Recession Takes Bite Out of Animal Trade

MINDEN, IOWA ( TheStreet) -- Business was booming for Dennis Fett, owner of the Peacock Information Center in Minden, Iowa.

"Then everything went away," he says. "It was like somebody flicked a switch, turned the lights off and said, 'You're done.'"

Fett has been featured in numerous newspapers, magazines and on The Tonight Show. His expertise in peafowl translated to brisk business for the books, DVDs, feathers and eggs he sells from his farm.

Fett might be stuck with 10,000 unsold peacock feathers.

Fett, like many in the world of exotic animals, has seen the economy take a bite out of a once-thriving niche. Those who buy, sell, breed and process rarities of the animal kingdom are finding it increasingly difficult to stay profitable now that consumers have scaled back luxury spending.

The eggs, which hatch baby peacocks with the aid of an incubator, once sold hundreds a year. This year, his flock produced more than 800 eggs, but only 50 have sold. The colorful feathers are also not moving and Fett may be stuck with an inventory of nearly 10,000.

"I saw this coming on and no one listened to me," he says. "The people with higher disposable incomes had stopped buying from us. I don't see it getting any better."

A decrease in the demand for luxury goods has also meant tough times for those who work in the Gulf Coast's alligator industry.

Wallets, bags and boots made from alligator skins were once high-priced status symbols. Today, few are buying them.

"Companies like Prada and Gucci Group purchased the tanneries and now they're not paying this year what they had been paying in previous years," says Brian C. Wood, who runs All American Alligator in Hallandale, Fla.

In a good year, hides sold for more than $56 a foot. Today, they're fetching a mere $10 to $15.

"A lot of the farmers are going to put very few eggs on the farm this year and we'll probably see, between Florida and Louisiana, 25,000 fewer wild alligators captured than what you would see in any given year," he says.

In response, Wood plans to open his own retail shops and has launched two Web sites. By raising, tanning and making his own products, he hopes to grab back some of his lost market share.

Lean times haven't meant an end to the brokering of exotic creatures, even if there's no government bailout for peacocks and gators like there was for General Motors ( GMGMQ), American International Group ( AIG) and Bank of America ( BAC).

Firms like Exotic Animals for Sale still offer opportunities for those looking to buy and sell creatures PetSmart ( PETM) wouldn't dare to. Have an extra $1,200 and want a wallaby? This is the site for you, with sellers offering camels, kangaroos, elk and bobcats.

Problems arise when the unusual needs of these animals become too much for owners, some of whom end up releasing them into the wild.

In response to this growing problem, Connecticut's Department of Environmental Protection recently offered an "exotic animal amnesty day" at the Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, inviting people to leave their unwanted exotic pets without fear of penalty.

-- Reported by Joe Mont in Boston. Feedback can be sent to joseph.mont@thestreet.com.

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