The wildlife trade is immense, involving thousands of species and millions of individuals each year. At any given moment, untold numbers of exotic animals such as parrots, lizards, snakes and fish are being caught, bred and shipped around the world. Some are destined for the pet trade here in Canada. Others will merely pass through our borders on their way to being sold as pets in other countries.
However, no matter where they come from or where they end up, the trade causes exotic animals to suffer.
For exotic animals living free in the wild, being captured is extremely stressful. Some are caught in snares, nets or buckets. Others are chased and pulled from hiding spots, or lured onto sticky traps. Apart from the sheer terror it causes, many animals are injured in the process too.
In many cases, it’s illegal to take exotic animals from the wild. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) aims to protect species by preventing or controlling trade. Species listed on Appendix I of the Convention are threatened with extinction and can’t be traded commercially, while those on Appendix II can only enter the trade under specific circumstances.
Despite these restrictions, the black market is flourishing. People accept the risk because of the money involved. It’s cheaper to capture wild animals than breed them in captivity.
Wild capture is not only harmful to individual animals but it can also decimate local wildlife populations and cause serious and lasting harm to their habitats. Many species have become endangered or even threatened with extinction as a result.
Exotic animals are shipped in a variety of containers, including boxes, bags, buckets, wooden crates and plastic tubs, many of which are completely unsuitable. Often, animals are crammed together so tightly that some are crushed. Sometimes, they’re packaged up individually with hardly any room to move.
The animals are then transported in cars or trucks or on planes, usually without food or water, from locations as far away as Australia, Africa, Asia and South America. Many do not survive the long and stressful journey.
Wholesalers house many different species of reptiles, birds, amphibians and mammals in large warehouses. They act as holding facilities, and usually keep animals in poor conditions. The enclosures are often dirty and overcrowded with nowhere for the animals to hide. In many cases, the correct heating and lighting aren’t used, and the animals aren’t fed properly. Animals who become sick or injured don’t get the medical care they need.
Although mortality rates of 70 per cent are not uncommon, wholesalers remain profitable because of the sheer volume of animals they sell.
It’s also important to consider the disease risk posed by the wildlife trade. The close confinement and highly stressful conditions associated with capture and transport make exotic animals more susceptible to infection, and endanger the people and other animals who come into contact with them.
Although captive-bred exotic 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.
It’s important to note that, even when they’re bred in captivity, exotic animals aren’t considered domesticated. They still have the same needs as wild animals.
Large breeding operations raising huge numbers of reptiles such as turtles and lizards are often referred to as ‘farms’ or ‘ranches.’ These operations sometimes take individuals from the wild to replenish their breeding stock, or collect eggs from wild reptiles for hatching in captivity.
Captive breeding on this scale serves as an effective cover for the illegal trade in exotic animals. It’s easy to assimilate wild reptiles into existing ranch populations and label them ‘captive-bred.’ There’s no way to tell the difference between the two.
Ranching can also refer to the process of capturing gravid (pregnant) females and containing them in order to collect and sell their young once they hatch. In some cases, the females are released back into the wild.
As countries have clamped down on the exotic bird trade, attention has turned to captive breeding, leading to a rise in large-scale operations which are basically the avian equivalent of puppy mills.
These “bird mills” tend to keep birds in small, barren cages, depriving these sensitive, intelligent animals of the physical space, social interaction and stimulating environments they require.
What can you do?
It can be overwhelming to think of how many exotic animals need our help on a global scale. But you can make a difference locally:
- Contact your local pet store. Let them know how concerned you are about the exotic pet trade. Ask them not to sell exotic animals because of how much they suffer.
- Talk to friends and family about the harms of the exotic pet trade.
- Think carefully before you get any pet, but especially an exotic animal. Thoroughly research their care needs. Exotic animals are wild animals, and even zoos have difficulty meeting their needs properly.
- If you have an exotic animal already, strive to provide your pet with the Five Freedoms. House them in the largest possible habitat. Find an experienced exotics veterinarian. Seek out expert advice on enrichment. Give your pet the best quality of life you can.
- While the provincial government has banned large exotics such as tigers, alligators and venomous snakes, ownership of many of the smaller exotic pets is still permitted. Ask your local government for updated municipal bylaws to protect these animals.
Read more about the BC SPCA’s concerns with keeping exotic pets.