There is an allure to owning an exotic animal as a pet. In a world where individuality is desired, obtaining and owning something that is unique and somewhat controversial is coveted.
To be clear, exotic animals are not domesticated, and they vary greatly in shapes and sizes. Some exotic animals are sold in pet stores: Bearded dragons, Green iguanas, and Macaws, just to name a few. Other exotic animals are sold through the extremely lucrative wildlife trade where various species of nonhuman primates, big cats and bears can be easily purchased at the right price.
Regulations regarding the private ownership of exotic animals vary from state to state, with some more lax on laws and penalties than others. Aside from state regulations, the lack of personnel in place to monitor the wildlife trade (a multi-billion dollar business in the U.S alone) has made it surprisingly easy for the everyday person to obtain exotic animals. Becuase of this oversight, animals are often hidden and smuggled through customs and across state borders unnoticed.
There is very little data on the exact number of exotic pets held captive in the United States. While we may not yet have the ability to give precise numbers, experts are able to infer from what we do know. For instance, it’s estimated that over 5,000 tigers reside in U.S. homes; that’s more tigers in captivity than there are left in the wild. Born Free USA has documented over 2,000 attacks, incidents and escapes involving exotic pets since 1990.
The majority of exotic pets are purchased as infants but they become unmanageable and aggressive as they age (after all, they are wild). The desire to own exotic animals is often short-lived, yet it is the exotic animals who suffer in the long run.
Exotic animals require stringent and specialized diets that are essential to their well-being. When their needs are not met, the animals wind up malnourished and develop illnesses and disease. Many exotic pet owners are not prepared to provide full grown tigers, lions, bears with tens of pounds of raw meat and primates with the appropriate diet.
Once the animals reach sexual maturity they’re often relegated to small outdoor (or indoor) enclosures where the extent of their interaction with any other living being is when they’re fed. This leads the animals to become incredibly frustrated, not to mention bored and they often begin to exhibit stereotypic behaviors such as pacing or self-mutilation, indicative of their extreme mental distress.
After they recognize the fact that no matter how much they love their animals, they will never be happy as pets, owners seek out sanctuaries and zoos in the hopes that they will be able to surrender them. Unfortunately, zoos are only prepared to care for a certain number of animals and those that can’t be accommodated are frequently euthanized. Sanctuaries are often already at capacity due to the enormous captive exotic animal epidemic in the U.S. Sadly, this means that many owners resort to selling their pets at auctions where they are purchased for canned hunting attractions or taxidermy.
In addition to the danger that private ownership poses to the animals, it also creates serious public safety concerns. Here are three of the most common in the U.S.
1. Irresponsible Release
In some cases, exotic pets are simply released by their owners. We can only imagine that this is a desperate attempt to rid the owners of any responsibility for the animal while maintaining the delusion that they’ll be better off in the “wild.” The only problem is that the “wild” typically means a residential neighborhood or city in the U.S.
Many of these animals starve to death; others are unable to compete with the harsh elements they’re not accustomed to and wind up being hit by cars or killed by native species. Occasionally these exotic pets survive the release and begin to establish themselves, they then become known as an invasive species.
For example, in Florida, the Burmese python has been an invasive species since the 1980s. It is strongly believed that these snakes were originally kept as pets, but when they became too large to accommodate they were released. Not only does this sort of release pose a threat to the public, it poses a threat to the native species in the area.
2. Frequent Escapes
There are over a thousand reports of exotic pets escaping their enclosures at private residences. Keep in mind, these are only the incidents that are reported, there are likely many more.
Most owners know that reporting these escapes, especially sans the proper licensing, will almost always guarantee the seizure of their pet. Although the fault rests with the owners of the animal, too many unnecessary deaths, both human and animal, have occurred because of this sort of negligence.
People have been strangled by large pet snakes and mauled by pet bears, chimpanzees and a number of big cats. Afterward these animals are, more often than not, killed on sight. It is incidents like these that prove we need to enact stricter regulations, or ideally bans, related to exotic pet ownership.
3. Zoonotic Disease
Aside from the daily maintenance of exotic pets, many harbor diseases. Zoonotic diseases can spread easily between humans and animals, domestic animals included. According to the Center for Disease Control, exotic pets can pass on and infect humans with a variety of diseases including the Herpes B virus, Rabies, Salmonella, Ebola and Monkeypox. Even though these outbreaks have been rare, the increase in the number of exotic animals being traded (millions each year) certainly increases the chances that these diseases will spread, posing a serious threat to handlers and the public at large.
What Can You Do?
We’ve seen the damage that can be done when irresponsible and uneducated citizens acquire exotic animals to keep as pets. Although there may be rare cases where families have lived with exotic animals without being physically harmed, these pets are still wild animals that deserve their freedom. They’re not suited to be pets, but sadly once they are raised in captivity they can never be released back into the wild.
Protecting the wild populations of any species does not entail keeping them held captive as pets. Instead, we must continue to dissuade the public from buying exotic animals in an effort to reduce the demand that is currently fueling the illegal wildlife trade. If you are looking for a pet, consider adopting one of the millions of domestic animals waiting for homes in shelters. It is our responsibility to keep wild animals wild.
Lead image source: Guillaume/Flickr