Wildlife or Commodity?
by Lilia Komleva, Staff Contributor
Exotic animals are highly sought after, and the demand has led to a widespread, and profitable, breeding industry. With this boom, however, ethical and conservation issues concerning treatment of these animals arise, and the legal implications are complex.
People have always been fascinated with wild animals. As often happens when people like something, there will always be others who step in and try to exploit passions to make a profit. The best way to make money out of people’s love for wild animals is to make them more accessible. What follows is a commoditization of wild animals, which explains why there are such a great number of them held in captivity in the United States. Although some people see zoos as “sanctuaries of entertainment and education” and fail to recognize them as “unnecessary prisons,” most zoos or breeding facilities do not try to promote species conservation efforts.
“… most zoos or breeding facilities do not try to promote species conservation efforts.”
According to National Geographic, of the 145 reintroduction programs carried out by zoos in the last century, only 16 truly succeeded in restoring populations to the wild. In the United States alone, the Department of Agriculture licenses 2400 “animal exhibitors” of which 212 are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), an organization that requires high standards of animal care, science, and conservation. Unfortunately, some of the zoos and breeding facilities in the United States are more concerned with profits than with conservation of wildlife. Most of the zoos that are members of the Zoological Association of America (ZAA) are private breeders that “pimp out lion and tiger cubs every few months for public contact.” The ZAA “promotes breeding of exotic animals by private owners of animals that cannot be traced back to the wild and thus could never serve any conservation value.
Once a facility in the United States decides to establish its own exotic-animal-breeding program for a non-native animal, it must apply to the Fish and Wildlife Service for an importation permit, required to import the animals from a breeding facility in another country into the United States. For instance, some ZAA-accredited facilities have applied to import cheetahs from breeders in South Africa, and have started their own cheetah breeding programs. It is worth mentioning that Cheetahs are an endangered species, and thus it is crucial that all efforts are made to promote their conservation efforts in the wild, and prevent them from being exploited in these breeding facilities.
The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969 is among the earliest efforts by the United States to implement effective environmental regulations. The Act requires that all federal agencies prepare an Environmental Impact Statement before taking actions that may significantly affect the quality of the environment. The most controversial issue regarding importation permits is whether the Fish and Wildlife Service must consider extraterritorial environmental impacts when making its assessment of the potential environmental effects that issuing the permits to import cheetahs will have.
“The most controversial issue regarding importation permits is whether the Fish and Wildlife Service must consider extraterritorial environmental impacts when making its assessment of the potential environment effects that issuing the permits to import cheetahs will have.”
There is no provision in NEPA expressly addressing the application of the Act outside the United States. However, courts seem to have adopted a foreign policy exemption by which NEPA does not apply extraterritorially if the application would be too intrusive and would implicate foreign policy concerns. Nonetheless, if there is no potential for clashes between “the US laws and those of other nations, which could result in international discord,” there is no reason why NEPA should not apply.
“If there is no potential for clashes between the US laws and those of other nations […] there is no reason why NEPA should not apply.”
In the case of importation permits, there is no intrusion in foreign affairs. Not allowing a ZAA-accredited facility to import cheetahs, an endangered species, from South Africa does not present a threat of conflict with foreign laws. There already are AZA-accredited facilities in the United States that have cheetah breeding programs, thus issuing additional permits to new facilities other than those with breeding programs already in place is unlikely to further strengthen conservation efforts. Even though cheetahs for export are captive-bred, there is a higher chance they will be re-introduced into the wild to preserve the species if they stay in a breeding facility in South Africa. Exporting them to the United States will not enhance the propagation or survival of these species in the wild. Moreover, the stress of transportation and handling, and the possibility of injuries or death occurring during transport provide further argument against exportation of cheetahs. The Fish and Wildlife Service must review these permit applications with close and exacting scrutiny to ensure the protection of these wild animals and the environment.