Illegal exotics: Treat the animal or report the client?


What's a veterinarian to do? Treat the animal or report the client?

NATIONAL REPORT - Whether it's national laws forbidding the importation of tropical birds, or citywide ownership restrictions on ferrets, some animals are forbidden. So what is a veterinarian do?

If you ask Dr. Douglas Mader, a 23-year veteran in exotic work, or Dr. Karen Rosenthal, associate professor of special species medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, the answer is a no-brainer. If an animal's sick, you treat it — no matter where it came from.

"If a sick reptile is confiscated, it's probably going to a holding facility to die," Mader says. "My job is to advocate for those animals."

Rosenthal agrees.

"Veterinarians are not the police," she says. "People almost universally believe that veterinarians have a role in reporting domestic animal abuse. But this part is ethically murky."

Rosenthal recalls telling one client who owned and bred hedgehogs, illegal in Pennsylvania because of hedgehogs' ability to carry foot-and-mouth disease, to be careful about flaunting the pets.

Against advice, the client not only bred the hedgehogs but advertised them in classifieds sections from New Jersey to Delaware. Eventually, the state police showed up at her door, and the woman lost her hedgehogs and paid thousands in fines.

Rosenthal has to walk a fine line between advocating for public health and individual animals' health and scaring clients from providing good care to their pets. "They'll leave us and go to veterinarians who don't know as much and won't be able to take proper medical care of them," she says.

"The more exotic the animal, the less we know about it," Mader says. "Sometimes there's no resource to learn about these new species."

Besides concerns about general wellness, diseases are always a concern with exotic species. Rosenthal talks to clients about the danger of rare wild birds importing diseases as well as those birds' vulnernable immune systems. And who will know if that bird has something truly dangerous, like Newcastle's disease, which can easily migrate to poultry population?

Another frustrating aspect of exotics medicine — similar to the woes of veterinarians working with some owners of expensive pure-breed animals — is the strange surprise they feel after purchasing an animal for thousands of dollars and learning a veterinarian recommends a few hundred dollars in diagnostics to make sure the animal is healthy.

"A client will spend $10,000 on a tortoise and come in to have it checked," Mader says. "We'll recommend a fecal and a blood sample, and they'll say 'We can't afford it. We just spent $10,000.'" The opposite side of the spectrum Mader sees are the owners who'll spend $1,000 or more on a sick $20 iguana.

It's not just expensive exotic animals whose costs can surprise. New owners may be shocked when they come to the veterinarian to find out what's required to keep those cheap birds and lizards they bought at the pet store or fair healthy.

Rosenthal recalls one client with an extensive collection of exotic parrots and reptiles. The man built a mansion with at least one wall of every room made of glass and overlooking a giant terrarrium that ran the length of a large pool. The house was hot and humid year-round, and the animals had free access to house and pool. "But the people who can do that are few and far-between," she says.

For the rest of the country's owners of exotic animals, it's often a matter of the best one can afford. For the country's veterinarians handling exotics — legal and illegal — it's a matter of the best way to help an animal in sometimes less-than-ideal circumstances.

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