The $10 Billion Pet Cheetah and Chimp Industry

The shadowy world of the exotic pet trade endangers the animals, people and the environment, and there's no sign it's slowing down

Lucas Jackson/Reuters

In the Middle East, a cheetah riding shotgun in the plush leather seat of a luxury sports car is the ultimate status symbol. Their owners pose them next to high-end vehicles with suicide doors, let them frolic with their children, walk them on leashes like a common house pet, or photograph them lounging languidly at the prow of a yacht, all proudly displayed on Facebook or Instagram.

Just another example of clueless rich people peacocking, right? But in many cases, these exotic animals were smuggled illegally as young cubs and suffer a staggering mortality rate during transit before they arrive in places like Dubai. Across the globe and the United States, people smuggle and breed exotic wildlife from birds to primates for the pet trade, many parts of which operate in the shadows.

Photos: Craziest Confiscated Exotic Animals

“Wild animals are traded illegally — to the tune of $10 billion or more globally each year, an amount second only to arms and drug smuggling....This trade can devastate wild populations, and the methods used to capture, transport, and kill animals can cause tremendous suffering,” according to the Humane Society website.

As adorable and unique as these animals may be compared to the common cat and dog, wildlife experts and animal welfare advocates say keeping exotic animals as pets is harmful to the environment, the animals and pet owners.

Most people don’t have the resources or knowledge to properly take care of exotic animals, who often suffer from emotional, physical and nutritional problems, said Debbie Leahy, the manager of captive wildlife protection for the Humane Society of the United States. Cheetahs, for example, range for miles in their natural habitat, leading people to resort to ridiculous measures, like putting them on a treadmill.

“Our position is that people should stick to traditional domestic animals as pets,” she said.

In the case of cheetahs, their numbers in the wild have dwindled, especially in East Africa, where there is a thriving black market for live animals, according to a paper released recently by CITES or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an international treaty and group that governs the trade of wildlife and plants. About 2,500 cheetahs are known to live in East Africa, which includes Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. Shipped by boats from Africa to the coast of Yemen and onward to rich Gulf countries on a harrowing journey where many die, they can command prices upwards to $10,000 each.

These animals, taken from their mother as young cubs, suffer a mortality rate of 70 percent, according to the report. The CITES paper also had pictures of the cuddly cubs, emaciated and near death. In one photo, two cubs rested on one of their litter mates who had just died with its eyes still open.

In the wild, cheetahs have a life expectancy of 10 to 12 years, according to National Geographic. As pets, they rarely make it to two years of age. In the CITES paper, vets in the United Arab Emirates have seen numerous diseased and sick cubs at death’s door. Autopsies of dead cheetahs reveal they often die from poor nutrition and accidentally drinking anti-freeze.

“It’s devastating,” said Laurie Marker, founder of the Cheetah Conservation Fund based in Namibia.

Besides the danger to animals, these exotic animals may cause havoc as an invasive species. On Monday, federal authorities seized 67 Giant African Snails at Los Angeles International Airport. The mollusks, which can grow up to eight inches long and live up to 10 years, are classified as a “damaging species” by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They eat more than 500 kinds of plants and could wreak havoc if released into the North American environment. They were likely intended for human consumption, officials said.

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Earlier this year, a Long Island man admitted to trying to import 40,000 piranhas from Hong Kong. Prosecutors contend that these fish, armed with razor teeth, could be accidentally released into the wild and create nightmarish scenarios straight out of a horror movie. In their native habitat, swarms of these fish have been known to attack people and, in a few cases, kill.

In Florida, non-native pythons and boas threaten the fragile ecosystem of the Florida Everglades, where native species are under assault by these rapacious reptiles, said Gavin Shire, spokesman with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

They pose a danger to clueless pet owners too. Big cats, bears, primates, and snakes seem obviously dangerous -- at least to those not trying to show off to their rich friends. Even if they have been reared from a young age in captivity, news reports abound with animal attacks. In 2009, Travis, a 200-pound chimp who was raised in captivity, viciously mauled a woman’s face in Connecticut. That same year in Florida, a Burmese python named Gypsy slithered out of its cage, easily bypassed a quilt pinned over its home, and found Shaiunna Ward, a two-year-old toddler sleeping in her crib. Then the snake coiled around the child and squeezed her to death. The next morning, the cold body of the girl was found with bite marks all over her and the snake still wrapped around her head in a lethal embrace.

In a less lethal case from about 10 years ago, a pot-bellied pig cornered its owner in a basement. The woman was forced to seek refuge on top of a table because her pig was biting her, according to Dan Estep, a Colorado scientist who specializes in animal behavior.

Other dangers are less obvious, such as diseases. Exotic animals can carry parasites, viruses, and bacteria. Macaques, a popular exotic pet, carries Herpes B, which has a 70 percent mortality rate on humans, Leahy said.

Even when bred in captivity, Leahy said breeding facilities are often horrendous, resembling factory farming. These exotic animals are kept in small cages and bred over and over again. For example, baby primates are separated from their mothers, resulting in emotional trauma.

Animal welfare groups, such as the Humane Society and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, have been pushing for stricter laws governing the sale and breeding of exotic animals.

Charla Nash, the woman mauled by Travis the chimp, was in Washington D.C., earlier this month to urge Congress to pass the Captive Primate Safety Act, which makes it harder for people to buy chimps and other monkeys in the exotic pet trade.

"I'm here today to make sure that what happened to me never happens to anyone else. In 2009, I was attacked and mauled by my boss' chimp, Travis. He ripped off my face, hands and doctors were able to salvage my thumb and sew it on sideways,” Nash said at a news conference as reported by NBC. Nash, who received a face transplant, also lost her sight because of a disease she caught from Travis.

For cheetahs, Marker has been at the forefront of educating people in the Middle East. She has spoken to NGOs and local universities in the area about saving cheetahs and the pitfalls of the exotic pet trade to possible cheetah owners.

“It all revolves around education,” she said. “We try to go about in a positive educational approach. It’s buying without realization. The buyers are innocent. The people selling are not."