Should Exotic Animals Be Kept As Pets? In February, a pet chimpanzee named Travis mauled a guest in his owner's home, and police shot and killed him. Travis was raised by his owner and treated like family. The attack raises questions about whether primates and other exotic animals can be kept responsibly as pets.
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Should Exotic Animals Be Kept As Pets?

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Should Exotic Animals Be Kept As Pets?

Should Exotic Animals Be Kept As Pets?

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This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Travis liked to take baths, spent time watching TV and enjoyed the occasional lobster or glass of wine - except, as you probably know already, Travis is a chimpanzee - or was, raised from infancy by a woman who treated him like family, like her child. Last month, police in Stamford, Connecticut shot and killed him after he mauled a friend of his owner. The incident raised new questions about primates and other exotic animals. Is it responsible to keep a chimpanzee as a pet?

CONAN: You can also join the conversation at our Web site. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, if you're having trouble making your house payments, we'll have questions and answers about the Obama administration's new mortgage refinance guidelines. But first, exotic pets. Joining us by the phone from her home in Southwest England, Jane Goodall, who, of course, has won any number of awards for her work studying primates and animal behavior. She's the founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, and it's great to have you today on TALK OF THE NATION.

JANE GOODALL: It's great to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And what do you think we can learn from Travis?

GOODALL: I think we can learn that - as most of us have been saying for a very long time, those of us who know about chimpanzees - that tragically, chimpanzees are totally unsuited as pets. And I say pets in inverted commas because - they just are not pets. They are wild animals. They're cute as babies. That's when people see them in advertising and so forth. And they look cuddly and then people get them as surrogate children very often. And then they reach adolescence, and the testosterone starts loosing in the males, and then they don't want to be human children in human households anymore.

CONAN: And at that point, however, they are - you wrote in your op-ed piece - unable to be released back into the wild.

GOODALL: Yeah. That's the - this is a huge problem. It's only that they can't be released into the wild, but most zoos don't want them because zoos are beginning to be more responsible and have good social groups, and a pet, quote, "chimp" doesn't fit in because you have to learn from other chimpanzees how to be - how to behave in chimpanzee society. And these poor creatures have no opportunity to learn. They're humanized.

CONAN: And they are going to live for - well, after they reach adolescence, well another 60 years or more.

GOODALL: That's right. You know, the oldest is - one of the original Tarzan's original Cheetahs, was Johnny Weissmuller's Cheetah.

CONAN: The other thing you pointed out in your op-ed is was the - that we've become accustomed to seeing to - well to anthropomorphizing chimpanzees and other primates from car commercials that we saw one at the Super Bowl most recently.

GOODALL: Yeah. Yeah, well, this is it. Chimpanzees being having brains so very like our, having biology so very like our, social behavior so like ours, they are incredibly smart. They can be taught to do, you know, almost anything. They can imitate, and so they are used in entertainment. They're used in circuses. They're used in advertising. But it's the young ones that are used. So, as I said, they look quaint and delightful. And that's why people think they make good companions in the house.

CONAN: And as you - what happens to the ones that are - well, as you say, unable to go into chimp society, either in zoos or certainly not in the wild again?

GOODALL: Well, this is what happens. People, then, if they have enough money, they feel responsible. So they make secure cages. But chimps are very smart. They can very often get out of the cage. And anyway, people who've lived with a chimpanzee a long time, don't want to keep them all the time in cages, and it certainly it isn't fair. They used to go into medical research. That doesn't happen so much anymore because there is less medical research around the country now. They sometimes go to bad zoos or they sometimes go to roadside shows. It really depends on the owner and the laws of the state.

CONAN: All right, that's chimpanzees. What about smaller primates? Capuchin monkeys, for example.

GOODALL: Well, they're certainly less dangerous. But from the point of view of the monkey, it's just as bad. They, too, need to learn how to be monkeys. They, too, need to live in monkey society. You know, it's like taking a human child and putting them with chimps or monkeys or whatever, and, you know, they wouldn't know how to be a proper child - human child.

CONAN: Romulus and Remus grew up to found Rome, and they were suckled by a wolf - at least by myth. But...

GOODALL: Oh, by myth. And there's a lot of these so-called wild children, and, you know, I'm sure it's true that sometimes a child will be adopted by some kind of animal. There's definitely true stories of dogs looking after children and dogs looking after baby chimps, for that matter. But do you know? One of the sad things is when something happens like Travis, which, of course, is a - is terrible. I mean, it's dreadful for the owner, who had to stab her beloved chimp with a kitchen knife. It's terrible for the friend who's now, I gather, in a very bad state, which makes it even worse for the owner. And, you know - and so, okay, everyone is saying, well, the animal instinct suddenly comes out.

But it does with us, too. We, too - humans can certainly go into moods of violence and do terrible aggressive and damaging things. So it's just that we're all in this together.

CONAN: Does this feeling of closeness that so many people have with chimpanzees and other kinds of primates, doesn't it make us feel that much closer to them and try to preserve their status in the wild?

GOODALL: Yeah. Well, we are that much closer to them. They are more like us than any other living creature. It's - they've helped us to understand very clearly that we're not the only beings with personalities, minds and emotions, that there's no sharp line dividing us from the rest of the animal kingdom. But, you know, I've been with them so many years in the wild. And to see chimpanzees in the wild with their freedom, with their freedom to make choices, to wander where they will, to do what they want to do, to travel with whom they want, with this wide space - it's very, very sad to see them in captivity.

CONAN: Where would you draw the line with pets? What's acceptable, what isn't?

GOODALL: Well, the obvious creatures to have to share your home with are those which have been domesticated for hundreds of years, like dogs and cats. They make the ideal companion to share your life with if you live in a house, especially if you live in a city. And I'm a dog person. I love dogs. I can't have a dog now because I'm traveling too much, but it feels very strange not to have a dog, actually, very sad.

CONAN: And as you look at the kinds of laws that have been drawn up in various places to protect, well, not just the animals, but also human beings as well, do you think they're sufficient?

GOODALL: No. I think certainly when we come to - I think it's absolutely shocking that it's possible to buy and sell our closest living relatives on the Internet.

I mean, it's absolutely shocking, and I know that in the U.S. and other countries, too, we are slowly moving towards laws that prohibit the ownership of not only chimpanzees and other primates, but other exotic animals, as well. And so often it leads to disaster, to tragedy, to heartache. And so often it's people being misled and buying something which they feel is fine to have in the house, and lo and behold, it simply isn't, like parrots, for example. You know, it's not just primates.

CONAN: Jane Goodall, we've asked you on today to talk about the situation prompted by the case of Travis the chimpanzee, but I do have to ask you also about the situation of the gorillas on whom you've become so closely associated with over the years and reports, at least in newspapers in this country today, that the situation in their habitat has improved somewhat as the war in Congo has ebbed away from their habitat.

GOODALL: Well, I wish that was really true, but what's happening there is still the mining for coltan. You know, that's the mineral that's used for cell phones, Playstations and so forth. There's all this illegal mining going on, and in a large radius around there, the miners who are going - you know, they don't get much money, and so they're illegally hunting, including gorillas.

And then there's the, in the Great Congo Basin, there's the bush-meat trade, which is the commercial hunting of wild animals for food. So I don't think that the situation for the gorillas is very much better. They are hugely imperiled.

CONAN: But at least some of the people who have been working with them to help them along have been able to return to the area.

GOODALL: Yes, that's for sure. And you know, hopefully - certainly in places like Rwanda, where Dian Fossey worked, the gorillas - gorilla tourism was the second-highest foreign exchange earner after tea, I think it was - tea or coffee.

And so during that terrible genocide, both sides were not harming the gorillas because both sides, I suppose, hoped to win and to then profit from the presence of the gorillas.

CONAN: Jane Goodall with us today from her home in England. And as you get ready to go back - I assume you're going to be traveling again pretty soon?

GOODALL: Oh, yes, to the United States next, four days.

CONAN: Well, I hope you've had your shots.

GOODALL: Which shot?


CONAN: Any you may need.


GOODALL: Oh, well, I need them to come into the U.S., do I? Okay.


CONAN: Well, you need protection from all of us, I suspect. Are you going to be speaking about this case of Travis?

GOODALL: Well, I know it'll come up. Every interview I have, somebody will ask about it. And it is one - the Jane Goodall Institute is working to end the use of chimps and other exotic creatures, orangutans particularly, in entertainment. Because quite honestly, the advertising, the circuses, the use of chimps in movies, this is giving the public the wrong impression, and this is what's really fueling the pet trade.

CONAN: I'm old enough to remember J. Fred Muggs, once one of the co-hosts on the "Today" program on NBC television, many, many, many years ago, and I actually saw him once, or one of the J. Fred Muggses perform at a bank opening, I think it was.

GOODALL: Yeah. And do you know that J. Fred Muggs was actually a female, and that J. Fred Muggs had an electric collar under his clothes to keep him in order? This is what people don't know, isn't it?

CONAN: You've shattered my childhood illusions, Jane Goodall.


GOODALL: Sorry about that.

CONAN: Thank you so much for being with us today. We appreciate your time.

GOODALL: Well, thank you very much. It's an honor. Bye.

CONAN: Jane Goodall joined us by phone from her home in England. She's founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and U.N. messenger of peace. If you'd like to get in on a conversation about exotic pets, if you've owned one, give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. The story of Travis the chimp got a lot of people thinking about the safety of keeping exotic pets and about their welfare.

In a story in the New York Times, it reported some 225 chimpanzees are privately owned in the United States. Thousands of pet primates are kept as pets, and who knows how many other animals that could be considered exotic are in the same category.

If you've shared your life with a primate or another exotic animal, tell us about your experience and where you draw the line. What's appropriate? What isn't? 800-989-8255. Email is

Let's turn now to Nancy Nighswander. She owns several exotic animals and serves as federal legislation director for a group that advocates for responsible ownership, on Uniting a Proactive Primate and Exotic Animal League, or UAPPEAL. She's with us today from her home in Tiffin, Ohio. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

NANCY NIGHSWANDER: Hi. I'm excited to be here. Thank you.

CONAN: And given the case of Travis, which is where we begin this conversation is there - is it responsible, do you think, to own a chimpanzee?

NIGHSWANDER: Well, the ownership of a chimp as a pet is very rare. Not only do chimps cost around $50,000 to buy them, but the cost of their care and enclosures limits the ability of most people to afford to buy a chimp as a pet.

CONAN: Nevertheless, is it appropriate, even if you can afford it?

NIGHSWANDER: If it's done responsibly, yes.

CONAN: And how is - what is responsibly? What does that mean?

NIGHSWANDER: Responsible ownership means providing the best diet, health care, enrichment strategies and developing safety protocols that protect the animals from the public and the public from the animals, and also providing contingency planning to make sure that we have a place for our animals to go in the event of our death.

CONAN: And I'm sure you were listening to Jane Goodall earlier. She was saying these are highly social animals, and it's probably irresponsible to raise them outside of a social group with other chimpanzees.

NIGHSWANDER: Well, there's something I would like your listeners to understand. It's unfair to compare a monkey to an ape such as a chimp. That's like comparing a house kitten to a lion. To put it into perspective, capuchins are the most popular monkeys kept as pets, and they weigh about seven pounds, on the average.

They're very social animals and are very good at adapting to living in a human environment. In fact, capuchins are trained as service animals for people who have sever mobility impairment such as quadriplegics.

CONAN: So they can go and help them in certain - to get things in certain circumstances.

NIGHSWANDER: Yes. They feed them, comb their hair. They're used as handy helpers.

CONAN: And which animals do you own?

NIGHSWANDER: I have a capuchin and two snow monkeys and a java and a cougar.

CONAN: What's that third one? A java?

NIGHSWANDER: Java, uh-huh.

CONAN: What is that?

NIGHSWANDER: A long-tailed macaque.

CONAN: A long-tailed macaque. Okay. And a cougar.


CONAN: And obviously they live apart.



CONAN: You have a fair amount of land there that you can let them run on?

NIGHSWANDER: Yes. They have large enclosures with indoor/outdoor facilities that are heated inside, and they can come and go at will. They live like monkeys.

CONAN: All right. Let's see if we can get a caller on the line. 800-989-8255, if you'd like to join us. Brandon is with us from Oklahoma City.


CONAN: Hi, Brandon.

BRANDON: Ms. Goodall, it's an honor to be able to speak while you're on the radio.

CONAN: She's already left us. I apologize.

BRANDON: Okay. I owned a baboon and a New Zealand white-faced monkey when I was much younger, and my opinion on all this is that, in all honesty, these exotic pets are not suitable to be kept as pets. And I think that they should just be left alone and that there should be a ban on private citizens actually owning these animals.

CONAN: What was your experience, and what made you think that?

BRANDON: The New Zealand white-faced was a positive experience, but the animal just never quite adapted quite well to the social environment. And the baboon, once he became sexually mature, was actually quite aggressive.

CONAN: And what about, as we're hearing from Nancy Nighswander who's on with us now, the capuchins, capuchin monkeys, who for example work with quadriplegics?

BRANDON: I believe that there would be special cases for that where that's all right, as far as, like, paraplegics and quadriplegics. But I think that just for the average citizen to take on such a responsibility, people are very rarely able to take care of their dogs that they have, and to just be able to go out and purchase a monkey just because you have the money to do it, I think it's - a lot of people are just too irresponsible to be able to do that.

CONAN: Well, let's leave dogs alone. I think a lot of people are pretty capable of taking care of dogs. But Nancy Nighswander, what's your response to Brandon's point about baboons?

NIGHSWANDER: Well, I feel that ownership should be taken seriously, and we do discourage the casual acquisition of animals by educating owners and potential owners about their proper husbandry practices. And there are many, many people in this country who are doctors, lawyers, teachers - very professional, educated people who share their lives with non-human primates and do it very responsibly.

CONAN: Brandon, thanks very much for the call.

BRANDON: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's see if we can go now to Will, and Will's with us from Sacramento in California.

WILL: Yes, hi. How are you?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

WILL: I was saying that your guest now, trying to make a distinction between great apes and other primates, I think it's a very dangerous line to go down.

I have some expertise in this because my organization has a rescue center for non-human primates in Texas. We have 500 individuals in that center. None of them are great apes. And, in fact, the ones that have come from private individuals are potentially the ones that are the most dangerous because they actually lack the natural fear and reticence that a wild primate would have when confronted with a human being.

And so I think one's got to take an extremely sensible, common-sense approach to this issue and not try and suggest that just because there are a handful of people with the money, with the land and perhaps with the intelligence to try and do a reasonable job, that this is something that people can do. And it's about time, and, in fact, the issue is being debated in both Connecticut, Oregon and North Carolina - and the hearing in Oregon is tomorrow on the keeping of exotic animals as pets. And, of course, that includes primates.

CONAN: And Nancy Nighswander, let's get a response from that.

NIGHSWANDER: Well, I feel that you have - if a person is willing and able to raise a non-human primate and socialize it properly and take care of it the way it's supposed to be taken care of, we should have the right to do that.

CONAN: Who gets to decide that?

WILL: Yeah.

NIGHSWANDER: Well, that is a good question.

CONAN: Do you - I mean, should there be some licensing organization, do you think? Is it, well, you can do it if you've got a certain amount - you know, we'll check in every year or so to make sure that things are okay?

NIGHSWANDER: Sure. I can - I think that's reasonable.

CONAN: All right. Will, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

WILL: No, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

CONAN: And Will mentioned that there are certain hearings underway in various states around the country, and, well, certain laws in effect in a lot of states and communities after the situation in Stamford last month are revisiting their laws.

Joining us now is Donna Leinwand. She's with us in Studio 3A. She's a reporter for USA Today. She covered the story of Travis the chimp, and nice to have you on the program today.

DONNA LEINWAND: Thanks. Great to be here.

CONAN: I'll see if I can get your name straight.


CONAN: Are there federal laws regulating what kind of animals can be kept as pets?

LEINWAND: You know, the federal laws are kind of different than what you're talking about here, which is banning and licensing of pets, which is - it falls more under a state rubric.

What we have now is the Lacey Act, which governs wildlife. Recently, the House passed a bill called the Captive Primate Act, and what that did was ban interstate commerce and importation of chimpanzees and apes, and...

CONAN: Was that specifically in response to the situation in Connecticut?

LEINWAND: You know, it actually had first been introduced in 2008. It passed the House then and then got kind of stuck in the Senate. And so it was reintroduced right after this Travis incident and, of course, passed very quickly - which is what they were counting on as the sort of outrage over this Travis incident, was, you know, what made it go through so quickly. And, now of course, it goes to the...

CONAN: It's still stuck in the Senate.

LEINWAND: Right. It goes to the Senate. But, you know, it has more likelihood of passing at this point.

CONAN: And the state laws, I assume, they are a hodgepodge.

LEINWAND: Well, the state laws are actually very much a patchwork. The caller just talked about the Oregon law. Right now, with a permit in Oregon, you can keep cats, like tigers, nonhuman primates, such as chimps and bears. You could have a bear, except for a black bear. So, the Oregon Senate is now considering a bill that would prohibit the acquisition of exotic animals, including apes, monkeys, big cats, crocodiles and alligators.

And I actually saw a quote today. This comes from the Bend Bulletin in Oregon. They're quoting Scott Bruun, who sponsored the bill, now in the Oregon Senate. And he says this, quote, "It really boils down to, hey, should you have an ocelot in your basement?

CONAN: And other states have, and other communities, have various kinds of restrictions.

LEINWAND: Yeah, you know, North Carolina right now is considering a bill to put new restrictions on residents who have venomous reptiles and also constricting snakes like boa constrictors. And then there's a lot of laws all around the country that sort of ban pets. But they are very much a hodgepodge, you know. We're talking about Connecticut, where this incident with Travis happened.

In Stanford, the city where it happened, the mayor there didn't know that the city had some sort of control over these animals and could have enacted some sort of ban, even retroactively. And that the state law would've allowed that.

CONAN: Nancy Nighswander, your organization, you appealed the Uniting for Protective Primate and Exotic Animal League. I assume they take positions on these various pieces of legislation?

NIGHSWANDER: Yes. We're opposed to the Captive Primate Safety Act. Most states already have laws dealing with dangerous animals or animal cruelty. And they have existing laws dealing with the importation of primates into their states and all states require a health certificate and some states also require an entry permit. So the states are already regulating the interstate transport of monkeys and there's no need for federal oversight, as this is clearly not a federal issue.

LEINWAND: Well, let me actually correct some of that information. The - essentially what we have now is 20 states in Washington D.C. banned keeping primates as pets. That leaves 30 states who don't ban primates, 30 states that allow it.

NIGHSWANDER: Well, but they regulate it. They regulate.

LEINWAND: Well, some states regulate and some states don't. And the regulations are actually quite inconsistent.

CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller on the line. Let's go to David. David with us from Boerne, Texas.

DAVE BARKER: Hi, my name is Dave Barker, and I - just to talk about how the different the times are, when I was a child growing up in Kansas City, Missouri, they used to let kids - this is about late 1950s - go to the zoo and wrestle with Big Man, their four-year-old little baby male gorilla that they had just gotten. We used to wrestle with them out on the lawn.

And from there I grew up to work in zoos for 12 years. I was curator of education at the Gladys Porter Zoo and worked at the Dallas Zoo, and I've raised lions and tigers on a bottle and gorillas and orangutans, and have worked with a lot, a lot of different kinds of animals in my life. And there's a couple of points that have kind of been glossed over in the discussion that's been ongoing.

And one is that there's a great difference between a dangerous animal ordinance and an exotic animal ordinance. The dangerous animal ordinance regulates the possession of animals with a known history of causing fatalities or very serious injury to human beings. And certainly, chimpanzees, and lions, and tigers and bears belong on dangerous animal ordinances. Exotic animal ordinance is someone's opinion that an animal doesn't make a good pet.

And the fact is there are many reasons other than pet to keep an exotic animal. I have worked for the last 30 years with snakes, specifically with pythons, and they are about 45 or 50 recognized forms of python. Python's a catch word like Tarzan wrestling with the python.

CONAN: Right.

BARKER: And there are five or six really large species of pythons. Most pythons are smaller than American bull snakes.

CONAN: And what are they bred for?

BARKER: They're bred for color, for beauty, for pattern, for rarity, for commerce. There are an estimated 600 to 800,000 captive pythons in the United States. And they're in at least a half a million homes. And the majorities of them were captive-bred animals. These are not animals that are taken out of the wild. These animals have been in captivity for 10 and 20 generations.

CONAN: And are you running into any problems with the law?

BARKER: Yeah. There are two - there's a proposed law in the House right now and a proposed law in the Senate right now, which would essentially ban these animals from the people who keep them. One proposal is to put all pythons on the Injurious Wildlife Act, which they won't come to your house and take your python away, but it'll be illegal to transport it, sell it, breed it, move it across state lines.

And the other one just basically creates a white list, which is a real socialistic or even communistic sort of a way to say you can't have it unless we say it's okay. And they said (unintelligible) fish, birds, mammals, primates...

CONAN: But doesn't - David, David, David, David.


CONAN: Doesn't somebody have to make a list somewhere to say you can't have a lion?

BARKER: But the list is not the law. They're saying - but that comes under the dangerous animal ordnance. I have no argument with dangerous animal ordnances.

CONAN: All right.

BARKER: It's exotic animal ordnances. It's somebody telling me that I can't, you know, there are 640 species of monkeys, approximately, in the world. And most of them weigh under three pounds, and they're not dangerous. Most of them were really crummy pets.

CONAN: Well...

BARKER: But there are many reasons other than pet - the pet's got this negative connotation now. It's like animal slavery. And our pets or our animals that we (unintelligible) we're interested in, we take care of...

CONAN: David? David?

BARKER: Yes sir.

CONAN: I just want to give somebody else a chance, okay?

BARKER: Very good.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. We're talking about exotic animals. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's see if we can get somebody else on the line. And let's go to - this is Brad. Brad with us from Pinedale in Wyoming.

BRAD: Yes, good afternoon. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Go ahead.

BRAD: We have renters that had a bobcat, and we were over there quite a little bit. Yeah, I mean, here's what's interesting, I think most of it is, I mean, I think lot of people do enjoy them and love to look at them. And there's that cuddly side to them and also...

CONAN: Would you take a small child over to their house?

BRAD: No, I wouldn't, absolutely not. I mean, that thing's, I mean, it'd freak me out. The - there was a good, I mean, it did all right, but the owner, I guess, ended up getting bit really bad. It went right through her thumb bone because she tried to feed him by hand one day.

CONAN: Yeah.

BRAD: And we also have another guy in town that, years ago, had a buffalo on a parade. He ended up getting gored just feeding him in the field one day and killed. I mean, I don't have a problem with it, just so long as, like, your previous guest was stating that you have things in place that, number one, you accept full responsibility for any outcome.

I mean, if you want to take that risk upon yourself, hey, by all means, but you better know the risk and be completely aware that these things are wild. And you do not control them. And if you get lazy, well, that's probably the day you're going to get hit.

CONAN: All right, Brad, thanks very much, appreciate it.

BRAD: Thank you.

LEINWAND: You know, I think that's one of the things, actually, that the law is struggling with right now is how to appropriately regulate these animals. And I think that what is happening is when they can't figure out how to appropriately regulate the animals, they go for a ban. You know, what is responsible pet ownership today? Before I came here, I got on the Internet to see if I could buy a chimpanzee.

And, you know, if you go to you could - there are monkeys for sale for $600. There are - you can get a reticulated python for $650, a Corsican Ram for $200 or best offer. And my particular favorite was someone was selling what they described as a docile seven-foot-long red-tailed Colombian boa.

CONAN: Docile, that's the good part. Donna Leinwand, thank you very much for being with us today. Donna Leinwand joined us in studio 3A. She's a reporter for USA Today. We'd also like to thank Nancy Nighswander for her time. She's federal legislation director of Uniting a Protective Primate and Exotic Animal League, with us from her home in Tiffin, Ohio. Thanks very much.

LEINWAND: Thank you.

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