The Exotic Pet Trade: Damaging, Wasteful and Cruel

The craze for wild animals as pets has fuelled a worldwide trade that is now valued in the billions of dollars annually. Every day thousands of wild animals are in transit from one location to another. Captured from the wild by collectors in Asia, Africa, Latin America, Europe and North America, they are shipped by air to consumers around the world.

The global market for exotic pets has grown substantially in recent years. In the United States alone, 260 million live animals were imported in 2002. No one knows the exact extent of the trade in Canada because it is largely unregulated and untracked, but it is substantial.

Collection for the pet trade is now considered a major threat to wildlife around the world, depleting animal populations, driving species to extinction and disrupting ecosystems. In some areas of the world, entire habitats have been wiped clean of species that are popular in the pet trade. Even endangered and newly discovered species are sought after by pet trade collectors.

Wild animal pets also pose other kinds of threats. Throughout the world, privately-owned exotic pets escape or are abandoned to fend for themselves in the wild. Hundreds of species have now established themselves in foreign territories where they may compete with or displace native wildlife. For example, in Canada, red-eared slider turtles, who many experts believe aggressively compete with native turtles, have now established themselves in dozens of locations across the country.

Escaped or abandoned pets may also be carriers of new parasites and diseases that could have potentially devastating effects on native animals who have not evolved any natural defenses against them.

The wild animal pet trade also threatens human health and safety. New, potentially deadly zoonotic diseases that can be transmitted to humans are emerging with alarming frequency and many of them originate in wild animals. Throughout the world, public health agencies have recognized that the disease risks posed by the wild animal pet trade are serious and substantial.

In addition to the conservation concerns associated with the capture and trade of millions of wild animals, there can also severe welfare costs to each individual animal. The capture, transport and confinement of wild animals is an often brutal and cruel business, causing untold suffering and death.

The reptile pet trade

Since the early 1990s, the reptile pet trade has grown by leaps and bounds. In fact, the trade has now reached a point where reptiles are considered a main­stay of the pet industry. While some reptiles are produced in captivity (the majority being red-eared slid­ers produced on turtle farms in the United States), the rest are still caught from the wild or are produced by wild-caught parents.

While large numbers of wild-caught reptiles come from Africa, Asia and Latin America, significant numbers are still being removed from the wild in other areas. The primary consumer markets for pet reptiles and other exotics are North America, Europe and Japan.

The explosion in popularity of reptiles as pets can be attributed to a number of different factors, such as the erroneous promotion of reptiles as easy to keep; an increase in the number and variety of imported reptiles; and an increase in the number of professional and amateur importers and reptile breeders.

An additional factor in the growth of the reptile trade is the emergence of restrictions on the trade in wild caught birds. Reduced availability of wild birds due to trade restrictions has caused suppliers to shift to alternate, exploitable species to fill the gap.

Unfortunately, the exact scale of the reptile pet trade remains a matter of guesswork. In many countries, reptiles are poorly tracked or not tracked at all, so information about the numbers they export is lacking. However, records from consumer countries clearly indicate that every year the trade involves many millions of individual reptiles representing at least 500 – 700 different species.

While the reptile pet trade in Canada has not been comprehensively studied, there is evidence to suggest that it has also experienced growth in recent years. A substantial number of reptiles are imported into Canada directly from their countries of origin, while others are re-exports from suppliers in the US. Imported reptiles come in all shapes and sizes and include both common and rare species.

Reptile welfare

Unfortunately, reptiles are often subject to harsh handling and marginal conditions during the capture process. They may be trapped in nooses, nets and buckets or they may be chased and grabbed by hand.

Those that survive the capture process may be crammed into crude containers and shipped in the cargo holds of aircraft to destinations around the world. They may suffer from twisted tails and spines, broken limbs, torn claws or from being crushed by others that are stacked on top of them. Dehydrated and emaciated, many will die in transit. Some species, such as Florida softshell turtles and map tur­tles can suffer mortality rates as high as 30%.

If reptiles don’t die in transit, they may die later from the long-term effects of capture and transport. Additional numbers may expire from the effects of inappropriate housing, poor husbandry and an inad­equate diet provided by well-meaning but naive own­ers. Some experts estimate that 75% – 90% of wild-caught reptiles don’t survive beyond their first 12 months of captivity.

The wild animal pet trade is a largely wasteful and unnecessary industry. Species are being driven to extinction, ecosystems are being disrupted and millions of individual animals are forced to suffer. Reptiles kept as pets also pose significant risks to human health and safety through the transmission of zoonotic diseases. They also pose a disease threat to native wildlife populations when they escape or are abandoned to fend for themselves. A wide variety of domesticated animal species are currently available as pets, so there is little justification for continuation of the wild animal pet trade. For these reasons, Zoocheck recommends that members of the public refrain from purchasing or keeping wild animals, including reptiles, as pets.