With great care, Yesenia Talavera transfers a tiny frog from a plant where it slept into a plastic container with breathing holes, a damp sponge and some space to jump.
With more than 2,600 other creatures, from tarantulas to boa snakes, the tiny red-eyed amphibian is being primed for a long journey from Nicaragua to the United States, where it will become someone’s pet.
Their ancestors from the tropical forests of Central America, frogs, snakes, spiders, lizards and tortoises, are bred for export at Exotic Fauna, a company that calls itself “Zoofarm”, in a suburb of the capital Managua.
Licensed by the government, Exotic Fauna has been breeding 18 species of exotic animals for export to the United States, Canada and Asia for 15 years.
The critters are in high demand “by people who want to adopt something different than the usual dog or cat,” Talavera, who runs the facility with her husband Eduardo Lacayo, told AFP.
– valuable goods –
Talavera and a team are hard at work preparing a Miami company’s latest order for 1,200 red-eyed tree frogs and glass frogs, 290 basilisks and pichete lizards, 800 spiders, including tarantulas, and 350 boa snakes.
They are dumped in bins with breathing holes, the boas in cloth sacks, before being packed in wooden crates labeled “Live Animals” under the eyes of an Environment Ministry inspector.
The creatures are not sedated.
“These animals can survive journeys of 24 hours and up to three days” without eating, Talavera said.
The shipment will be trucked to Managua International Airport where, after clearing customs, it will depart the next day on a commercial flight to Miami.
The Department of Environment encourages the breeding of exotic species and holds training courses and conventions to encourage more Nicaraguans out of a population of 6.5 million to venture into this lucrative field.
The government says nearly 40,000 Nicaraguan families are already involved in such ventures in one of Latin America’s poorest countries.
However, export remains the domain of a handful of private companies.
Official figures show that in 2019, exotic pet exports brought in around $300,000, although a recent newspaper article estimated the value at more than double.
– Many never make it –
Exotic Fauna states on its website that the animals are “bred and handled with the utmost care” and that its processes are “100 percent” compliant with international wildlife trade protocols.
According to Eduardo Sacasa, president of Nicaragua’s National Zoo, it doesn’t matter as long as the animals aren’t taken from the wild and bred in centers like Exotic Fauna that replicate their natural environment.
Talavera’s husband Lacayo added, “We take from nature only once, and we grow the product that we export.”
But the NGO People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), which campaigns to end the trade in exotic species, says the practice is cruel and many potential “pets” never survive the journey to their new homes.
“Those who survive often suffer in captivity and die prematurely from malnutrition, an unnatural and uncomfortable environment, loneliness and the overwhelming stress of captivity,” PETA explains on its website.
– Frogs for entertainment –
Lacayo said they sold a lot of frogs during the Covid-19 epidemic when people in quarantine were trying to be “entertained”.
American customers, he added, are particularly keen on tarantulas, which are venomous but not dangerous to humans.
To bridge the long journey, the frogs get an extra large portion of crickets, which are also bred on the farm.
The tarantulas are fed insects and worms, but the boas remain empty.
In the case of the snakes, Exotic Fauna staff member Harlintong Bonilla explained, “We give her food two or three days beforehand so that she has digested the food well and doesn’t throw up on the way.”
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