Wednesday, June 11, 2003

EL PASO, Texas — The outbreak of monkeypox in the Midwest is focusing attention on a thriving cottage industry in Texas, where a handful of prairie-dog businesses catch thousands of the rodents and ship them to pet stores around the nation.

Prairie dogs, once rising stars in the exotic-pet industry, have become the top suspects in the Western Hemisphere’s first incidence of monkeypox, a milder relative of smallpox.

Demand for prairie dogs has been driven by people like Susan Bechtholt, who lives on a ranch in western Washington state. Before the monkeypox outbreak, she paid $200 each for two black-tailed prairie dogs from Texas.

Miss Bechtholt said the animals are cuddly, loving and smart.

“Each one has their own distinctive personality, and each one has their own little mannerisms,” she said.

A handful of businesses in Texas collect more than 20,000 prairie dogs each year on private land and sell them to people as far away as Japan, and vendors say they’re not at fault for the monkeypox outbreak.

“We supply a lot of prairie dogs … and our animals are healthy,” said Jasen Shaw, owner of U.S. Global Exotics in Arlington, Texas, which also sells hedgehogs, chinchillas and reptiles. “We haven’t got any animals dying here.”

In Atlanta, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention yesterday recommended the smallpox vaccine for people who may have been exposed to monkeypox. It also banned the sale and transportation of prairie dogs and prohibited the importation of Gambian rats, which were believed to have infected a shipment of prairie dogs with monkeypox.

Health officials had confirmed nine human cases of the disease by yesterday — four in Wisconsin, four in Indiana and one in Illinois — and at least 50 suspect cases, primarily in the upper Midwest.

Monkeypox, which produces fever, rash, chills and aches, has a mortality rate of 1 percent to 10 percent in Africa. No humans have died in the United States, and U.S. officials believe better nutrition and medical treatment here probably will prevent deaths.

Investigators say 200 prairie dogs shipped from Mr. Shaw’s company probably contracted monkeypox from a giant Gambian rat at a Chicago-area pet distributor. They are trying to trace anyone who bought a prairie dog at the store since mid-April.

They are also tracking a shipment of about 50 Gambian rats that a Texas importer received from Africa. Officials declined to identify the importer, who shipped some of the rats to the Chicago-area distributor.

Doug McBride, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Health, said no signs of monkeypox have been found in humans or animals so far in Texas.

In Texas, prairie dogs are varmints, unprotected by state laws and killed by the thousands by ranchers, farmers, and state and federal animal-control agencies. About four years ago, the state started requiring permits for commercial collectors.

Prairie dogs are found throughout the Great Plains. Their numbers have been reduced more than 95 percent as farming and housing have taken over their range, but there are still 200,000 to 300,000 acres of occupied prairie-dog towns in Texas, officials said.

The Department of Agriculture yesterday expanded to 15 states an investigation into the spread of monkeypox.

The expanded federal health inquiry covers Wisconsin, Indiana, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Texas, Ohio, South Carolina, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee, Mississippi, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey and New York.

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