17 October 2019
Cynomys or prairie dogs have been blamed for the spread of diseases such as the bubonic plague in Hong Kong in 1894. Photo: Lukas Koscelniak (frakovitch blog)
Cynomys or prairie dogs have been blamed for the spread of diseases such as the bubonic plague in Hong Kong in 1894. Photo: Lukas Koscelniak (frakovitch blog)

Illegal trade of exotic pets may lead to disease outbreaks

Tired of having a dog or a cat for a pet? Why not try a sugar glider, a fennec fox or a chipmunk?

These exotic animals are now traded online. Some of the sellers are licensed pet shops, while others are individuals who use social media to look for buyers.

In many cases, the transaction is not considered a sale or a purchase, but an “adoption” with the owner giving his rights to the animal to a new owner.

The problem is that such transactions remain largely unsupervised and unregulated, and experts fear that that could lead to the spread of diseases.

The origin of these animals, along with their medical history, will be hard to determine, thus bringing them home as pets may give rise to the spread of diseases in the community, Sing Tao Daily reports.

A Facebook page called Hong Kong Pet Exchange Zone offers such animals as fennec fox, a nocturnal fox with large ears that look like Yoda’s; cynomys or prairie dog, a burrowing rodent native to the North American grasslands; sugar glider, a small possum that resembles a flying squirrel; and chipmunk, a small, striped rodent that likes to eat seeds and nuts.

Some individual owners sell exotic pets such as hedgehogs and sloths on Taobao, Alibaba’s online shopping mall. A hedgehog, which is gaining increasing popularity among pet keepers, can fetch up to thousands of Hong Kong dollars, the report said.

Legislator Claudia Mo slammed the Customs and Excise Department and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), which she accused of not exerting enough effort to stop the trade, which she said is not only illegal but could lead to the outbreak of diseases.  She also urged the government to increase the punishments for offenders.

A spokesperson for the AFCD said the department has not issued any license for animal distributors to sell those animals while the importation and sale of those animals are prohibited. The spokesperson also warned that such animals, including fennec foxes, cynomys and sugar gliders, carry the risk of spreading diseases.

Animal distributors will need to obtain a license before they can sell animals online, the spokesperson said, adding that anyone found to be engaged in the illegal sale of animals faces a fine of up to HK$2,000 (US$257).

Ken Yung Kin-lam, a biology professor at the Hong Kong Baptist University, said cynomys are social animals that are not suited to be kept as pets. They are also known sources of such diseases as Yersinia pestis, Coronavirus and rabies.

Veterinarian Eric Lai also warned that some of these animals, which are not used to a home environment, could bite their owners and thus pass on diseases.

Richard Kao Yi-tsun, an associate professor of the microbiology department of the University of Hong Kong, said the genes and temperature of Mexican prairie dogs are similar to those of humans, making us more prone to infection from any disease that they may harbor.

Cynomys were found to be responsible for an outbreak of monkeypox virus inflection in midwestern United States in 2003, the report said. At least 81 people were infected at the time.

Yersinia pestis found in cynomys was the source of Black Death, or bubonic plague, which killed more than 2,000 people in Hong Kong back in 1894. 

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