Illegal wildlife trading is a multibillion-dollar industry that stretches across the globe, including Arizona, where wildlife officials say they continue to seize illicit animals.
Between 2005 and 2015, Arizona Game and Fish issued 88 citations for the possession, importation or exportation of restricted live wildlife, said Joshua Hurst, manager of the state’s Operation Game Thief Program. He added that even more protected animals are bought and sold that they simply don’t know about.
Mountain lions, alligators and bobcats are just some of the animals involved in Arizona’s illegal pet trade, and just one part of the illegal wildlife business. For the most part each state has the power to regulate what live wildlife can and cannot be legally possessed within its borders and while Arizona restricts most exotic and native live wildlife, many people get around these laws.
“Wild animals absolutely do not make good pets,” said Kim Carr, animal care manager at Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.
This rehabilitation center and wildlife sanctuary has been open for over 20 years and sees the result of the illegal wildlife trade in many of the animals confiscated by Arizona Fish and Game, as well as those surrendered to them by overwhelmed owners.
“People just don’t know what to feed their illegal wild animals so they usually come in in pretty bad shape,” said Carr, “they almost always come to us really emaciated and sometimes with metabolic bone disease.”
Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center focuses on native mammals but also occasionally helps the state place the more exotic animals in sanctuaries or zoos across the country.
“We, a couple of years ago, got a call from Game and Fish on New Year’s Eve and they said, ‘What are you guys doing tonight?’ And Linda, the director, said, ‘Well nothing we don’t have any plans,’ and they actually brought us two tiger cubs and they were confiscated from somebody who had them illegally,” said Carr.
Once held as pets, animals become used to humans and can never be returned to the wild, said Hurst. They pose a threat to both their native populations by way of disease exposure, as well as any human populations nearby because they no longer fear people.
And while it’s rare to see an exotic animal like a tiger come through the sanctuary, it still happens.
Animals are widely available for sale online. While many sellers are doing so legally, Hurst said the majority of the time the only thing regulating their sale is a note telling customers it’s under their discretion to check with their local laws to insure the legality.
“Individuals that are dealing with the illegal trade of wildlife, they’re doing it for commercial purposes and they’re doing it for money,” said Hurst.
Arizona is home to species that aren’t found anywhere else in the world, Hurst says that makes it a popular location for those looking to keep “hot collections,” or collections of live venomous reptiles.
Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, started the organization, along with Debbie Gibson and Daniel Marchand, to act as a haven for reptiles that would otherwise be euthanized.
Typically, illegal sellers face only misdemeanor charges and small fines, according to Hurst. That makes the reward worth the risk for people getting involved in illegal wildlife trading, he added.
“There’s a lot of money in wildlife,” said Hurst. “The chance of being caught is low, the chance of punishment is minimal.”
Johnson believes that the fault lies with Arizona’s court system as cases like these are not taken as seriously as they should.
“Arizona does their part and they do it well. The courts need to take it seriously and that includes the prosecutors. If they don’t do this, then it’s going to continue to be a joke and it’s going to continue to perpetuate itself because of the no risk of any financial setback to these individuals,” said Johnson.
“This is a global problem, it’s one that needs to be addressed on a global scale. But we can certainly start right here in Arizona, in our backyard with it,” said Hurst.
Hurst said this is an issue that needs more attention because it poses risks not only to native species populations and public health, but also to the safety of many first responders, like firefighters.
“If there was a house fire, for instance, and a cage was compromised that had a cobra in it or a highly venomous reptile, when a first responder … went through that home to put out that fire, here they are exposed to something that could kill them outside of the inherent risk that they’re dealing with in their normal jobs,” Hurst said.
And while many call for stricter enforcement of the laws and more robust penalties, Hurst doesn’t think this alone will solve the problem.
“What can change is people’s perceptions of it. You know, one of the things that we find is laws dictate what’s authorized, cultures dictate what’s acceptable,” said Hurst.
“I think we need to kind of take the focus off of us, like, I want this wild animal, I want this bobcat, and a lot of times you know it’s kind of to show off for people,” said Carr. “And people just aren’t taking into account the animal’s life. You are now sentencing that animal to a life of captivity.