Introduction to the Exotic Pet Trade

What is an exotic pet?

The phrase “exotic pets” is most often used as a generic term that means non-domesticated or wild animals. These are animals who have not been selectively bred for hundreds or thousands of generations for specific biological and/or behavioural characteristics that make them amenable to living with or being handled by humans. In fact, many exotic pets are removed directly from wild environments by pet trade collectors, while other species that are produced in captivity for the pet trade are just a few generations removed from the wild. Even exotic animal species that have been bred for longer periods of time retain many, if not all, of the same needs as their wild counterparts.

Why Keep Exotic Pets?

Exotic pets can be tempting to purchase and own. Not only are they novel and interesting, they can also be attractive because of their beauty, unusual physical traits, because owners believe them to be easy to house and care for or just because they are considered “cool.” With dozens of different species available in retail pet stores and hundreds of additional species available through specialty breeders and online dealers, there seems to be an exotic animal to suit almost any taste or preference. They can include, but are not limited to, exotic invertebrates, rare fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, such as parrots and toucans, and a wide variety of mammal species, ranging from rodents and sloths to kangaroos, capybaras, monkeys and big cats.

Who Keeps Exotic Pets?

For the most part, the people who keep exotic animals are not scientifically-oriented expert keepers who intensely research each animal’s biology, behaviour, natural lifestyle, welfare needs and the latest in husbandry techniques and captive management practices in independent scientific journals and publications. Instead, they are regular people who typically have no substantive expertise about the animals they purchase, except what the pet seller and/or the pet industry has provided. And some people purchase exotic animals on impulse without any thought whatsoever or as starter pets for their children, as was the case with millions of red-eared slider turtles in the past who were sold with a small plastic turtle container replete with tiny, plastic palm tree. The buying and selling of the most popular exotic animal species, particularly fish, reptiles, amphibians and, in some cases, birds, is sometimes referred to as the mass market pet trade because the number of individual animals involved can be in the hundreds of thousands or millions.

Is animal welfare a concern in exotic pets?

While most exotic animal owners may be well meaning, the reality is that in an average home or apartment setting the space and environmental conditions that exotic pets require to satisfy their full range of biological and behavioral needs cannot be provided. In fact, a broad range of exotic pets can be found in conditions that provide little, if any, opportunity for the animals to engage in normal movements or to express natural behaviors. For example, many people maintain reptiles in grossly undersized, thermally simplistic, clinical plastic containers that pay no attention to reptilian biology, behaviour, lifestyle and welfare needs, but that fit conveniently in a bedroom or basement. More enthusiastic reptile collectors sometimes maintain dozens or even hundreds of snakes and other reptiles in conditions in which the animals are unable to do anything they have evolved to do, including, at times, even making normal postural adjustments. The animals seem to be viewed not as sentient creatures with lives of their own and a need to engage in species-typical movements and behaviours, but as things to be collected and displayed.

Even well known, much loved animals may be denied essential natural activities and functions. The highly gregarious macaws and other parrots that normally live in flocks and fly long distances daily in the wild are a good example. Tens of thousands of these birds are kept, many of them in social isolation with their movements restricted by deflighting (feather trimming that renders them incapable of flight) or by long-term incarceration in small cages.

The reality is that exotic animals have evolved over thousands or millions of years to live within a physical and environmental context that is difficult or impossible to duplicate in captivity. That’s why even many well known, relatively common, exotic pets suffer from malnutrition, disease, inadequate housing, poor care, other forms of physical and psychological neglect and excessive levels of premature mortality.

Is there a safety risk?

Many exotic animals pose a physical danger to their owners or to members of the public who come into contact with them. They may have the size, strength, sharp claws, large teeth, venom or other physical attributes that render them capable of causing human injury or death. While the dangers posed by some animals, such as big cats, primates and giant snakes, may be obvious, even many smaller species can pose significant risk to humans as well.

Do exotic animals carry diseases?

Diseases that are transferable between humans and other animals are called zoonotic diseases. These diseases may involve viruses, bacteria, parasites and/or fungi and it is now thought that 6 out of every 10 infectious diseases in humans are spread by animals. While most animals have the potential to harbour disease to some degree, exotic animals have long been known to pose a particularly significant risk to humans. For example, exotic birds, reptiles and amphibians are known to shed proportionately more potentially pathogenic organisms than other animals. That’s why public health agencies recommend that young children, the elderly, pregnant women and others who are at greater risk of contracting a disease not have contact with exotic animals and for anyone who does, that they engage in practices that mitigate against the zoonoses risk.

Doesn’t the exotic pet trade conserve wildlife?

Many exotic animal breeders and keepers claim that their hobby is actually productive and good for animals and that they are saving endangered, threatened or vulnerable species, developing breeding techniques that may help save those species and that by breeding exotic animals in captivity they are diminishing or eliminating the “need” to remove animals from the wild. Unfortunately, those claims do not stand up to scrutiny. There are no examples of endangered, threatened or vulnerable exotic animals being saved by the pet trade and the idea that captive breeding will reduce or eliminate wild captures has, for all intents and purposes, proven to be untrue. As well, only a small proportion of the hundreds of species bought and sold in the pet trade are bred in captivity and breeding often cannot satisfy consumer demand. In fact, for some species, as captive breeding increases, so do the numbers being removed from the wild. The exotic pet trade is widely acknowledges to be a major contributing factor to the demise of wildlife populations around the world.

The exotic pet trade also poses a risk to native wildlife populations through the introduction of foreign diseases, like chytrid fungus which has decimated frog populations around the world, or by escaped or released exotic animals establishing themselves in the wild, as red-eared sliders have done throughout the world. The US State of Florida now has more than 45 non-native reptile species, most are presumed to be escaped or released pets, as well as established populations of non-native fish, amphibians, birds and mammals.

Where do exotic pets come from?

Exotic animals are readily available in North America and in many other jurisdictions around the world. While animals, such as big cats and primates, are much harder to find in retail pet outlets in Canada and the US today, they are still common in private and online trade. In fact, dozens of species that would normally be considered as fodder for zoo displays can be purchased by private citizens. In other areas of the world, the exotic’s trade is even more public. For example, retail pet outlets in Japan sell a range of exotic wildlife, including sloths, monkeys, owls and even bats. In North America a great many retail pet outlets continue to carry a broad range of smaller, but equally wild, invertebrates, fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds and small mammal species. These animals come from a variety of sources, including both captive breeding and capture from the wild.