Author Alan Green’s new book finds that the U.S. exotic animal trade smells rather gamy.
In November 1995, journalist Alan Green climbed into his beat-up 1986 Honda Civic with a full tank of gas and a bottle to piss in, and set out to trail a pickup truck hauling an animal trailer from a petting zoo in Reston. He had a hypothesis to prove: that the trailer would carry a pair of brown bears from the petting zoo to a breeding compound in Neshkoro, Wis. Green thought bears from that compound might have found their way to exotic meat dealers in Chicago or to game farms that harvest their pancreases for medicinal value for Koreans. After 500 miles, Green lost track of the trailer, near Columbus, Ohio. But by that time, he had already begun to uncover the machinations of the animal-laundering trade.
While working on what was supposed to be a story for the Washington City Paper about the Reston petting zoo’s animal transactions, Green had dug up an old animal health certificate at a Fairfax court proving that the National Zoo had sent animals to the Reston animal park in the late ’70s. “I thought, ‘Well, this is bizarre, why would the National Zoo, of all places, send animals to this roadside zoo?’” Green recalls. “I didn’t think that legitimate zoos did that.”
Green had an idea: If the National Zoo was sending animals to a petting zoo in Reston, and those animals might be ending up on somebody’s dinner plate, then who knew where the story ended?
Green looks like your classic investigative reporter: Headed toward middle age, he’s short and slightly unkempt in a rumpled shirt. He’s got thinning curly brown hair and a beat-up briefcase. He is the kind of guy who would look awkward with a tie on. Sort of a cross between Woody Allen and Richard Dreyfuss.
Green had nearly two decades of experience as a reporter when he started investigating the “bear drop.” He has appeared on many mastheads, including, currently the Washington City Paper’s. He has freelanced extensively for the likes of the New Republic and the Washington Post, and he is also a published author: He wrote a book about professional wrestling that he won’t discuss much; he finished his latest project, Animal Underworld: Inside America’s Black Market for Rare and Exotic Species, out this month, with support from the Center for Public Integrity.
Animal Underworld was a daunting effort, to say the least. To crack the story, Green knew early on that he would need to go out and prove that animals were disappearing; the only way to do so would be to track the animals’ health certificates nationwide. “You literally have to go to every state and hope you get lucky piecing together every record along the chain,” Green says. He would have to interview veterinarians and game wardens, and visit animal auctions and roadside zoos. He would need to construct a massive database. The reporting would have to be airtight.
So, with a bad back, Green set out on the road. The car would have to do, even though it leaked oil and had no air conditioning, because he didn’t have the budget to fly. He put 15,000 miles on the car, traveling across 27 states, perusing more than 3 million health certificates, and collecting thousands (which to this day lie stacked in cardboard boxes in his D.C. office), before its engine finally gave out completely. Green then turned to Amtrak, criss-crossing the nation to cover the remaining states.
Research proved brutal. He hit the state agriculture departments at a blistering pace, sending out Freedom of Information Act requests in many cases to get the proof he needed. For the first two years, Green and his literary agent had not secured a publisher for the book he knew he would have to write—which meant that nobody was funding the research. So he pushed the Honda to the limit, sleeping in a friend’s basement when he limped back into D.C., and crashing in the nearest Motel 6 when he was on the road. His fingers became stained “incandescent” yellow from eating peanut butter and cheese crackers from motel vending machines; the crackers and the free doughnuts in the motel lobbies created his “carbohydrate-nightmare diet.”
He also had his share of reporter’s nightmares. In 1996, in Topeka, Kan., Green got hit by a freak spring snowstorm that sidelined the Honda for days. He holed up at the Motel 6 and came down with strep throat. Green pushed through to Lincoln, Neb., anyway, only to find that the exotic animal health certificates he sought were muddled in with the certificates for every cow in Nebraska; he would have to go through all 50 boxes of documents for a crucial 18 certificates, which, in the end, state officials would not let him copy.
Heading into Iowa, the Honda began to leak oil in gobs. Getting out in the cold to check the engine, his sneakers soaked and his throat burning, Green accidentally snapped the hood latch, sealing off access to the bleeding engine. It was Sunday; the garages were all closed. As he pushed on toward Des Moines, a state trooper pulled him over for illegally impairing his view of the rear-view mirror with a hanging trinket. “I’m going out of my mind,” Green recalls thinking. “I’m going to kill myself.”
Green staggered home, getting to know “every foreign-car repair shop between Lincoln, Nebraska, and D.C.” But the scope of the project had become staggering, and Green was sick and tired. “Everything was going wrong for me,” Green says he thought at the time. “This project is going to kill me.”
Green’s interest in animals didn’t grow out of his research—quite the contrary. He had volunteered at the National Zoo for a year and a half before starting his trip. He loved the animals so much he considered changing jobs after nearly two decades as a reporter. “I was going to give up this 15-year journalism career to become a zookeeper. I thought it was a pretty good place,” he says. But a tip from zoo staff sent Green to Reston to investigate the animal park, and it was that investigation that originally implicated the National Zoo, and, ultimately, sparked Green’s reporting of the animal trade.
Green figures that only 10 percent to 15 percent of animal transactions in the U.S. are even legal, much less ethical. Animal Underworld describes a convoluted web of transactions among zoos, universities, animal dealers, animal auctions, private individuals, and even exotic meat companies across the country that lead thousands of rare animals to tragic fates.
“What I learned was that this whole thing is about laundering animals,” Green explains. “How do you make them disappear? Because when you make them disappear on paper, no one can say they went to a bad place.”
One mountain lion he writes about ended up in private hands and was confined—for months—in an oil drum. Primates find themselves in squalid, cramped pens in roadside pet stores. Coyotes are rounded up by the thousands and sent to “fox camps,” where hunters train their dogs to kill. Bears are sent to a Chinese bear farm, where bile is harvested from them through shunts implanted in their gall bladders.
Even more surprising is that the supposed good guys—the zoos—are in on it. When the National Zoo needed to dispose of unwanted monkeys, Green reports, a keeper drove them to an unaccredited zoo near Thurmont, Md., whose repeated failure to pass animal-welfare inspections resulted in a temporary suspension of its exhibitor’s license. The zoo retired its herd of East Asian sika deer at a Virginia roadside zoo known, writes Green, for frequent escapes, endless complaints of animal mistreatment, and carcasses disposed of in public trash cans. The zoo even sent a brown bear to Studio Animal Rentals in Florida for use in movies, commercials, and wrestling-bear acts. The U.S. Department of Agriculture later stripped Studio Animal Rentals’ owner of his animal exhibitor’s license because he mistreated bears.
Robert Hoage, the National Zoo’s public affairs director, calls the cases of the monkeys, the sika deer, and the brown bear “old news”; it all occurred before 1984. The National Zoo, he adds, strictly adheres to guidelines established by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA), rules intended to ensure that animal trades are legal and ethical. He does admit that the zoo can’t track every single animal transfer to ensure that Bambi doesn’t end up getting shot in his cage in Missouri after a dizzying series of animal transfers. “Given your big bureaucracy, 99 percent of the time we are doing the right thing,” Hoage says. “Basically, we follow the protocols of the AZA.”
But the zoos aren’t bound by the AZA guidelines, and, Green says, they regularly trade with private dealers who act as gatekeepers to the dark side. “When they had animals to dispose of, a recipient’s lack of credentials or affiliations was meaningless,” he writes. “The goal was to clear out inventory.”
From there, the transactions turn mysterious, thanks to certain legal loopholes. The Endangered Species Act, for example, requires only that traders of rare and exotic animals receive permits from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The law says that dealers may trade only with other permitted traders when trading across state lines. But the law says nothing about trading within a given state. Animals can go to anybody, for anything. And, “donations” of animals across state lines can likewise go to anybody for any reason; only sales require both parties to obtain permits. The dealers are required to submit annual reports to the government. As Green puts it, “You know, at Christmas time I can donate to you $1,500 in an envelope. All you see on these [annual reports] is a donation….Total sham. The whole Endangered Species Act? A total sham.”
Meanwhile, states have health-test requirements and corresponding health certificates for animals that cross state lines. But 85 percent to 90 percent of animals crossing state lines don’t have such paperwork—hence no paper trail. And, although the Animal Welfare Act sets a protocol for handling some animals, such as mandating minimum cage size for laboratory creatures, it applies only to outfits and individuals licensed by the Agriculture Department.
So, while the zoos may be violating the public’s trust, they apparently aren’t breaking the law. “It is not illegal, and I would never say that,” Green insists. And the exotic-creatures trade goes on pretty much everywhere. “Everybody always says, the ‘rare white tiger,’” he scoffs. “They’re not rare. I’ll find you one tomorrow. Give me 500 bucks, I’ll go buy you a white tiger….Tiger cubs sold at auction in Missouri last April fetched $250. Go find a golden retriever that runs for $250 bucks.”