South African bust sheds light on a dirty business
KLOOF, South Africa––Six hundred dead rodents plus dying rats, rabbits and mice, left unfed for days, on December 20, 2016 brought home to the Kloof & Highway SPCA branch of the National SPCA of South Africa what spokesperson Sue Noakes termed “the stark reality of a hidden industry––a commercial operation where small animals are bred as food for reptiles.”
The “feeder” rodent business in effect factory-farms rats, rabbits, and mice. Even in name The Feeder Factory made no bones about it.
“Denied access to the SPCA”
Begun as a routine inspection, the Kloof & Highway SPCA visit to The Feeder Factory became a raid, Noakes wrote, after “owner Rory Goldin denied access to the SPCA, whose personnel were subsequently allowed entry” by another building tenant.
Goldin, 50, appears to have acquired The Feeder Factory in 2012.
“Animals were found suffering from tumors and eye injuries. Cannibalism was taking place. Dead and maggot-infested animals were found in the same boxes as mother animals,” Noakes recounted. “Some cages appeared not to have been cleaned for weeks and the smell of ammonia from urine was overwhelming. Workers contacted the owner to advise of the SPCA presence on the property and were allegedly told to kill all of the animals. A bottle of carbon dioxide gas was sent to the premises by the owner for this purpose.”
Concluded Noakes, “No matter how small a creature may be, it is a sentient being, deserving protection and care. This callous mistreatment of so many animals will not be allowed to rest. The Kloof & Highway SPCA is in the process of laying criminal charges in terms of the Animals Protection Act.”
Added James de Villiers of News 24 television in Cape Town, “The Feeder Factory did not respond to requests for comment. The telephone number listed on their website is that of an unrelated estate agency. The facility has allegedly not paid rent for several months. The owner allegedly told the SPCA it can do with the animals what it wants, as he is emigrating and would not be able to be reached.”
“National wholesale supplier”
The Feeder Factory, apparently now permanently out of business, had advertised itself as “a national wholesale supplier of rodents,” supplying “pet shops, breeders, zoos, reptile parks, rehab centers and individuals who need rodents in large numbers.
“What’s on the menu?” asked The Feeder Factory web site. “Mice – all sizes, frozen or live. Rats – all sizes, frozen or live.”
“We can deliver your order of frozen rodents to you anywhere in the country,” The Feeder Factory boasted. “The Feeder Factory is based in the greater Durban area and as such we only supply live rodents to Kwa-Zulu Natal province. However, we will do our best to help you if you would like live rodents sent outside of the province. Simply contact us to see if we can make arrangements.
Up for adoption
“Our frozen rodents are all euthanized with food grade carbon dioxide gas [most commonly used to carbonate soft drinks] before being placed in the freezer,” The Feeder Factory web page continued. “All our frozen rodents are healthy animals who are killed and packed for freezing. We do not freeze animals that have died from heat stress, disease or old age.”
Said Kloof & Highway SPCA representative Cheri Cooke, “We have kept all the animals that we could, and as soon as they are in a healthy condition we will put them up for adoption.”
But rodents recovering from the verge of starvation are not in strong adoption demand––except to feed reptiles and birds of prey.
“Reptiles belong in the wild”
“These factories exist because people want to keep reptiles as pets,” Cooke charged. “Reptiles belong in the wild.”
Indeed, most of the market demand behind the retail “feeder” rodent business is from herpetological fanciers, many of whom may be suspected of acquiring snakes partly for the dubious thrill of watching them corner and devour live prey.
“Feed only dead prey”
Yet live feeding fell out of vogue decades ago among serious snake caretakers. Wrote Chris Mattison, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts on herpetological diets, in The Care of Reptiles & Amphibians in Captivity (Blandsford Ltd. 1987, page 68):
“A responsible attitude would seem to be to feed only dead prey unless a captive is in real danger of starving to death through want of live food. Every live food animal should be removed from a cage immediately if a snake shows no interest in it, and be provided with adequate accommodation, food, water, bedding and warmth until it is to be used. Of hundreds of rodent-eating snakes kept over the years,” Mattison wrote, “I cannot remember one which could not eventually be persuaded to accept dead prey.
“Apart from the moral issue,” Mattison continued, “the feeding of dead prey has several advantages: live rats etc. have been known to injure or kill snakes with which they have been left; dead prey may be purchased in bulk and stored frozen until required (but must be properly thawed before feeding or enteritis may ensue); and the task of maintaining furry (and often smelly) animals is eliminated, leaving more time to enjoy the reptiles and amphibians.”
Feeding captive snakes “feeder” animals acquired dead and frozen, then thawed before the feeding, has gradually become standard practice. Smaller snakes and lizards may be fed live meal worms.
But while most herpetological fanciers pride themselves on feeding their reptiles a “natural” diet of the animals who would be the animals’ prey in the wild, this is not necessary to maintain the health of the herp. On the contrary, it is possible to provide almost any sort of snake or lizard an adequately balanced diet of commercial pet food, moistened if necessary and warmed to the normal body temperature of the prey.
Wildlife rehabilitators offer a secondary market for “feeder” breeders, yet tend to have more qualms about what they feed to whom.
Recalled Born Free USA Canadian representative Barry Kent MacKay in an April 2014 blog posting, recounting his successful treatment and release of an injured hawk he named Eve, “My late mother, Phyllis E. MacKay, was a pioneer in wild bird rehabilitation. I grew up taking care of wild birds and other wildlife.
Hawks require the organ meats, bones and fur that come with their natural prey, mostly mice and voles,” MacKay believes, though others have successfully rehabilitated and released hawks fed on nothing more exotic than commercially manufactured cat food, “and so the word went out: I needed fresh road-kills and birds who had hit windows or been caught by cats.”
Are all individual animals equal in their self-interests?
Eventually, MacKay continued, “Some friends in the city found a freshly dead pigeon,” whom Eve devoured. Soon thereafter, Eve returned to the wild, leaving MacKay to ruminate on what he had learned from the experience.
“The problem I’ve always had with some aspects of ‘animal rights’ philosophy,” MacKay wrote, “is that it deems all individual animals equal in their self-interests, so what do you do when caring for an animal who eats other animals?”
An acquaintance advised, “If we cannot convert a carnivore to veganism, which can be done, then it is best to humanely euthanize the carnivore in order to save many other animals. Isn’t the life of a sheep worth as much as the life of a lion?”
Responded MacKay, “Ecologically, the answer is no. And of course, no, you can’t convert a red-tailed hawk into a vegan.”
As “Sadly there is no dearth of innocent wildlife killed by human agencies,” MacKay managed to feed Eve mostly with the remains from accidents, especially “freshly frozen dead birds who had struck windows.” But at times MacKay resorted to giving Eve “feeder” mice.
“I felt awful,” MacKay acknowledged, “but those mice were essential to Eve’s well-being.”
Mass neglect of “feeder” rodents not unusual
Even if one philosophically concedes some legitimate need for “feeder” breeders, however, the “feeder” breeding industry tends to be proportionately as dirty and ugly a business as any other form of factory farming.
The Feeder Factory mass neglect case in South Africa has parallels coming to light from time to time in the U.S. and every other nation with a significant commercial pet industry.
Apparently still at large, believed to be in New Zealand, are Jason Brent Shaw and his wife Vanessa Shaw, despite a U.S. federal warrant issued for the arrest of Jason Brent Shaw in July 2012, alleging smuggling, conspiracy, and “aiding and abetting” wildlife trafficking in violation of the Lacey Act, which prohibits transport of illegally obtained animals across state boundaries.
The Lizard King
The Shaws formerly owned U.S. Global Exotics, Inc., of Coppell, Texas (near Arlington, between Dallas and Fort Worth.) The federal warrant pertained to their alleged association with Malaysian wildlife trafficker Anson Wong Keng Liang, 59.
Initially trafficking in reptiles via the now defunct Bukit Jambul Reptile Sanctuary, Wong (usually just called Anson Wong) was dubbed “the most important person in the international reptile business” in a 2008 book-length exposé, The Lizard King, by Bryan Christy.
But while Wong has criminal history pertaining to wildlife trafficking going back to an arrest in Mexico City in 1998, the Shaws only became notorious after Arlington Animal Services, helped by the Humane Society of North Texas and the SPCA of Texas, in December 2009 served a seizure warrant on U.S. Global Exotics alleging inhumane treatment and unsanitary living conditions for 27,000 animals housed in a 5,000-square-foot building.
Many were rare exotic species, but the vast majority were “feeder” mice and rats. Hundreds of the animals were found dead, with hundreds more reportedly sick and dying from a variety of illnesses associated with unsanitary conditions, overcrowding, and lack of food, water, and veterinary care.
The potential importance of the “feeder” rodent business as a vector for zoonotic disease belatedly came to the attention of U.S. and European regulatory agencies in April 2012, when the Centers for Disease Control joined with 22 state health departments to trace outbreaks of salmonellosis afflicted at least 46 people, 16 of whom were children under five years of age.
According to the CDC publication Morbidity & Mortality Weekly Report, “This outbreak strain also was implicated in a 2009 outbreak in the United Kingdom and a 2010 outbreak in the U.S., both linked to frozen ‘feeder’ rodents from a single U.S. supplier.”
But each of the victims in the 2012 outbreak appeared to have been infected by “feeder” rodents from a different pet store. About three times as many had handled frozen rodents as handled live rodents, while about one victim in four had handled both.