June 13, 2003, Friday, BC cycle
Future of pet prairie dogs in limbo after monkeypox outbreak

BYLINE: By BOBBY ROSS JR., Associated Press Writer

SECTION: State and Regional

LENGTH: 799 words

DATELINE: DALLAS

As rodents go, the prairie dog is Mr. Social.

“This is a rodent that loves you and wants your attention,” said Ryan Blakley, owner of Walter’s World of Pets in Lubbock.

“It’s not like a hamster that sits in the cage and could care less if you’re there.”

But this week, prairie dogs were linked to an outbreak of monkeypox in the Midwest – prompting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to ban the sale and transport of the popular pet “until further notice.”

While dealers such as Blakley hope the nationwide ban is only temporary, animal rights activists want to make it permanent.

At the center of the debate is Texas, where a handful of businesses captured an estimated 20,000 prairie dogs on private land last year and sold them as far away as Japan, according to state officials.

“There’s no reason to ban the prairie dog permanently,” said Jason Shaw, owner of U.S. Global Exotics in Arlington. “The prairie dog isn’t the problem. It’s just like saying a dog got rabies and nobody can have a dog anymore.”

But David Crawford, executive director of Rocky Mountain Animal Defense in Boulder, Colo., said prairie dogs belong in the wild.

“They are one of the world’s best diggers, and they have very complex social structures and a complex communication system,” Crawford said.

“They should be exercising what they have inherited through the generations. … You can’t do that on a linoleum floor in the kitchen.”

The Prairie Dog Coalition claims the sale of prairie dogs endangers native wildlife populations and puts human health at risk, as evidenced by the monkeypox outbreak. The coalition includes the leaders of nearly a dozen animal rights groups.

Federal officials traced the monkeypox outbreak to prairie dogs distributed by Phil’s Pocket Pets of Villa Park, Ill.

About 200 prairie dogs shipped to the Chicago-area distributor from Shaw’s company in Texas probably contracted monkeypox from a giant Gambian rat after they arrived, investigators say. Numerous people in 15 states may have bought infected prairie dogs from Phil’s Pocket Pets.

Monkeypox, a disease never before seen in the Western Hemisphere, is related to smallpox but not as lethal. It causes pus-filled blisters, rashes, chills and fever.

By Friday morning, health officials had confirmed a total of 12 human cases of monkeypox: four each in Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. Also, 56 possible cases had been reported – 25 in Indiana, 17 in Wisconsin, 13 in Illinois and one in New Jersey.

No one has died from the disease in the United States, but at least 14 patients with symptoms have been hospitalized.

Blakley, the Lubbock pet store owner, said prairie dogs don’t deserve the blame.

“How many people get ringworm from a cat?” he said. “Nobody’s screaming, ‘Ban cats! Ban cats!”‘

Blakley sold between 400 and 500 prairie dogs this spring, he said. The price tag: up to $150 each. But Friday, his remaining 11 prairie dogs were quarantined in a five-foot horse trough at the back of his store.

Suzette Stidom, owner of S&S Exotic Animals in Houston, said she sold about 250 prairie dogs this spring and had ordered 50 more before the ban.

“If you’ve ever been around one, they’re real loving, real sweet,” said Stidom, whose own pet prairie dogs include 3-year-old Precious, brown with a black tail, and 1-year-old P.J., white with blue eyes.

Stidom said she supports taking every action necessary to stop the spread of disease.

But the monkeypox outbreak has been overblown, she said.

“I mean, I think everybody has made more out of this than what it really is,” she said.

Prairie dogs are found throughout the Great Plains. As farming and housing have taken over the range, their numbers have fallen, but 200,000 to 300,000 acres of occupied prairie dog towns remain in Texas, officials said.

In Crawford’s view, allowing prairie dogs as pets takes pressure off policy makers reluctant to stop development.

“People are told, ‘Either collect animals for pet trade or let them be bulldozed and poisoned,”‘ he said.

Even before the monkeypox outbreak, animal rights activists raised concerns about the treatment of prairie dogs.

“Some 20,000 animals were pulled from the ground in Texas last year and shoved in the pet trade,” Crawford complained. “That’s a dent in the population.”

Not necessarily.

“It sounds like a lot,” said John Herron, chief of wildlife diversity for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which issues permits to businesses that capture prairie dogs. “But when you consider that there’s potentially a million or more prairie dogs in Texas, it’s not really very many.”

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