Monkeypox Outbreak Reveals Gaps in State Laws

Lions and tigers and prairie dogs, oh my.

State public health and wildlife officials were surprised by the ecent outbreak of monkeypox in the Midwest. They say it shed light on the mishmash of state laws that regulate exotic pets and is causing some states to rethink or consider new policies.

"There aren't very many states that have any comprehensive laws at all restricting ownership of what (pets) you're going to have in your own home," said Carolyn Orr, an agriculture and rural policy analyst at The Council of State Governments.

The disease, which is similar to the smallpox virus and occurs mostly in Africa, first appeared in the United States in early June 2003, according to the CDC.

There are currently 80 suspected cases in six states; Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio and Wisconsin. No one has died from monkeypox in the United States, although its fatality rate is between 1 and 10 percent in Africa.

Humans in this country contracted monkeypox after having contact with pet prairie dogs that were sick with the disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site. The rodent-like animals are thought to have contracted the disease from Gambian rats, which they were kept with at an exotic pet distributor in Illinois.

Exotic pet laws exist or have been on the radar in many states for years, but policy analysts said they're traditionally difficult to pass.

"It's very difficult for state legislatures to put in place almost anything that has to do with pet ownership ... people in America don't like their personal property messed with," Orr told Stateline.org.

In many states, jurisdiction over exotic pets is unclear or crosses over several state agencies, including departments of agriculture, fish and wildlife, natural resources and public health.

Prior to the rash of monkeypox cases, eight bills addressing exotic or wild animals as pets were introduced in seven states in 2003; none have been signed into law, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In Minnesota, for example, state Sen. Don Betzold (D) introduced a bill in 2002 and 2003 to ban exotic animals. But Betzold said the state budget crisis prevented the measure from being considered. He plans to reintroduce the legislation in 2004 and said the monkeypox virus now "helps make the argument for the bill."

Many states have laws that regulate or prohibit ownership of large wild animals such as lions, tigers or wolves. But 16 states, including Minnesota, have no laws that regulate the sale, trade or ownership of exotic pets, a group of animals that varies in definition from state to state, but can range from prairie dogs, sugar gliders (a marsupial native to Australia) and chinchillas to crocodiles, gorillas and bears.

"(This outbreak) is definitely a reason why one should enact state laws on all exotic pets because what monkeypox is telling us is that we just don't know what's out there," said Nicole Paquette, director of legal and government affairs at the Animal Protection Institute, a national animal-rights advocacy group based in Sacramento, Calif.

"I don't think anyone thought that a rat would transfer it into a prairie dog and a prairie dog would transfer it into a human. If that has happened, what else is out there?" Paquette told Stateline.org.

Federal agencies, including the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, have issued a temporary embargo June 11 on the importation of African rodents the transport and sale of prairie dogs to help curb the disease and prevent it from spreading to native species in the wild. The CDC also issued guidelines for use of the smallpox vaccine to prevent the disease, which has no specific treatment.

States directly impacted by monkeypox, such as Wisconsin and Indiana, issued emergency policies of their own.

Wisconsin wild life officials issued a 150-day ban that outlaws the importation and sale of all prairie dogs and goes a step further than the federal action by extending the ban to any mammals that came into contact with prairie dogs since April 1. Wisconsin has no laws regulating exotic pets but was able to issue the emergency rule under the authority of a law enacted in 2002 to fight Chronic Wasting Disease, a brain disease that is plaguing the state's white-tailed deer population.

Wisconsin state Rep. DuWayne Johnsrud (R) wants state agencies to implement a more comprehensive permanent rule.

"We're being invaded by animals, plants and diseases that are harmful to our wild and domestic herds and to people. The legal tools are in place to slow the attack, but unless we get aggressive, Wisconsin has more full of trouble on the horizon," Johnsrud said in a prepared statement June 11.

But wild life and public health officials said for now they're doing what they can.

"We've been so consumed in the maelstrom of this things in the past few weeks we haven't even had the chance to think about what we'd put in permanent rule," said Donna Gilson, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection. Gilson said she "won't be surprised if there's some additional legislation proposed."

There's a similar sentiment that legislation may be coming in Kentucky, where Gov. Paul Patton (D) issued an executive order giving the health department authority as the lead agency if there's a monkeypox case. There are no confirmed cases of the disease there.

"This is a temporary policy at this point, but certainly we may be looking at laws that already exist and it may be determined that there is a need for laws that would address this," said Gwenda Bond, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Cabinet of Health Services.

Federal lawmakers may also consider stepping up national exotic pet control.

"We were somewhat surprised to learn that the only real control over entry of these exotic animals into the United States comes under U.S. Fish and Wildlife ... and it's pretty easy to bring them in. I'm sure that will be revisited," Wisconsin's Gilson said.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) hopes to spearhead a federal effort to draft more comprehensive legislation, an aide said.

It's very important for the states to be reexamining and implementing their own laws, said Troy Howard, Johnson's press secretary. "(State laws) are the first line of defense, but federally this has to be looked at. The Congresswoman in very concerned with the health issues some of these exotic pets could bring," Howard said.