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  Channel NewsAsia, 1 Oct 05
Laws can't keep up with surge in exotic pets--or irresponsible owners
By The Asahi Shimbun

JAPAN : A 4-meter-long Burmese python drew gasps. Further south, a ball python was shying away from equally startled onlookers. An emperor scorpion scuttled in the west, while a crocodile swimming upstream drew curious looks. These exotic creatures were not found in rain forests, deserts or swamps. They were captured near the concrete jungles of Japanese urban centers.

Government officials suspect these animals were once kept as pets, but they had either escaped from their owners or were abandoned as they grew too large to handle.

Officials fear the growing popularity of "alien" pets will lead to more foreign creatures proliferating in the Japanese wilderness, wreaking havoc on ecosystems.

And laws cannot keep pace with the recent trend, officials say.

One estimate is that about 700 alien species live in the Japanese outdoors-and there is no way of knowing the exact number of species being kept inside.

Although some laws have been strengthened to keep out foreign animals, Environment Ministry officials say legal measures are not necessarily the answer.

"This is an issue that involves the morality of pet keepers," said Katsuhiko Shoji, who heads the ministry's animal protection office. "That needs to be addressed even before we discuss legal issues."

However, pet shops dealing in exotic creatures are mushrooming across the country. Some officials note it is easy for people to obtain rare species through the Internet. "We can even get you a pink snake," Takayuki Nikaido, 29, president of reptile shop Burden, said. The shop in Tokyo's Katsushika Ward displays about 600 species in a 70-square-meter floor space. It places orders to breeders overseas and imports alien animals, most of them indigenous to Southeast Asia, Africa or South America. A 50-centimeter-long white tortoise in the shop carried a price tag of 3 million yen. Nikaido said an American dealer keeps reptiles in Indonesia in a jungle-like enclosure that is a big as four Tokyo Domes.

A government survey in fiscal 2003 showed that 2.4 percent of pet owners had reptiles, around the same percentage as those keeping rabbits. The ratio of reptile owners was 0.4 percent in fiscal 1979.

According to Yaseisha Corp., publisher of pet business publications, 794 pet shops dealt with reptiles in 2004, more than twice the number a decade ago.

The problem occurs when the pets are abandoned, officials said. The crocodile, likely cute as a pet, had grown to 1.1 meters in length when it was captured Sept. 21 by a policeman who had to wade in the Sagamigawa river in Ebina, Kanagawa Prefecture. It took five police officers about two hours to catch the Burmese python, which was spotted by a man in suburban Ageo, Saitama Prefecture, on Sept. 9. The ball python was captured this month at East Japan Railway Co.'s Urawa Station in Saitama, while a green iguana was found in another part of the prefecture. The emperor scorpion, a large but not-so poisonous species, was collected at the home of a business operator in Osaka Prefecture.

Officials say if these creatures are not caught in time, they could cause irreparable damage. Imported beetles are a current craze among children and can be bought at shopping centers. But if these beetles are released, they could start breeding with indigenous beetles. Red-eared slider turtles, common in North America, have been found in various parts of Japan eating the eggs of indigenous turtles.

The Invasive Alien Species Law, which took effect in June, targets 37 creatures that could endanger people's lives, the agricultural or fisheries industries, or the ecosystem. The law prohibits, in principle, importing, keeping and trading in these animals, including Rhesus monkeys and Taiwan habu snakes.

The Environment Ministry plans to add 42 species to the list. But pythons and emperor scorpions are not likely to be included.

The law banning cruelty to animals was revised in June to impose higher fines against those who abandon animals-from the maximum 300,000 yen to 500,000 yen. The revised law also requires dangerous creatures to have ID chips inserted in their bodies.

"Today's owners want exciting creatures, but tire of them too easily," said Eiichi Takada, an expert on reptiles. "They seem to be losing respect for the mysteries of the living creatures." - Asahi /ls

Related articles on Singapore: animal release including pets and animal abuse
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