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Monkeypox brings pet sale ban

Locally, prairie dogs remain in demand, despite the disease and the CDC's prohibition on sales.

Published June 12, 2003

[Times photo: Skip O'Rourke]
Government warnings don't deter Danielle Morris, 20, from cuddling with a prairie dog at It's Alive Pets in Brandon.

BRANDON - Prairie dogs aren't for everybody, says Robert Sands, who catches the furry critters with his bare hands on the plains of Texas.

But folks who want them will pay anywhere from $50 to $150, which is why Sands lures the inquisitive animals out of their burrows and captures them.

"They're like the Cadillac of the small rodent," says Sands, who lives in Riverview. "They're social and loving and they beg for attention."

Sands' livelihood - transporting and selling baby prairie dogs to wholesale pet dealers around Florida - may be seriously hampered now that the prairie dog has been linked to monkeypox.

On Wednesday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta banned the sale or transport of prairie dogs and six other exotic animals, including the Gambian giant pouched rat, which has been blamed for infecting a shipment of pet prairie dogs in the Midwest.

Federal officials also recommended that anyone who has been exposed to monkeypox should receive the smallpox vaccine, which can prevent the disease up to two weeks after exposure.

"This situation highlights the risk of importing exotic animals," said Dr. Julia Gill, epidemiology program manager for the Pinellas County Health Department.

State agriculture officials said they will contact pet stores that sell the animals this week to inform them of the ban.

Officials hope the ban on prairie dogs and the six African rodents - the tree squirrel, rope squirrel, dormouse, Gambian giant pouched rat, brush-tailed porcupine and striped mouse - will keep monkeypox from infecting wild animals, household pets or humans in this country.

Already, health officials are discovering just how quickly a little-known disease can spread.

Prairie dogs infected by monkeypox and distributed from Phil's Pocket Pets of Villa Park, Ill., may have been sold to "numerous buyers" in 15 states since April 15, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture emergency management warning issued Wednesday.

Federal officials are investigating the possibility that infected prairie dogs found their way to Florida.

The other states where possibly infected prairie dogs were being sought were Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio and South Carolina.

As of Wednesday, health officials had confirmed nine human cases of the disease - four in Wisconsin, four in Indiana and one in Illinois. Fifty possible cases had been reported - 23 in Indiana, 20 in Wisconsin, six in Illinois and one in New Jersey, CDC spokesman Tom Skinner said.

No one in the United States has died of the disease.

Florida health officials said a Sarasota family that owns a prairie dog has reported fevers and rashes. Blood tests have been taken from the family and results of whether they have monkeypox could be available today.

State officials have not established any link to the outbreak of the rare monkeypox disease in the Midwest and the Sarasota family. The Sarasota pet prairie dog is not sick.

"There is no confirmation of any monkeypox in Florida," said Dr. Bonnie Sorenson of the Florida Department of Health.

The U.S. cases are the disease's first outbreak in the Western Hemisphere.

Monkeypox, which produces fever, rash, chills and aches, is a milder relative of smallpox. It has a mortality rate of 1 percent to 10 percent in Africa, but U.S. officials think better nutrition and medical treatment here probably will prevent deaths.

Dr. Keith Rosenbach, an infectious disease specialist at Tampa General Hospital and the University of South Florida, says the general public is not at risk of contracting monkeypox. Still, he said, everyone should wash their hands after they touch their pets, and shouldn't kiss their pets - even dogs and cats - on the snout or mouth.

"Its something you always tell people," but they do it anyway, he said.

Even on Wednesday, after the national media attention of monkeypox, visitors at a pet store in Brandon nuzzled a brown, chubby prairie dog.

It's natural, said Mark Hicks, owner of It's Alive pet store in Brandon.

Prairie dogs have become one of the more popular exotic pets, he said, so much so that he sells about 20 per week, and Wednesday he sold five, despite the controversy.

As the most social members of the squirrel family, prairie dogs are best known for living in giant colonies in Texas and other states. In 1900, as many as 5-billion prairie dogs lived on the grassy lands of the West.

Their roly-poly bodies and affectionate nature make them good companions for humans, said Hicks. Plus, they are exotic.

"When mom and dad were kids, they had a hamster or gerbil," Hicks said. "They want to get their kids something different."

Hicks, who has 11 baby prairie dogs in his store, buys them from Robert Sands, the prairie dog catcher from Riverview. They sleep, play and burrow in a cage filled with sawdust.

Hicks specializes in exotic animals. His shop is filled with hedgehogs, baby skunks and various snakes, among other things normally seen in the wild.

"DO NOT TOUCH THE KINKAJOU," reads a sign in the middle of the store. The kinkajou - a furry, sleeping ball on Wednesday - is a member of the raccoon family usually found in Central and South American rain forests, not strip malls in Brandon.

Hicks is selling the kinkajou for $2,999. He can sell such animals because he has a special U.S. Department of Agriculture license.

But that license won't matter when it comes to the prairie dogs. Federal officials don't want any of the critters to be sold, something Hicks thinks is unfair.

"They're giving the prairie dog a bad rap," Hicks said. "I'm still selling them. Until they give me something in writing, they'll be here for $49.99. It's not the prairie dogs' fault."'

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

[Last modified June 12, 2003, 01:48:14]

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