Loved to Death

Our longing to be near wild things is forcing millions of creatures indoors. Outdoors, meanwhile, life’s richness grows poorer.

THE YELLOW-THROATED warbler, crudely wrapped in tape, was tucked ignominiously behind a trashcan. It was recovered at a terminal of the Miami International Airport the week before I arrived. A smuggler — likely spooked by customs and border protection officers on a routine check — apparently stashed it there. It was still in its wrap, immobilized for the trip. No telling where the bird was bound or where it was from. (Yellow-throated warblers are small, lively birds that live throughout the southeastern United States and around the Gulf of Mexico.) Its journey, brutally begun in a forest trap somewhere, was cut short. A life of singing for its food as a caged pet was spared. Finds of this kind are not uncommon. Abandoned songbirds — bound tight or squeezed into hair curlers or pill bottles — are an almost regular occurrence at the airport these days. The yellow-throated warbler was unusual for another reason: Prior to the discovery, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (usfws) kept a list of 40 bird species known to be targeted by smugglers and trafficked across the country and abroad; the yellow-throated warbler marked the first time they intercepted its species.

“SO THAT WAS NUMBER 41,” says David Pharo. “It came in on one of the many flights that happened that day, and the people got nervous and ditched the bird.” Pharo is a special agent with the South Florida office of the USFWS. He and a team of about 20 other wildlife inspectors and agents enforce wildlife protection laws — including endangered species legislation, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and others — across southeast Florida, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands. His work is often clandestine, sometimes involving long, in-depth investigations and elaborate sting operations. Vice-squad drug cops may get the glamour, but wildlife enforcement work — according to Pharo — is no less pulse quickening. Pharo is serious about it. He might just be serious about everything — perhaps even a little gloomy. His obvious gift for grave inscrutability is probably gold in the world of undercover police work.

Pharo is speaking to me in a windowless meeting room at the South Florida USFWS headquarters in Miami, just a stone’s throw from the airport. Eva Lara is here, too. She’s the supervisory wildlife inspector of the office, and, to my relief, she’s cheerfully enthusiastic. The contrast to her furrow-browed colleague is striking — good cop, bad cop.

The room is overbright. The building — squat and brick with a couple of bay doors and little else to let the outside in — has all the charm of a well-kept warehouse. Planes pass low overhead. Nearby, Miami International Airport extends like a bustling sprawl of runways, jet traffic, and terminals. It is America’s third-busiest airport for international passengers and number one for international freight. More flights leave here for Latin America and the Caribbean than from anywhere else across the United States.

Miami is a top international hub for the multibillion-dollar worldwide trade in wildlife.

All of this, of course, helps explain Miami’s reputation as a top international hub for the multibillion-dollar, worldwide trade in wildlife. Every month, about 1,200 to 1,500 legal and declared wildlife-related shipments pass through the South Florida region, says Lara. Of these, the vast majority (more than 85 percent) are live animals, and most, by far, are intended as pets. Many are tropical aquarium fish, she explains. Snakes, lizards, other exotic reptiles, and amphibians are popular too. Big spiders are big. Mammals are a little less so. Caged birds — a favorite in this city’s thriving Cuban community — have seen aboveboard shipments drop off here in recent years. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, Lara says, but improved captive breeding might have something to do with it. What’s certain is that not as many birds are traveling through Miami as once did. She catches herself: “Not legally.”

All over the world, the demand for caged birds, especially songbirds, is seemingly insatiable. Photo by Pxlfuel.

A rescued blue grosbeak. Mortality is high among trafficked birds. “We see birds with missing feathers, infested with mites, with really bad muscle atrophy,” says David Pharo. Photo by Karine Aigner.

Across the table, Pharo assumes a meaningful look. “There’s been a persistent, ever-growing problem of bird trapping down here in southeast Florida,” he says, offering an official-sounding clarification. “It’s readily expanding and growing throughout the United States.”

Pharo and Lara believe the number of wild birds illegally trapped, traded, and trafficked between Florida and elsewhere has been climbing for years. More of the smuggled birds began showing up at the airport in the mid-2000s, and it’s getting worse.

The animals are being moved about — sewn into pants, tucked into waistband pouches, hidden in luggage — to feed a growing and eager appetite for colorful, musical, or simply rare caged companions. Some supply contestants for illicit song competitions. Others go to gamblers who pit them against each other in featherweight fights, like cocks. Increasingly, they’re smuggled as individuals or in small groups to avoid detection: “People are smuggling between 20 to 45 birds within either body-carry-on or luggage into the country,” says Lara.

Many of the trafficked birds from Cuba or Puerto Rico end up in Miami, while species trapped in Florida often make the opposite journey. Blue grosbeaks and painted buntings are probably the most trafficked, say the officers. The rest of Latin America — home to the greatest diversity of wildlife on Earth as well as its most rapidly dwindling animal populations — provides scores of other sought-after bird pets. “We don’t have really a good grip of how much of this is going on. It’s such a clandestine thing, and they’re bringing them in now in smaller, much smaller shipment sizes than they used to,” Pharo says. “They know it’s a risk, a real serious risk now, so they only bring one or two on their person at a time.”

“Operation Ornery Birds” is the name the USFWS came up with for an ongoing and largely undercover effort to infiltrate and pull apart the tangled web of illegal bird trappers and traffickers operating in South Florida and beyond. (The initial title was “Operation Angry Birds” until agency brass worried about copyright infringement.) The initiative — which began in 2012 and has so far nabbed six bird traffickers in six separate cases involving more than 400 birds — is considered one of the largest of its kind in US history. Pharo is the agent in charge. “These aren’t just bird enthusiasts and fanciers,” he says.

Earlier investigations twigged agents to the sheer scale of the problem. Back in 2006, illegal bird dealers and three Miami pet stores were caught selling protected species, and in 2012, a 76-year-old man who touched down in Miami from Cuba was stopped at customs with 16 Cuban bullfinches sewn into his pants. The species can fetch up to $5,000 a bird on Florida’s black market, says Pharo.

Operation Ornery Birds picked up where earlier efforts left off. An agent posing as a buyer answered an Internet ad for a prohibited songbird known as a Puerto Rican spindalis. The agent made secret recordings as the seller, who called himself “El Doctor,” boasted of other illegal sales, including 60 northern cardinals to a California buyer the previous week. In another early bust, a man arriving from Havana was arrested with five Cuban grassquits, a Cuban bullfinch, a yellow-faced grassquit, an indigo bunting, and a blue grosbeak immobilized in hair curlers and concealed in his underwear. A search of his Florida property revealed other birds, several cages, and a mist net for trapping.

“The mortality is very high,” Pharo says. “We see birds with missing feathers, infested with mites, with really bad muscle atrophy ... A lot of birds, the species that are associated with Operation Ornery Birds, are species that are, over time, in decline.” Pharo looks at me, gravely. “So, there’s impacts.”

The birds themselves suffer and often die. While the consequences for biodiversity around the world are more difficult to measure, what we know is that one out of eight of the planet’s bird species is now threatened with extinction. In places where scientists have identified causes, the pet bird trade has emerged as a dangerous — and often previously overlooked — prime suspect.

That, of course, is the irony: The deadly trade in these trapped, smuggled, and jeopardized birds exists only because people want to be around them. All over the world, the demand for caged birds is seemingly insatiable. And it’s not just birds. Our love of pets — fueled by the so-called “biophilia” behind our seemingly innate fascination with all life — is putting species from almost every animal group at risk and contributing to the mass death of species that scientists now call the sixth extinction.

“IT TURNS OUT THAT the pet trade is a big deal” in the decline of wild bird life, says biologist Bert Harris. “Trapping is causing extinctions.”

For years, Harris and his colleagues have been tracking the wild birds trapped to supply pets — mostly to local bird lovers — from Indonesia’s rich and heat-drenched jungles. What they’ve found, so far, is stark. Trade is the main threat facing 13 bird species and 14 separate subspecies now believed to be at risk of global annihilation. In all likelihood, say the researchers, five of the subspecies — the scarlet-breasted lorikeet, three races of white-rumped shama, and the miotera race of hill mynah — are already extinct in the wild.

The demand for caged birds is seemingly limitless in the region, and the results are dire. Scientists call it “the Asian songbird crisis” and describe it as the top reason many of the region’s most spectacular bird species could soon vanish altogether. Ironically, it’s Indonesia’s bird-focused biophilia that has put the survival of the nation’s birdlife in jeopardy. “And it’s really hard to breed these birds in captivity,” Harris explains from his home in Virginia, “so there’s a constant demand on the wild. A lot of them are dying in the markets. A lot of them are dying on the way in transport. So, I don’t know if there’s more demand, but it’s definitely unsustainable.”

Harris is a research adviser to the international wilderness preservation group Rainforest Trust. He was the organization’s director of biodiversity conservation until his recent appointment as the executive director of the Clifton Institute — a Virginia-based environmental organization focused on ecological restoration, education, and research. A thin, bookish-looking biologist with a rich, slightly taut voice and an audible sense of urgency, Harris has been in a kind of unshakeable thrall of the wondrous feathered life of the tropics since he was a kid.

After college, he volunteered in Ecuador, where he quickly discovered just how little we know about the lives of these extraordinary creatures. More startling still was the dawning realization that many of the species were disappearing. “I really recognized the conservation crisis that was happening,” he recalls. It was a few years later, during his postdoctoral studies of the pet trade in Indonesia, when Harris began to appreciate fully the magnitude of problem. “It turned out that there were a bunch of empty forests where everything looked just fine and, then, when you go in there, there were no birds. They had all been trapped out.”

In Asia, bird trapping is often a generational tradition. Halting it is unthinkable to local trappers, most of whom have no idea that the practice is hurting wild bird populations. Photo by Barney Moss.

While being hunted for food and forest loss have long been considered the main threats to bird biodiversity in Indonesia, the impacts of the mynah craze in the country, for instance, has led to the birds being all but gone from Java’s jungles. Photo by Ben/Flickr.

The effect was eerie. It was also worrying: Conservationists often estimate the population health of a species by means of satellite photos of suitable habitat, assuming the birds must be there. In photos of the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, many forests appeared to be perfectly suited for abundant birdlife, but when researchers visited, they found the jungles were silent. Nothing stirred in the empty treetops. Harris and his colleagues then walked the village markets. They soon found some of their missing birds; they were hanging in bamboo cages, for sale in market stalls.

In a recent paper published in the journal Conservation Biology, Harris and his co-researchers combined information they gathered from 14 years of bird counts in a Sumatran jungle, interviews with trappers, and local market prices for a variety of species. The findings show that as the pet-trade value of a species goes up, numbers in the wild go down. The inverse relationship is plain; price changes drive some bird populations into a tailspin. While being hunted for food and forest loss have long been considered the main threats to bird biodiversity in Indonesia, the work by Harris and his fellow researchers suggests the biodiversity impacts of pet trapping may be as bad — or worse. “Price, actually, is the best predictor of decline. So, that’s pretty good evidence that trapping is the main driver.”

For three critically endangered songbirds, for instance, the connection is devastatingly clear. Black-winged mynahs, gray-rumped mynahs, and gray-backed mynahs are closely related starlings with sleek, pale bodies, black wings, and bare, bright-yellow patches behind their eyes. They were once considered a single species, and they’re still commonly called “black-winged mynahs” for simplicity. These handsome birds are at home only on the west side of the Indonesian island of Java. As recently as two decades ago, the birds were common in the area, whistling and trilling high in the leafy branches. Then their popularity as a caged pet triggered a mynah-trapping rush.

A research team lead by Oxford Brookes University tracked the trend. They followed local sales of the birds between 2009 and 2018 across seven area bird markets as well as online. By 2014 — as the black-winged mynahs were becoming increasingly rare in treetops — the price of just one of them peaked at about $140 in the markets. That’s about three-quarters of the monthly minimum wage for people living there. Scientists estimated that between 1,300 and 2,300 mynahs — both trapped and captive bred — were sold every year. That’s not counting hundreds of others peddled in separate bird bazaars across Java, Bali, and elsewhere.

The impacts of the mynah craze soon became obvious: The birds are now all but gone from Java’s jungles. While some 40,000 of them currently live in bamboo and wire cages in homes throughout Indonesia, less than 500 fly free in the wild. Beyond the nation’s birdcage bars, say researchers, black-winged mynahs may already be ecologically extinct — that is, with numbers too few to sustain the population. “The birds that have the nice songs are the ones that are the most threatened,” says Harris, solemnly. And it doesn’t stop there: When the best singers are gone, trappers simply turn to the next species in line. Harris calls it “trapping down.”

“The really worrying thing is that trapping hasn’t been recognized as a big problem, but it is a big problem,” says Harris. It’s also a hard problem to solve. For instance, halting what is often a generational tradition is unthinkable to local trappers. Harris and his team interviewed many and found most learned the skills from their fathers and relied on the income to feed their families. Most had no idea the practice was hurting wild populations, and science simply knows too little to educate them. Many of the magnificent jungles of the region have hardly been penetrated by researchers, and much of their luxuriant mystery remains. Species are still being discovered, even as they blink out of existence. For many creatures in Asia’s forests, we don’t know what we’ve got till it’s gone.

IT’S NOT JUST BIRDS. For almost a thousand species known to be at risk of extinction, a cause of their peril is — at least in part — the international trade in wildlife. Researchers suggest that literally billions of plants and animals — worth about $300 billion — change hands in legal commercial exchange every year. The trade in pet fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, and others is a sizeable part of it, generating about $5.27 billion.

The United States is one of the largest markets for exotic pets. Europe is up there too. More recently, a fascination for owning exotic animals has begun to gather steam in the wealthy countries of the Middle East. And in Asia and South America, meanwhile, exotic pet keeping has a long cultural history that’s being rekindled as more affluent and aspiring pet owners can afford the hobby. Demand, by all accounts, is climbing everywhere. For some species, captive breeding fills the bill. For many others, however, mating in a cage or aquarium isn’t an option. Or at least not much of one. For these, wild capture is just easier. Trappers and fishermen — often rural, poor, and with few other opportunities — are frequently eager to do it. Wild creatures, meanwhile, have no way of keeping pace.

Few animal groups have escaped the pet industry’s notice — or the yearning of pet owners to keep them as companions. There are pet lions and pet sloths for sale. Pet snails and pet giraffes. Some have fur. Some have fangs and poison that kills. Many are in trouble in the wild. Countless die in transit or in pet stores. (One investigation of a major international wildlife wholesaler a few years ago confiscated more than 26,400 animals of 171 species and subspecies and found about 80 percent of them were seriously ill, injured, or dead. Almost 3,500 dead or dying animals were being discarded by the company every week.)

Few animal groups have escaped the pet industry’s notice — or the yearning of pet owners to keep them as companions. Many are in trouble in the wild. Photo by Rebekah Nelson/Florida Fish and Wildlife.

Reptiles targeted by the pet industry are five times more likely to be threatened with extinction than reptiles that are not. Photo by Rebekah Nelson/Florida Fish and Wildlife.

A pajama cardinalfish in an aquarium in Tokyo. The trade in pet fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, and others is a sizeable part of the international trade in wildlife, generating about $5.27 billion a year. Photo by Toshihiro Gamo.

Our longing to be near wild things is forcing literally millions of creatures from hundreds of taxa to come indoors with us — or die trying. Outdoors, meanwhile, life’s richness grows poorer.

More bird species (585, according to one estimate) are caught up by the exotic pet business, globally, than species from any other animal group, but reptiles (485 species) are also frequently bought and sold. The variety of marketed mammal species is only somewhat less (113). Meanwhile, reptiles targeted by the pet industry are five times more likely to be threatened with extinction than reptiles that are not. Pet-trade-targeted mammals are almost three times more likely to land on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s list of imperiled species. Parrots, meanwhile, are not only the most popular pet bird group throughout the world, they’re also the most endangered — one in four of every parrot species on the planet is at risk of vanishing from the wild.

“I’ll start by being a pessimist here,” says Sheldon Jordan, the Canadian government’s top wildlife cop when I meet him at his Gatineau, Quebec, office, across the river from the Canadian capital, Ottawa. A plainspoken and down-to-earth man with neat, parted hair and square glasses, and a warm smile, Jordan was, until recently, chair of the

INTERPOL (International Criminal Police Organization) Wildlife Crimes Working Group. “I’ll start with a quote from the Duke of Cambridge, Prince William, at the Hanoi conference on the illegal wildlife trade which happened in November of 2016. He said, ‘If I were a betting man, I would bet on extinction.’”

“We’ve got lots of laws out there,” he explains. “What you actually have to do is to be in a position to not only enforce them but make sure that the public is behind them.”

The closest thing the world has to global rules governing the trade in wildlife is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Signatory countries put their own laws and regulations in place to abide by its terms. A growing CITES appendix now identifies more than 34,000 species in need of protection and for which permits are needed to cross borders. Other international agreements also have a role. The Commission for Environmental Cooperation, for instance, emerged as a pan-continental conservation force after Canada, the United States, and Mexico became partners to the North American Free Trade Agreement (now the Canada–United States–Mexico Agreement).

But Jordan is right. Enforcement is a problem. In countries where keeping or selling wildlife is a traditional or cultural practice, enforcing any wildlife rules can be difficult. For instance, some conservationists worry CITES export permits from some nations are granted when they shouldn’t be. Each year, about 317,000 live birds and 2 million live reptiles, as well as millions of reptile skins, pieces of coral, and hunting trophies, are cleared for international trade, but the sheer number of the allegedly captive-bred animals in this group has been called “implausible” by researchers; some breeding facilities are cover for illegal trapping from the wild.

If the legal trade in wildlife is a problem for biodiversity, the black market only makes it worse.

If the legal trade in wildlife is a problem for biodiversity, the black market only makes thing worse. Few criminal enterprises in the world are considered as lucrative. Some estimate the illegal wildlife trade is easily a third as large as its lawful counterpart. Every year, about 350 million plants and animals are sold on the black market globally, and millions of prospective exotic pets are among them. The value of this illicit trade falls anywhere between $10 billion and $30 billion for animals alone, says Jordan. And the problem is gathering momentum. “Environmental crime is rising at a rate of 5 to 7 percent per year,” explains Jordan. “That was in 2016, which is almost double the rate of world economic growth.”

Wildlife law enforcement agencies everywhere are trying to step up their game, but the appetite for exotic pets continues to grow. Its tastes have also broadened as the variety of creatures desired as human companions becomes wider and more esoteric. A Florida couple kept a pet elephant for 34 years (along with a menagerie of other creatures) before it was finally seized by authorities. A few years ago in Thousand Oaks, California, a pet 1.8–meter (6 foot) albino cobra escaped, attacking a family dog and terrorizing the community until it was captured several days later. In 2019, a 75-year-old man in Gainesville, Florida, was gored to death by one (or more) of his pet cassowaries — huge, flightless birds found on the other side of the world and equipped with dagger-like talons.

“Obviously, law enforcement isn’t going to solve the situation, says Jordan. “Number one is reducing demand.”

Hulk, a 12-week-old tiger cub, is petted by a family at the Ringling Animal Care Center, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, in 2018. In this urbanized world, the appeal of wild creatures may be stronger than ever. Photo by Steve Winter.

Unfortunately, tackling demand won’t be easy: The allure of exotic pets is, by many accounts, powerful and strange. People who have never lived with a wild animal — according to those who have — simply don’t get it. Exotic animals are viscerally enchanting. Being with them is an experience that’s hard to describe. The feeling has the ineffable quality of something ancient and elemental. In their daily presence, biophilia is tangible. The awe in it becomes real and affecting. “I’m telling you,” says Tim Harrison over the phone from Ohio, “there’s nothing like it in the world to have a tiger react to you like you are friends.”

Harrison is a boyish-looking retired police officer with a thick moustache, a ball cap, and a busy life just outside Dayton, Ohio. He’s kept pet tigers. He’s had lions, too. Bears, cougars, venomous vipers, pythons, and countless other wild creatures have all been at home at Harrison’s place — although, he says, he didn’t plan it that way. Harrison spent 29 years as a public safety officer working for the Ohio city of Oakland. As a teen, he worked as a veterinarian’s assistant and at a couple of local zoos, so in his adult job he was the go-to officer for calls involving escaped and dangerous exotic pets.

There were a surprising number of them. Harrison — who at first couldn’t understand people who kept big cats and dangerous snakes as pets — began to care for the animals he rescued when he couldn’t find accredited shelters and zoos to take them. That’s when something clicked. “There is a spiritual connection,” he says. “You become the wolf. You become the lion.”

Harrison became known as the wild animal guy. He began speaking at area events and schools. News stories about his work as Ohio’s dangerous-animal cop were followed by guest appearances on talk shows. He became something of a regular on the nationally syndicated, breakfast-television show The Daily Buzz. He brought his beasts along. The viewers loved it.

“I thought I was doing the right thing,” he says. “I thought that’s how you educated people. Then, I learned that it’s getting worse. When reality TV started and Steve Irwin on Animal Planet and all those shows came out with some of the most dangerous creatures in the world, I went from 5 to 6 calls a year to 112.” The shows Harrison hoped were educating people actually inspired viewers to acquire exotic animals for themselves. “I was part of the problem,” he says. Harrison stopped bringing his animals to television appearances, and the shows soon lost interest. He wasn’t sorry.

In 2001, Harrison and other police officers, firefighters, and paramedics created the nonprofit group called Outreach for Animals. Their aim is to educate people about the perils of keeping wild creatures — especially dangerous ones — as pets and to encourage exotic animal laws to regulate the practice. Harrison admits it remains an uphill battle. Many US states and a few Canadian provinces — Ontario, for instance — have limited regulations and are still the Wild West for wild pets. More people, meanwhile, seem drawn to the idea of having wild animals in their midst. In this technological, urbanized world, the appeal of these creatures may be stronger than ever.

birds being released
In 2018, USFWS officers released 130 rescued birds into the into the Everglades National Park in Florida in an effort to bring home the conservation side of the story. Photo by Karine Aigner.

Back in Miami, USFWS Agent Pharo echoes Sheldon Jordan’s view that laws and more agents can do only so much; awareness is key.

In April 2018, Pharo and other Miami wildlife enforcement officials invited television cameras and other media to the middle of Everglades National Park. They wanted reporters to watch as they carted cages holding about 130 birds from a white SUV and released them into the surrounding trees. The birds were among those rescued during Pharo’s Operation Ornery Birds investigations. Images show photographers lined along the ground as the door of one large cage is lifted and dozens of colorful birds explode into the air. The officials were hoping the elaborate news event might bring home the conservation side of the story.

It was a grand hope. Wildlife crime has exploded in the past 10 to 15 years, and trafficking in wild species is now the fourth largest criminal trade behind illegal drugs, counterfeiting, and human trafficking, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It’s worth up to $20 billion annually. The Internet and social media exacerbate the problem, opening fluid new avenues for faster and more-difficult-to-track exotic pet sales. America’s particular brand of biophilia, as it turns out, has helped distinguish the country as one of the largest consumers of illegal wildlife in the world. Miami is its epicenter. “This is a recurring issue here,” Pharo says, grimly. “It’ll probably never go away in my lifetime.”

Adapted from award-winning science journalist and author Peter Christie’s new book Unnatural Companions: Rethinking Our Love of Pets in an Age of Wildlife Extinction.

Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

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