A backyard tiger? A cheetah on a couch? A chimpanzee in diapers? A caiman in the bathtub? A fox on your lap?
These are not images of the pets most of us think of when we imagine the mutually beneficial relationship with our own domestic animals. Yet the novelty and thrill of owning a unique exotic animal drive certain people to purchase these animals for their own personal benefit or worse, to profit from as a form of entertainment. Most people recognize that wild animals like grizzly bears and cougars should never be kept as pets, but many do not make the connection that the exotic animals they see in pet shops and on exotic breeder websites are in fact wild animals.
The exotic pet trade is second only to the drug trade in terms of illegal activity and dollars generated. Even the legal capture and import of certain wild exotic animals is sanctioned in Canada under permits. For example, Canada still allows wild birds to be imported, while the US has banned the import of live wild birds for the pet industry. There are many reasons why the BC SPCA is opposed to the keeping, breeding, sale and trafficking of exotic animals, which lead to poor animal welfare and negative environmental consequences.
What is an exotic animal? How is it different from keeping a companion animal?
An exotic animal is a wild animal taken from its natural habitat or bred in captivity. Although it might be sold as a companion animal, it can never truly be a companion to a human. Domestic animals, however, have been bred over thousands of generations and thrive as companions to humans.
Our society has also evolved to understand the needs of companion animals such as veterinary care and specific dietary requirements to ensure their well-being. The keeping of exotic animals, however, often leads to immense suffering for the animals because most people simply don't have the resources or the knowledge to properly meet the animals’ physical, behavioural and psychological needs.
So why is the keeping of exotics a growing problem in Canada? One reason is that the exotic pet trade, while inhumane, is big business and exotic animals are cleverly marketed. Many people buy exotics as 'status' pets or as a novelty. Exotic animals usually don't do tricks, ignore their keepers and are difficult to care for. When selecting a pet, people often do not consider how large the exotic animal will grow or how long it will live. Some such as box turtles and macaws can outlive their owners. Unfortunately, when the novelty wears off and the reality of the high care costs, lack of interaction, the increase in size and overall care responsibilities becomes unmanageable, the animals are either abandoned or surrendered to a shelter or refuge – if not already full. Unlike companion animals that create long-term reciprocal relationships between guardian and animal, there are many compelling reasons for not keeping exotic animals.
Exotic animal welfare concerns
It is well known that the exploitation of exotic animals taken from the wild results in many animals suffering and dying during capture and export. Further, suffering can occur whether they are taken from the wild or in transport from captive breeders prior to arriving at pet stores or at exotic animal auctions. More than half of all captured animals die before becoming pets. Their deaths involve great suffering from dehydration, starvation, hypo and hyperthermia, stress, overcrowding, injury and attacks by other captive animals in severely confined conditions.
Whether the exotics are captive-bred or abducted from the wild, all surviving exotic animals can face cruel treatment, unsuitable living conditions and inadequate diets. Most owners are likely to be uninformed and not capable of fulfilling the animals’ unique welfare needs. Many exotics will die because their physical care and habitat needs are not adequately met as it is difficult to source their exact dietary requirements and environmental stimulants. Further suffering occurs when exotic animals are released into the environment once they lose their novelty or become too big to care for. They will either die because they lack the physical attributes necessary for survival, or they thrive and wreak havoc and suffering on native wildlife.
Captivity for any wild or exotic animal can lead to both psychological and physiological distress, making it unjustifiable to keep these animals as pets. Mortality rates for exotic pets are high for a number of reasons. Most exotic animals tend to mask signs of illness or injury, a characteristic needed to protect themselves from predators in the wild. By the time guardians realize their iguana or hedgehog is sick it is often too late to save them - in the meantime, the animal has endured considerable distress and anguish for months before eventually dying or requiring euthanasia. The tragedy is that most of these animals die within a short period of time after purchase, usually from neglect or ignorance.
Another cruel aspect of keeping exotic animals in captivity is that most are denied the opportunity to express normal behaviours that promote their own well-being such as travelling to procure a mate, foraging for food or the ability to seek solitude. Often these highly intelligent creatures self-mutilate or go into a state of depression - often referred to as zoocosis. This behaviour resembles a kind of listlessness, where they give up their spirit for living.
BC SPCA cruelty investigators have seen first hand through numerous investigations of private owners, roadside zoos and entertainers, the neglect and abuse many exotic animals endure in this province. One of the most high-profile cases, the first known cruelty seizure of primates in Canada, was the November 2002 seizure of 103 exotic, farm and domestic animals, including 15 primates, in Kaslo, B.C. Sadly, many more exotic animal cruelty cases have since been reported, spurring the BC SPCA’s push to regulate the private ownership of exotics.
The BC SPCA does not support the keeping of exotic animals as pets nor for the purpose of entertainment such as the film industry, birthday parties or roadside attractions. In those situations where exotic or wild animals are kept in captivity, the highest possible care and commitment must be in place to ensure the animals' well-being is not compromised. Exotic and wild animals should only be in the care of those trained as animal technicians, veterinarians with specializations, ethologists and other animal experts in accredited institutions. These individuals have a demonstrated knowledge in the care, handling, socialization, and keeping of such animals.
Fragile ecosystems around the world are disturbed as people invade the natural environment to capture wild animals, threatening the species' population and overall survival, all because of the exploitative pet trade.
Once the exotic animals arrive in their new country, many people who grow tired of their exotic pets release them into the wild, mistakenly thinking that releasing them is a humane option. The freed animals will then die slowly and painfully in the new inhospitable environment, or equally devastating, thrive, multiply and create a new problem by upsetting the local ecosystem.
The red-eared slider turtle is a perfect example of an exotic species that thrives in our local ponds – an inexpensive and popular exotic pet that quickly loses its novelty and even becomes aggressive. Now released into the environment en masse, their populations are out of control in many areas as they disrupt the natural balance of the aquatic ecosystem, and damage native turtle and amphibian populations.
Environmental educators emphasize that the exotic pet trade implies a misleading message about wild animals. By treating animals as commodities, we teach children that animals can be removed from their natural, biological communities. Yet we must strive to nurture an attitude of respect for all wild creatures and their natural habitats and, by insisting that animals be left in the wild, the demand for exotic pets will decrease significantly.
Public health and safety
The senseless death of a woman at a remote Bridge Lake “zoo” near 100 Mile House in May 2007 reminds us of the grave risks of keeping exotic animals. One of three tigers kept on the property reached from inside its cage and grabbed the woman by her leg as she stood outside to say goodnight to the tigers as she did every night. Tragically, it was a fatal blow and she died in view of her children. It was this devastating event that led the BC Ministry of Environment to develop new provincial regulations in 2009, prohibiting the possession and breeding of certain dangerous exotic animals.
The tiger involved in the attack was one of several exotic animals being kept in captivity at one of many of B.C.’s unaccredited roadside attractions. In addition to bringing people onto the property to interact with the tigers, the owner regularly took the animals to malls and other public places, where he charged $30 to $40 for children and adults to have their photo taken next to the tiger. The tigers were being kept in 12-by-12-foot chain-link enclosures with a mere padlock on the enclosure. Although the owner had been investigated by the BC SPCA since 2005 and issued orders to improve the living conditions for the tigers, with no provincial or federal legislation prohibiting their possession before 2009, the BC SPCA’s hands were tied.
Although high profile deaths and injuries often make the public more aware of exotics living in their communities, it is the unreported bites and illnesses that pose the greatest risk. Exotic animals can transfer serious diseases to humans such as salmonella from reptiles, as well as chlamydia, giardia, herpes, hepatitis A, rabies, ringworm, tuberculosis, measles, monkey pox, dermatophytosis, candidiasis, and a host of other diseases and viruses from various exotic animals.
Physical size and strength is an obvious risk, but even as small exotic animals grow and developmental hormones appear, they can become quite aggressive, acting on their defensive instincts and predatory nature. Bites, claws, talons, beaks, spines and lashing out with tails - it is often through a bite wound or scratch that diseases are transferred to humans and our companion animals.