Pet buyers are fueling the illegal importation of tenrecs from Madagascar. This flow of contraband critters recently sparked a nationwide Department of Agriculture investigation. As a precaution, dozens of tenrecs were confiscated from animal dealers and euthanatized to test them for foreign animal diseases. Private owners, many who were unaware they'd illegally purchased the animals, were allowed to keep their pets under temporary home quarantine.
Meanwhile, some of those pet owners may be in for some unpleasant surprises. Most pet owners are interested in the greater and lesser Malagasy hedgehog tenrecs, which look and behave much like hedgehogs, though they are unrelated.
But there are at least 30 distinct species of tenrecs ranging in size from 2 grams to 2.5 kilograms. According to tenrec expert Link Olson, PhD, a researcher at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, the illegal shipments included at least two species of tenrecs that are particularly unsuitable as pets.
One of them was the common or tailless tenrec, the largest of the tenrecs at 2.5 kilograms. It can inflict serious damage with its powerful bite.
The other was a streaked tenrec, a medium-sized tenrec with bold black and white coloration. Although these animals are cute, Olson said they have barbed quills that are detachable like a porcupine quill. As a defense, these animals can drive their quills into a person or animal.
Olson condemns the practice of keeping tenrecs and other wild animals as pets—saying it is bad for the animal and potentially dangerous for the owner—joining the AVMA, the USDA, and humane societies in asserting that wild animals do not make good pets.
In addition to the health and safety risks these animals may pose to humans and other animals, tenrecs, like many wild animals, don't fare well in captivity. Studies have documented the high rates of malnutrition, abandonment, and morbidity among wild animals kept as pets.
Also, the illegal pet trade hampers conservation efforts led by legitimate scientists, who face greater scrutiny and increased government precautions aimed at preventing illegal importation, according to Olson.
"Bottom line, if someone is legitimately interested in tenrecs and not simply infected with the inexplicable need to possess exotic wildlife, they should go to a zoo, a natural history museum, the Internet, or a library." Olson said. "Supporting the market demand for tenrecs is ultimately bad for tenrecs."