Exotic And Wild Companion Animals: What We (Don’t) Know
Sugargliders (flying squirrels) are incredibly cute and tigers are adorably huge versions of our beloved domestic cats, but does that mean we should be keeping these animals in our homes as companion animals? From an animal protection perspective, it’s clearly inhumane to keep wild, exotic animals confined to cages and even homes. Although many people seem to agree, exotic companion animal ownership is not an issue that receives much attention.
The news and popular culture picks up on these issues to a degree—a YouTube video telling the tale of two men returning their companion lion to the wild and then reuniting with him years later in the African wild has received over 6.5 million views, random attacks by exotic “pets” are covered as special interest stories, and a popular video from The Onion even spoofs such tragedies. Unfortunately, however, there is little solid data to address the myriad concerns of keeping exotic and wild animal as companions in human households. In this post I will detail what data is available.
One of the most difficult questions to answer is the prevalence of exotic and wild animal companion animal ownership. The American Pet Products Association (APPA) releases regular studies on companion animal ownership, but specific issues like exotics are difficult to cover in such surveys. The population owning certain animals is likely so small that it will be unreached by large national surveys that rely on random sampling. Further, exotic animals may be kept illegally and “owners” may not disclose the information. Finally, many people may not know that their animals are “exotic” or “wild” and so may not report it when asked.
One way to approximate the data is to look at the number of exotic and wild animals imported. The Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) tracks this number for most countries. In the U.S. in 2008 there were about 8,000 reported live exotic and/or wild animals imported.
This number is imperfect for several reasons. First, illegally imported animals are not reported. Second, many of these animals are imported for reasons other than to be sold as companion animals, including use in experiments, as entertainment animals, and to populate zoos.  Finally, many of the animals kept as companion animals are bred within a country’s borders and would not be included in CITES searches.
There are few laws that regulate or ban the private “ownership” of exotic and wild animals. Only 21 U.S. states have bans on owning specific animals and there are 10 states with no or minimal standards regarding exotic animals. In general, the laws dealing with the issue are sparse and inadequate. The inadequacy of these laws usually receives public attention only when there is a random attack on a human by an exotic or wild animal kept as a “pet.”
Living with exotic/wild animals
Keeping exotic animals and wildlife as companion animals has adverse effects for all involved. According to the ASPCA, animal welfare, human health, and the environment all suffer as a result. Importing exotic and wild animals can also import diseases and bugs that are foreign to the human, animal, and natural environment of an area. Also, exotic and wild animals are not accustomed to captivity and this often results in “attacks” on humans. In these cases, it is typically addressed by blaming the animal for his or her behavior (animals are often killed after these incidents). BornFree USA tracks the number of such attacks annually and reported 57 incidents and five deaths in 2010. Further, when burden of care becomes too great on the “owner” of these animals, they are often released outdoors. After living in captivity, some animals may not have the necessary skills to survive.
In the end, it is the animals that suffer the greatest. Most are taken from the wild, where they have families and environments that provide the social and material support they need, and are put in situations where their freedom is severely restricted and their environment lacks adequate social and physical stimulation.
______________ For those with a particular interest, it requires some work, but CITES does allow for databases searches that specify the reason for import.