When wandering the aisles in a pet store, looking at all the tidy, brightly lit displays of lizards, frogs, snakes and tortoises for sale, the harms of the global wildlife trade can seem like a distant reality. Yet the truth is that there’s a link between those animals behind the glass and the suffering of exotic pets around the world. Here are five reasons why it’s important to care.
1. Exotic animals are wild animals
When we see them for sale online or in a pet store, it’s easy to forget that exotic animals are wild animals, even when bred in captivity. As wild animals, their needs are challenging, if not impossible, to meet. Too often, they’re sold as ‘beginner’ pets alongside ‘starter kits’ that perpetuate the belief that they’re easy to keep.
Science is revealing that we’ve been underestimating the capacities of animals like reptiles and fish for far too long. This calls into question the generally accepted ways people care for them — ways that allow them to survive but not necessarily thrive.
2. Exotic pets are trafficked through legal loopholes
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement intended to prevent illegal trade and keep legal trade in check. However, because it’s so profitable, people simply find ways around the restrictions imposed by CITES and other forms of regulation. Animals are smuggled, species are mislabelled, documents are falsified, and wild-caught individuals are passed off as captive-bred. This makes it difficult to know their true origins.
3. The exotic pet trade causes biodiversity loss
It’s no secret that the trade in wild animals is driving biodiversity loss worldwide. African grey parrots, for example, are now at risk of extinction after decades of being taken from the wild to supply international pet markets. This activity continues despite being illegal.
To make matters worse, population data is lacking for so many species that animals are being traded before researchers have the chance to sound the alarm. Reptiles, for instance, are heavily traded but the true extent is unknown as only about nine per cent of reptile species are CITES-listed. It’s estimated, though, that roughly 90 per cent of traded reptile species and half of traded individuals are captured from the wild.
It’s gotten to the point where academic journals have begun withholding the geographical locations of newly discovered species. People involved in the exotic pet trade have used the information in peer-reviewed papers to collect previously unknown lizards, frogs and snakes from the wild. Such rare individuals are highly prized.
Promoting captive breeding instead doesn’t necessarily relieve pressure on wild populations. Often, demand for a species is so high — perhaps spurred by social media — that captive breeding alone can’t meet it.
Threats to biodiversity not only arise when animals are exported but when they’re imported as well. When exotic pets escape or are released into local habitats, they can put those environments and their inhabitants at risk. Here in B.C., for instance, former pet red-eared slider turtles are believed to compete with the endangered Western painted turtle, a native species.
4. The exotic pet trade causes animals to suffer
Animals in the exotic pet trade are often treated more like inanimate objects than sentient beings. From the moment they’re captured in the wild to when they’re finally sold to an end customer, there’s suffering at every stage of the trade.
Mortality rates are high. Many animals don’t survive the stress of capture and transport. They’re at risk of dehydration, starvation, extremes of temperature, overcrowding, illness, injury and attacks by other animals in confined and inappropriate conditions. Even once they’re in a home, many don’t live long and can suffer from well-intentioned but inadequate care.
5. Captive breeding doesn’t solve animal welfare problems
Although captive-bred animals don’t face the stress of capture, they can still suffer.
Many breeders house their animals as simply as possible in order to feed, clean and monitor them more easily. Doing so, however, comes at the expense of the animals’ welfare. The housing is so simple that it only meets their basic needs, leaving them with few, if any, opportunities to carry out important natural behaviours. In the case of snakes, for example, it often means they’re unable to even stretch their bodies out straight.
Ways to help exotic pets
The scale and spread of the global wildlife trade are overwhelming, making it seem far too daunting to take action. However, there are some simple ways you can make a difference:
- Find out more about the impacts of the exotic pet trade
- Talk to friends or family who may be considering purchasing an exotic pet
- Support stores that sell pet supplies but not live animals
- Encourage your municipality to pass bylaws that protect exotic animals
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