ALLENTOWN, Pa. — The sight of humane officers carrying dozens of tropical birds, a 14-foot boa constrictor, rabbits and rats from a Macungie home recently seemed shocking, if not bizarre. And when officers removed more snakes, as well as skunks, ferrets, alligators and giant tortoises from a Montgomery County home a few days later, the scene bordered on the surreal.
The news was less shocking to those familiar with the $300 billion wildlife market, where exotic mammals and reptiles can fetch big money — much of it in illegal sales.
The industry is regulated by federal, state and county agencies that register and license dealers but whose staffs are plagued by vacancies, giving hoarders and sellers room to amass potentially illegal menageries.
“Unfortunately, it’s a very poorly regulated industry,” said Debra Leahy, manager of Captive Wildlife Protection for the Humane Society of the United States.
Lehigh County Humane Society officer Barbara Morgan filed dozens of summary, misdemeanor and felony charges in the Macungie case. No charges have been filed in the Upper Hanover Township, Montgomery County, case, but a Humane Society official said the two are related.
Law makes hoarding easy
It’s not difficult to get many types of animals legally from pet stores, flea markets, breeders and over the internet. Next week, for example, venomous and nonvenomous reptiles will be for sale or trade at the Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Montgomery County. Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission agents may be there too, keeping an eye on swaps and sales, according to the show’s website.
But animals also are smuggled, often through the mail or Federal Express, Leahy said. In one example documented by the Humane Society, a South Carolina man was charged with animal cruelty in 2006 when he tried to mail a box that he said contained cups and saucers, but instead held a 7-foot python and two copperhead snakes.
The market for exotic animals among collectors and those who want the creatures for food or for making medicine is booming, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. China is believed to be the top importer of illegal wildlife, she said.
“East Asia, and East Asian diaspora communities are some of the most intense demand markets,” she said in an email from China, where she is studying the impact of a ban on ivory. “Throughout East Asia, there is huge demand for birds as well as reptiles, such as for pets.”
Collectors, she said, are wealthy people who want to show off and also middle-class people for whom having such things is a symbol of their new wealth. The market for North American animals is highly diverse, she said, with collectors spending thousands of dollars for birds or lizards or fish, even tens of thousands of dollars.
Turtles are a prized delicacy in East Asia, and a Levittown, Bucks County, man was charged this year with trafficking more than 3,500 protected diamondback terrapins — some that he allegedly poached from New Jersey.
Chad Eyler, the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s special permits enforcement officer, said domestic animal body parts, such as bears’ gall bladders, are in demand for practitioners of traditional East Asian medicine.
“Is there an illegal trade on anything?” he said. “Sure.”
There are primarily two federal laws that could come into play when it comes to unusual pets, said Tony Eliseuson, a senior staff attorney for the Animal Legal Defense Fund. One is the Animal Welfare Act, which requires people to obtain permits to exhibit, breed or sell animals. Cold-blooded animals and a few others are exempt from the law.
If an animal is in danger of extinction, the other federal law that may apply is the Endangered Species Act. But if an animal hoarder does not have any endangered species, there’s nothing in federal law to stop them, Eliseuson said.
Once the animal is in a Pennsylvania resident’s hands, a hodgepodge of agencies may regulate if and how the animal is kept. Additionally, local laws may apply, making possession of anything other than the most common house pets confusing. For example, state law allows ownership of ferrets, but in Allentown, ferrets are illegal in homes.
Dogs, the most commonly regulated household pet in Pennsylvania, are licensed and regulated by the state Agriculture Department, which also has detailed regulations for importing domestic animals kept in captivity, including farm animals and fish.
In Pennsylvania, the department licenses dealers of exotic animals such as birds, fish and reptiles, although the regulation of those animals in the wild belongs to other agencies. It has issued 124 licenses statewide. Additionally, the department requires certificates of veterinary inspection of some animals before they are transported or sold in Pennsylvania, spokeswoman Shannon Powers said.
The state Game Commission oversees native mammals and birds.
Laws vary by state, too. Small “pocket pets,” such as sugar gliders, are legal to own in 45 states, but not Pennsylvania. A bill that would have legalized ownership of sugar gliders and hedgehogs failed in the state House of Representatives in May.
The Fish and Boat Commission regulates fish, amphibians and reptiles that are native to Pennsylvania, but not non-native fish, amphibians and reptiles.
“If you wanted to have a pet alligator, there is no law that restricts you from having a pet alligator,” commission spokesman Mike Parker said.
But that rule isn’t hard and fast. For example, state rules allow people to possess just one turtle or snake of certain native species, and outright ban the possession of others.
The rules are less strict about non-native reptiles.
“Let’s say you get to work today and decide you want to have a king cobra as your pet,” said Jesse Rothacker, president of Forgotten Friend Reptile Sanctuary in Lancaster County. “In Pennsylvania, you could get one. You don’t need to have a permit, you don’t need to have training. Whereas if you were to decide at lunchtime you wanted a mountain lion or a golden eagle, you couldn’t do that. They have licensing, permitting and apprenticeship programs.”
Holes in enforcement
Pennsylvania has 113 full-time game wardens and 340 part-timers, but nearly 20 percent of the state’s game districts are not covered, according to the commission’s 2017 annual report. Wardens’ enforcement contacts with outdoors people declined 8 percent from 2016, and prosecutions dropped by more than 1,000 to 7,516, it said.
Similarly, the Fish and Boat Commission had 18 waterways conservation officer positions vacant last year, and reduced staffing by around 40 positions, but still operated in the red, its annual report said. With 60 officers either ready to retire or able to retire within three years, it said, “customer service, public safety and resource protection will continue to diminish.”
Enforcement isn’t just left to state agencies. In Pennsylvania, humane societies have the power to appoint police officers to enforce the state’s animal cruelty laws and make arrests. There are 146 active humane police officers in the state, according to the Agriculture Department.
Nonprofit organizations have borne the financial burden of enforcing those laws, and over the last 10 to 15 years, as costs have skyrocketed, many have gotten out of the law enforcement business, said Nicole Wilson, director of humane law enforcement for the Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Wilson said sometimes small rescue groups crop up but they often don’t have shelters to house the animals they need to confiscate.
The responsibility of caring for animals falls to owners, some of whom don’t understand what’s required. Those who buy an exotic animal, sometimes for only a few dollars, have to be prepared for the possibility of caring for it for decades. Many animals need socializing, so companion animals are necessary, said Judy Rutkowski, an Allentown Animal Clinic veterinarian. Some exotics require special lighting and humidity controls, she said.
“People think, ‘I don’t have to take them for a walk,’ ” Rutkowski said. “They think they’re easier than a domestic pet, but they’re not.”
The animals found recently in Macungie and Upper Hanover were in cages and bins, which Leahy called “extraordinarily cruel for them,” Leahy said.
People need to provide their reptile pets with entire habitats, including heat and sunlamps, pumps and clean tanks so they’re not living in their own filth, said Rothacker, from the Lancaster County reptile sanctuary.
It’s a real problem for owners of sulcata tortoises, which were found in the Montgomery County home. The animals can start out the size of table tennis balls and grow to weigh more than 200 pounds, Rothacker said. He gets a couple of dozen requests to take in the tortoises each year.
They need to live inside during cold months, which can be hard for people to accommodate.
“It’s like having a horse living in your house,” he said.
Rothacker said his organization gets between five and 10 intake requests a day, but doesn’t have the capacity to help all the reptiles that people don’t want. A handful of species are chronic offenders: the red-tailed boa constrictor, the red-eared slider, the green iguana, American alligators and African sulcata tortoises.
Sometimes he’s called on to take care of pets for the regular reasons: a death in the family, a job change, a move. But other times it’s more of a reptile-specific problem: People just don’t know what they’re getting into.
They don’t have the option of dumping reptiles, because releasing a non-native reptile into the wild is illegal in Pennsylvania, according to the Fish and Boat Commission.
A recent study by Rutgers University researchers found that inexpensive pets that grow far beyond their immature sizes are the ones most frequently released into the wild, often in environments not conducive to the animals’ health.
A Humane Society database of reptile complaints over about 30 years listed around 850, mostly involving snakes, throughout the United States. In one 2012 incident, a family pet ball python, a nonvenomous snake, bit a 4-year-old girl in Lehighton, the database showed. A year earlier, a Kennett Square, Chester County, man was bitten by a pet rattlesnake; and when authorities investigated, they found eight snakes — four of them venomous, a 14-foot constricting python, two monitor lizards and an alligator, it said. Not long after that, Kennett Square banned hundreds of animals, including constricting snakes.
The animals taken from the Macungie and Upper Hanover homes are in legal limbo.
The Lehigh County Humane Society, which responded to the Macungie call, didn’t have the capacity for all the animals it seized. It sent snakes and birds to organizations that specialize in caring for those types of animals.

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