Most people who have pets do so because they love animals. Wild animals can be particularly appealing due to the novelty of having something no one else does; an interest in a particular species triggered by social media or television; or longing for a deeper connection with the natural world. But there are more reasons to leave them in the wild. More importantly, it’s almost always in the best interest of the individual animal. But keeping exotic pets can also harm the environment, both the animal’s natural habitat and yours.
All pets have an environmental footprint – they eat food and generate waste, just like us. They can also create conflict with local wild animals and kill birds. But when your pet is a wild animal itself, things get even trickier. In fact, even defining an exotic pet can be tricky.
Domesticated species have lived in close association with humans for thousands of years. Recognized domestic animals are dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, sheep and goats. Wild animals are non-domesticated species living in their natural habitat; wild animals kept as pets are called tame. Exotic animals are undomesticated species kept outside their natural geographic region. Grizzlies are exotic animals in India; elephants are exotic to North America. When an exotic animal is kept as a pet, it is called an exotic pet.
According to the American Humane Society, non-traditional pets are non-domesticated animals for which there is a significant history of pet keeping, regardless of the origin of the species. They are often bred in captivity, their sale and trade is frequently regulated, and information on proper care is widely available. Non-traditional pets include rodents, tropical fish, birds, reptiles, hedgehogs, and ferrets. Keeping non-traditional pets is not as fraught with ethical and environmental pitfalls as keeping wild and exotic animals. But some of the same issues will apply. Owners of non-traditional pets should do research to make sure their pet comes from ethical and sustainable sources.
Legal pet sitting
Because wildlife trade is international, any effort to regulate it requires international cooperation. The sale of wild animal specimens for food, pets, souvenirs and medicine generates billions of dollars each year, involves thousands of species and drives some species towards extinction. CITES is an international agreement to ensure that trade in wild animals does not threaten their survival. That means the rich Hennesy-drinking playboy next to his pet tiger you saw on Instagram is breaking the law — no matter what country he’s in.
The Animal Welfare Act, or AWA, is the main piece of federal legislation regulating wild animals in captivity, but it primarily only protects mammals. Every US state regulates the keeping of wild and exotic species as pets, although some of these laws are surprisingly lax. Many municipalities ban certain species – even domesticated ones – or limit the number of pets that can be kept on a property. They may also have requirements for animal registration or licensing, vaccinations, animal welfare, and nuisance laws that regulate noise or other potential conflicts. For example, ferrets are a common pet in many places, but are illegal in new york; the city of Seattle restricts pet owners to three animals whatever the species.
Although many non-traditional pets, such as hamsters, are usually bred in captivity, it can be very difficult to discover the origin of a specific individual. Just as there are puppy mills, livestock facilities because non-domestic animals are not necessarily healthy and humane environments. And many non-traditional and exotic pets are not the result of captive breeding. Only a handful of people in the world have managed to reproduce hermit crab in captivity; while most pet birds are bred in captivity, wild exotic birds are still imported illegally.
When wild animals are captured to be sold as pets, they are stressed at best and abuse is common. They often suffer from what is called “cut flower syndrome” and die soon after being captured due to disease and poor care. Poaching (and even legal collection, as for sugar gliders) of wild animals can have serious repercussions on natural populations. At least one species – the African gray parrot – has become threatened primarily by capture, and poaching for the illegal pet trade is one of the greatest threats to critically endangered species cheetahs.
Very often, the animal that was so irresistible on social networks turns out to be unsuitable for indoor life. The capybaras of recent Tik-Tok stars, for example, can weigh up to 200 pounds each. As herd animals, they cannot be kept alone. They need a swimming pool deep enough to swim and eat up 8 pounds of vegetation daily.
When people find themselves in possession of a pet that is difficult to care for, they also discover that these pets can be difficult to rehome. Often this translates to “release them in nature” – a euphemism for abandonment. Abandoned animals usually die of predation or starvation. (It is also a likely outcome for a tamed wild animal released into its own natural habitat.) If the climate is right, in the absence of natural predators, released alien species can become invasive. Florida’s problem with exotic snakes and other reptiles has its roots in pet abandonment; North American red-eared turtles now outnumber native turtle species in Japan; and pet rabbits establish themselves in the wild in vulnerable areas Hawaii.
Sometimes the animal is not the invader, but the vector. Rabbit hemorrhagic disease, which originated in domesticated European rabbits, now threatens some native North American rabbit species. Native animals aren’t the only ones at risk. The risk of bites – and subsequent infections – is higher than with pets, because kinkajou sitter Paris Hilton learned the hard way. People already know the risk of contracting salmonella pet turtles. But now most emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Not only are new diseases dangerous to human life, but disease also has environmental impacts.
The decision to take responsibility for the life of any living creature should never be taken lightly. But if that creature isn’t a domesticated species, think hard, then think again.