Human Health Threats from Animals Are Imported Every Day

May 13, 2009

Pigs aren't the only animal sparking human health concerns these days.

About 200 million animals, from more than 190 countries, are imported into the United States every year, according to a team of investigators that published its findings in the May 1, 2009, issue of the journal Science. Most of the animals are intended to provide a benefit as pets, but many can spread serious diseases that can harm people, including salmonellosis, monkeypox, tularemia, and psittacosis. Many animals also escape or are released, and can damage crops, reduce biodiversity, and damage infrastructure. About 80% of the animals are taken from the wild, and few of these are inspected for pathogens.

Tracking of and knowledge about the imported animals is so limited that the researchers were able to identify the species of each animal only 14% of the time. For the other animals, they were able to narrow it down just to the genus, family, order, or class, or not identify it at all in 7.5% of the cases. Federal regulations require that all imported animals be identified by species.

The vast majority (90%) of the imported animals were fish. But the breakdown by type of animal in each shipment was much more complex. In descending order by quantity, most of the shipments contained either freshwater or marine inhabitants such as jellyfish, anemones, coral, and fish; reptiles; insects; or crustaceans. The number of imported animals remained fairly steady for the time period studied, from 2000 to 2006. But there were about five times more shipments in 2006 than in 2000, substantially increasing regulatory and enforcement difficulties.

The researchers, from Brown University, Pacific Lutheran University, Kingston University, the Wildlife Trust, the Global Invasive Species Programme, and the CDC, say that this animal trade is poorly regulated and enforced. Much of the paper is devoted to recommendations on ways to improve the current situation.

The study was based on a review of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Law Enforcement Management Information System records. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and seven other foundations, trusts, or programs. For potential NSF sources, see their press release of May 1, 2009:

For more information, and to obtain a copy of the full study, contact Peter Daszak (Wildlife Trust), 212-380-4473, or Katherine Smith (Brown Univ.).

Related legislation is moving through Congress. HR 669 has 29 cosponsors, and is being discussed in subcommittee hearings (search by bill number for details).

Good local settings for covering this issue include pet stores, airports, and seaports. For much more information on investigating and reporting on the wildlife trade, see the TipSheet of March 19, 2008.