantine?” added Fischer. “The problem is not the prairie dog, but the regulation of people bringing in the latest fad animal.”

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