Poachers and black-market dealers are not the only source of animal exploitation. There is a dark side to pet shopping that has gone under the radar for a long time. Buying animals continues to be extremely popular, and the pandemic caused a surge in the demand for rare species as household pets. We constantly hear stories of African gray parrots, lions, tigers, elephants and other rare, endangered species sold on the black market. However, many do not realize that other, lesser-known endangered animals are sold by American businesses without any repercussions.
We first noticed this problem with the Banggai cardinalfish (Pterapogon kauderni), a species that typically resides in isolated pockets throughout Indonesia’s Banggai archipelago. To our surprise, Banggai cardinalfish are currently sold at one of the largest retail pet shop stores in the United States: Petco. According to a report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in 2001, between 700,000 and 1.4 million Banggai cardinalfish arrived in the U.S. By 2016, the cardinalfish’s population dropped 93 percent due to the high demand in the market for these majestic creatures. These fish are currently listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the global leader in the statuses of species. The US government claims the fish are threatened. They can be shipped to homes as household pets for under $30. Within hours, we uncovered other websites selling countless endangered species like frogs, lizards, fish and iguanas.
This discovery was puzzling and forced us to look into the legality of these sales. With our limited law expertise and easy access to the internet, we found that under the Endangered Species Act a person may request a captive-bred wildlife registration from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to buy and sell within the U.S. Individuals can sell non-native endangered or threatened animals that were born in captivity in the U.S. for enhancement of species propagation, provided the other person in the transaction is registered for the same species. Interestingly, when we attempted to buy the fish to determine Petco’s sale legitimacy, we were not required to obtain a permit to purchase the threatened species. It is possible that Petco has a special permit to sell the Banggai cardinalfish but based on our research it appears this sale would be in violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Additionally, we determined that there are discrepancies between what the U.S. government and the IUCN recognize as endangered species. The U.S. government relies on the standards set by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Services to label species’s conservation status rather than the IUCN, which is used by most other nations. Species can be considered endangered by the rest of the world, but that does not matter as long as the U.S. government does not recognize them as such. An endangered organism affected by this discrepancy is the spotted turtle (Clemmys guttata), a declining Maine resident. They are not listed as threatened or endangered by the U.S. government, but the IUCN recognizes them as such and advises their protection due to loss of habitat and decreasing population size. Because the U.S. government has different standards of conservation status than the IUCN, businesses are allowed to sell spotted turtles and other endangered organisms in the U.S. without consequence.
Companies like Petco are directly responsible for the Banggai cardinalfish and other endangered organisms’ progress toward extinction, sourcing a host of ethical issues. Most consumers who buy fish solely on the appearance of the organism do not realize they could be buying a threatened species. However, this burden should not be placed on the general public. It is safe to assume that the average consumer does not intend to breed these animals for repopulation but considers them as household pets for enjoyment and beauty. These companies, which promote themselves as animal-friendly, should promote conservation and protection rather than contributing to the profiteering in the animal trade industry through the sale of endangered species. At the very least, they should provide consumers with additional information regarding the animal they are buying, such as their endangered status.
While a change might raise some awareness, the other obstacle in the way of salvation is public opinion. Typically, stories of tigers, lions, rhinos or other large animals being sold leads to significant media coverage. In our society, larger animals tend to hold greater social significance compared to small creatures like the Banggai cardinalfish or the spotted turtle. As a result, media outlets do not publicize the exploitation of smaller organisms because they are not as captivating or valued in our current society. Informing the general public and garnering media attention is vital in preventing the further decline of these defenseless little creatures. Hopefully, the next time you want to buy a pet, you are mindful of what you are buying and who you are buying from.
Spencer Mann is a member of the Class of 2025 and Charlie Ward is a member of the Class of 2022.