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Spring 2014
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Buyer Beware
Consumer education might be a faster and more reliable way to stem the flow of potentially dangerous pets. With colleagues, Katherine Smith is developing a program called “PetWatch.” Modeled after the successful Monterey Bay Aquarium guide for selecting safe, sustainable seafood in restaurants and supermarkets, PetWatch advises consumers which pets are safe to buy.

“We looked at the top 100 imported animals in the U.S. that are sold as pets. We pulled teams of expert scientists together to compile as much information as they could, such as: What is that species’ status in the wild? Does it carry any harmful disease? Is it invasive anywhere and has it caused anything to go extinct? We have a very complicated methodology to make sure that we have all the best available scientific evidence … [B]ased on that information, we determine if a particular species would be a best, fair or worst choice pet,” Smith says.

She uses the popular North American bullfrog to illustrate the system. The benign-sounding bullfrog seems like a good choice for the home terrarium. Not quite. The bullfrog is native to only specific regions of North America but has been shipped around the world and raised for frog legs. When it is re-imported to parts of the U.S. where it doesn’t already occur, it terrorizes the indigenous wildlife and spreads the dreaded chytrid fungus that is decimating amphibians. That’s what is happening in the American West, where bullfrogs are gobbling up smaller frogs and toads. It earned a “worst choice” ranking.

“It’s not based just on disease; it’s everything,” Smith says. “We have birds, other amphibians—a good mix of pets.”

So what is a good frog to keep? The exotic-sounding fire-bellied toad (right) is actually a “best choice” pet. The toad is not invasive, doesn’t spread chytrid, and is stable in the wild. Its beautiful spotted skin is a bonus.

PetWatch will launch late this summer via www.petwatch.net, which will post the rankings, pet reports, project methodology, and downloadable applications for mobile phones. So when moms are in the pet store, they can pull up the ranking lists and compare pets.

“It’s the consumer who is going to help change the industry. If they stop buying harmful species, [suppliers] are just not going to bring them into pet stores. I think this is where change is at,” Smith says.
 
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