Murdoch researcher joins international effort to stop animal cruelty

December 22, 2011

A report on animal welfare in Europe by a Murdoch University researcher and renowned expert on reptiles and amphibians has been endorsed by Eurogroup for Animals, the largest and most influential animal welfare group in the European Union.

Murdoch’s Dr Phillip Arena and Clifford Warwick and Catrina Steedman from the Emergent Disease Foundation (UK) presented the report to Eurogroup for Animals following undercover visits to the largest wildlife pet markets in Germany, Spain and the UK.

The investigation, commissioned primarily by the Animal Protection Agency (UK) focused on the welfare of exotic species, mainly reptiles and amphibians, public health and invasive alien species. It will be used to influence policy on the exotic animal trade across Europe.

Dr Arena said the undercover visits confirmed what he’d long suspected; that many people buy exotic pets such as snakes, lizards and frogs with little knowledge of how to care for them, and that those selling them are concerned with the profit and not the welfare of the animals.

"We saw stressed, diseased and dead animals at these markets," he said.

"People love the novelty of buying exotic animals but they know little about keeping them. They don’t provide the correct food or living conditions so their pets slowly die.

"Also, few people, including professional pet keepers, are aware of the dangers to their health; reptiles commonly carry salmonella and yet we saw people holding snakes, then eating food or feeding their children without adequately washing their hands."

Dr Arena said the report highlighted the need to eradicate the markets and the importance of collecting data on pet ownership across Europe. He said while he understands the fascination with exotic species, the impact of the pet trade is widespread and costly in terms of both biodiversity loss and economic losses.

"Reptiles are often purchased when they are juvenile and colourful. However, once they reach a a certain age and lose their appeal, they are often released into into local habitats. We now have North American snapping turtles turning up in lakes in Switzerland and Italy and introduced non-native species of frogs wiping out local populations through competition and disease," he said.

"The cost of eradicating these species and repairing the damage across Europe runs into billions of dollars annually. Just look at our infamous cane toad whose impacts are only recently being understood."

Dr Arena believes that Australia’s unique biodiversity is threatened by human activities such as habitat destruction and the pet trade.

"Many exotic frog species in the pet trade also act as carriers of disease such as chytridiomycosis. In terms of loss of biodiversity, this fungus is considered the worst in history and has resulted in the extinction of more than 100 species of amphibians across the globe. It has now been detected in Australia through amphibians sold in pet shops such as axolotls."

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