Finance Ministry/Customs: High numbers of live animals trafficked in Q1 2021   Number of live animal seizures already at half the total for the whole of 2020
Blümel: "Animal trafficking not only increases animal suffering, but also increases the risk of epidemics"

Animal trafficking statistics recorded by the customs administration are sobering; in the first quarter of 2021 alone, officers put a stop to the illicit journeys of 129 live animals – more than half the total number of seizures for the previous year (2020: 226 live animals). "The pandemic has done nothing to dent the unscrupulous trade in endangered species or illegally-bred animals; indeed the opposite appears to be the case," states Finance Minister Gernot Blümel, reacting to the latest statistics from Customs Office Austria.

Since the beginning of 2020, across 78 customs inspections Austrian customs officials have identified not only irregularities but also serious failings in the context of the attempted importation or transit of 355 animals, with 152 dogs, 151 reptiles, 27 fish, 15 birds and 10 cats picked up by customs since the beginning of last year. In most cases, the relevant customs declarations and veterinary documentation providing information on vaccinations or potential disease were missing. 95 animals were refused entry by the border veterinary inspector. In the case of 61 animals, once the requisite customs declarations had been made, there was no reason to deny onward travel, though in the case of a further 19 – 17 dogs and 2 cats – quarantine was required. 33 animals were housed in animal shelters. The customs administration was able to take in 15 endangered turtles, 74 chameleons and 11 endangered birds, some through entry checks at airports, and others following a customs investigation; they were then accommodated in zoos or other animal attractions such as reptile parks.

The illegal trade in animals increases animal suffering

"It is clear how much the illegal trade in animals increases animal suffering," explains Blümel, advising that anyone buying a pet should give preference to breeders or local animal shelters and animal welfare associations. Otherwise, animals will often be transported halfway across Europe crammed inside small boxes for hours, all just to change owner in return for a fee that could be considered a 'pittance'. In any event, the background profit margins for individual perpetrators wanting to boost their everyday earnings, as well as the illegal breeders, who have already cultivated well-organised smuggling operations, are substantially higher.

In June 2020, a dog paid with its life in particularly tragic circumstances. The conditions in which it was bred, kept, and then transported out of North Macedonia exhausted the crossbreed to such an extent that, following an epileptic fit and admission to a veterinary clinic, the malnourished puppy ultimately had to undergo euthanasia due to kidney failure.

Even though particularly tragic outcomes such as this occur extremely rarely during the course of customs work, animal welfare is seldom, if ever, a priority; what matters is always profit. For this reason, it is especially perfidious when animal rescue is used as a pretence in order to reach out to prospective purchasers. For this purpose, targeted ads are placed on social media claiming that dogs or cats can be rescued from so-called 'killing stations', for instance in Serbia, Bosnia, Moldova or Ukraine. Animal lovers fall for this in good faith, thereby often unknowingly supporting organized crime.

Fraudsters frustrate the legitimate work of animal welfare associations

Criminal sellers often present themselves in the form of an association and claim to be selling their animals only in return for a protection fee and a protection contract. The heartrending photos used to encourage buyers to take in such an animal are mostly genuine, though not from the stated 'killing station', but from an illegal breeder, where untenable conditions and animal torture are routine. All other documents apparently handed over during the course of such a trade are forgeries. Consequently, the work of truly committed and reputable animal welfare associations is completely frustrated, as customs investigators can attest from their investigations. Advertising portals have now responded and placed a block on such ads, but regrettably, such offers still persist in social media.

Besides animal suffering, the economy runs the risk of zoonotic disease

The conditions to which animals are exposed during breeding, as well as on journeys from neighbouring third countries, are not only unworthy of any living creature, but also increase the risk of transferring and introducing epidemic disease. "As for the profound effects which zoonotic diseases can have, this is something the Covid-19 pandemic has made painfully clear. There are numerous other zoonotic diseases which, if they occurred, would have not only health consequences, but also serious economic effects on many of our domestic businesses, including farming," says Minister Blümel, stressing the importance of customs controls. Examples of particularly feared and yet likely diseases that could be introduced through avenues such as animal trafficking are foot and mouth disease, bird flu, or rabies. In particular, trafficked dogs or cats kept in hazardous and distressing conditions in illegal breeding establishments, primarily in eastern Europe, run the risk of contracting rabies or indeed of introducing a number of cat and dog diseases or parasites.

The trend factor in animal trafficking

Demand determines supply – hence the animals trafficked are primarily those currently 'in fashion' and therefore particularly in demand. For this reason, year after year, Labradors, spitz puppies, golden retrievers and indeed German shepherds too are among the dogs and puppies seized. In addition to the widespread desire to 'save' an animal, the cost factor often plays a role when purchasing pedigree dogs and cats from abroad over the internet.

"Animal trafficking is a criminal offence; this is something of which everyone seeking to buy a low-cost pet over the internet should be aware," reflects Finance Minister Blümel, stressing that "the Austrian customs administration will continue to stand up for the protection of animals with absolute professionalism and dedication."