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Last Updated

18 Jun 2003

Source: Los Angeles Times, June 17, 2003


Tale of a Dangerous Rat

OK, enough already with all the animal viruses. They live over there. And we live over here. And unless all cuddly creatures housing weird viruses decide to don little face masks, there's a good reason for separation.

Everyone likes fuzzy little things. Thanks to animal cartoons and superheroes, Americans grow up anthropomorphizing, reading the most darling of preposterous thoughts into the simple instincts of ordinary animals, who can be grand companions. So it's but one small step for mankind that live, moving critters from the wild are even more exciting than stuffed teddy bears. And in our interaction with them lies a genuine health problem, apparently growing and unmonitored.

Dogs, cats and the like are usually coddled, vaccinated, even bathed in perfume-y stuff that no normal four-legged critter would be caught dead wearing outdoors. That's their price for a roof, free eats and sleeping anywhere. In return, humans may qualify for affection.

The problem comes with so-called exotic pets. They walk the wild, unknowingly housing harmful viruses that cleverly don't kill their host. The viruses jump to humans. Now we've seen the first non-Africa monkeypox in humans. A smallpox cousin, this ugly disease was spread by a platoon of pet shop prairie dogs, cute guys unless mining lawns. The prairie dogs, since sold, resold and traded, caught the virus in an Illinois pet shop from a nearby Gambian rat. Now, you might ask, exactly who needs a giant Gambian pet rat, especially an immigrant from the heart of monkeypox land? No one thought to ask.

Remember ebola? Scary stuff. The fatal hantavirus that hangs in the dust of mice feces? SARS probably came from a civet in China. Lyme disease from ticks. Mosquitoes bite humans and deliver West Nile virus, unknown here just four years ago. Even HIV hopped to humans from monkeys, which are eaten in Africa. And mad cow disease can pass through the food chain's unregulated links. Officials moved swiftly to find humans exposed to monkeypox. But imagine if one sick prairie dog escapes. Not noted for marital fidelity, these social creatures could spread monkeypox nationally because of an exotic rat in an unmonitored business.

Capital's global liquidity is one measure of the world's accelerating connectedness. So are air travel, immigration and now, animal trading. Foreign travel always carries risks; the plague spread to Europe on stowaway rats. Dutch elm disease and fire ants arrived in lumber shipments. The 9/11 terrorists came as immigrants and students.

But with the breadth and pace of trade growing faster than our ability to detect or, indeed, anticipate threats, we must step up vigilance of exotic wildlife arriving on our shores. If you must have a rat, you must prove it healthy lest the nation's most powerful pets become less the cuddly, benign critters and more the lethal, invisible viruses.