Posting Live Animals in the Mail

How to send live animals through the mail? That was the question I faced when I needed to get firebelly newts (Cynops pyrrhogaster) from the Japanese island of Hachijojima (where I lived) to Okinawa, where a geneticist lived, who was to determine from where the Hachijojima newt population originally came. Newts, being amphibians, are prone to desiccation and need to be packed carefully with moist moss in a flat plastic container with a few tiny aeration holes. I prepared two packages with 6 newts each, went to the post office and declared the two items to be mailed as “Scientific Specimens”. I never had to say that the 2 packages contained live newts. When because of bad weather airplanes did not fly to Hachijojima for three days and the newts did not arrive in Okinawa until 8 days later, I was worried my animals might have died. But luckily they arrived in a healthy condition, were genetically studied and compared with other populations in Japan and revealed that they all must have come from Shikoku and not, as had been assumed, from the much closer region of Chiba Prefecture. But was it legal to send them by mail?

Which animals you can and can not send in the mail depends on international postal agreements and on local regulations. In countries of the European Union vertebrate animals will usually not be accepted by the post and will have to be transported by private carriers. However, even such non-governmental private carrier companies have to obey existing animal protection and welfare regulations that stipulate cage material and dimensions, adequate ventilation, supplies of food and water during transport if deemed necessary and, of course, safety concerns. Regarding invertebrates, live honey bee queens (and workers in small quantities) and live Drosophilidae fruit flies (for biological research) are permitted, just like silkworm caterpillars, leeches and a few other beneficial invertebrates. For the bees the most popular cage has 2 compartments; a larger to house the queen and 6-12 attendant worker bees and a smaller with a mixture of powder sugar and about 20% honey. Water is not necessary, but there should be ventilation holes in the envelope and a label of “Live bees” and “Protect against sunshine” on it.

In the United Kingdom not only live honey bees, caterpillars, stick insects, cockroaches and crickets, maggots, earthworms, leeches and spiders, but also some live fish can be sent by mail  – provided the latter are classified as fish fry or eggs. It always surprises people to hear that certain fish can be sent in the mail, but to be honest it needs to be pointed out that what can be sent in an envelope are not the adult fish but their desiccation-hardy eggs, the so-called ‘annual eggs’. The family of fish I am referring to are the killifish (Cyprinodontidae) with more than a thousand small and colourful, mostly freshwater species of fish. The fish inhabit small streams in the Americas, Africa and Asia which frequently dry up. That kills the adults but not their eggs, which survive in the mud for several weeks and even months until it rains and their habitat is filled with water. The eggs then resume their development and the baby fish hatch. Eggs of rare and protected species are, of course, not permitted to be collected or sent.

The USA postal authorities not only allow bees and other invertebrates to be sent by mail, but also small, harmless, cold-blooded animals like toads, frogs, newts and lizards with the exception of snakes, turtles and turtle eggs. Live birds, if not too large or protected by law, can also be sent, which includes live, one day-old poultry. That the packaging meets the requirements of the Animal Welfare Act is understood as the animals must not suffer during air or surface transport. Not allowed in probably any country of the world is to send mammals in the mail. However, that didn’t deter Reg Spiers in 1964 to post himself in a wooden box from England to Australia: he didn’t have the money for a ticket. He chose cash-on-delivery and after arriving at Perth Airport and being placed in a storage shed, he climbed out of his box, left the storage area unnoticed and got home. (His story)

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