Think positive! How ‘positive’ lists help exotic animals - BC SPCA
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Think positive! How ‘positive’ lists help exotic animals

March 1, 2023

This summer, the Netherlands took a bold step forwards and introduced a positive list to address the animal welfare and other concerns associated with keeping exotic mammals as pets.

Positive lists, as the name implies, are lists of species allowed to be kept as pets. They’re typically based on a comprehensive scientific risk assessment, which takes into account the following:

  • Animal health and welfare
  • Public health and safety
  • Environmental and biodiversity protection
  • Species conservation

Generally speaking, species that make the list are considered suitable as pets because:

  • Their needs can be met in captivity
  • They don’t pose a danger to people
  • They’re unlikely to harm local wildlife or ecosystems if they happen to escape or are released
  • Their presence in the pet trade isn’t linked to species declines in the wild

More than 300 mammal species were assessed for the Netherlands list. The final list, however, includes just 30, indicating that many mammals commonly kept as companion animals are unsuited to life in captivity. The country will be turning its attention to positive lists for birds and reptiles next.

What about British Columbia?

Exotic animal legislation here in B.C., in contrast, is based on a negative list. Negative lists are lists of species prohibited as pets.

Currently, there are more than 1,200 species, called ‘controlled alien species’, on the province’s list. They include mammals, reptiles, birds and amphibians. The list is divided into prohibited species (require a permit to keep) and restricted species (require a permit to keep once they reach a certain size).

Although our legislation and regulations are among the most restrictive in the country, there are issues with a negative list approach.

Negative lists have trouble keeping up with a constantly changing industry

As different exotic animals fade in and out of popularity, negative lists have difficulty keeping pace with these changes. As a result, they require constant review and updating. Positive lists, on the other hand, don’t have to be amended every time a new exotic animal enters the trade.

Negative lists are difficult to understand and enforce

By necessity, negative lists are longer and more complicated than positive lists. As such, they can be difficult for enforcement personnel to interpret.

For example, when a new species is added to a negative list, existing members of that species are usually grandfathered. This means they’re allowed to stay but their owners can’t replace or breed them. As many species of exotic animals appear similar to one another (especially reptiles), enforcement personnel may have trouble telling these species apart, let alone the individual animals who’ve been grandfathered.

Positive lists use a precautionary approach

Whenever someone wants to add a new exotic animal to a positive list, they have to prove that the species satisfies whatever criteria are in place for inclusion — basically, that the animal makes a suitable pet.

With negative lists, however, species are often added only in reaction to a problem, perhaps after an animal has already seriously injured or even killed someone or after repeated animal cruelty complaints. So, right now, exotic animals are entering the pet trade before people know anything about caring for them, which puts their welfare — and ours — at risk.

Positive lists, however, follow the precautionary principle. Because so much is at stake for both animals and humans, it’s considered better to err on the side of caution and not just assume that species are safe or suited to captivity.

Positive lists are catching on

The Netherlands is not the only jurisdiction to have adopted a positive list approach. Others, including Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta, Lithuania, Cyprus, France and Slovenia, have also introduced positive list legislation. Furthermore, this past May, Cyprus, Lithuania, Luxembourg and Malta called on the European Commission to explore the potential benefits of adopting a European Union-wide positive list.

Positive lists are being adopted on a much more local level, too. Castlegar, for instance, adopted one last year in an update to its animal control and licencing bylaw. Their list is simple and clear for all concerned, enforcement personnel, pet guardians and the public alike.

Ultimately, positive lists are a progressive approach that helps protect exotic animals who suffer in the pet trade both here and around the world.

More on exotic animals:

Concerns about exotic pets

The exotic pet trade