Exotic Companion Animals, Animal Welfare, And Public Safety
Humans know a lot more about other animals today than we did about 17,000 years ago, when we first started keeping them as companion animals. There are now a variety of regional and international policies designed to protect the wellbeing of animals and the safety of the people who live with them and transport them. This paper, a large review of the trade and keeping of exotic animals as companions, argues that the exotic “pet” trade is poorly regulated and that adopting a labeling system may better protect animals from uninformed buyers.
The term “exotic” has been applied to a wide variety of animals such as snakes, frogs and fishes, each of whom have unique biological and environmental needs. According to the authors, exotic species are generally regarded as “animals that are either non-native to a region or nondomesticated.” However, indigenous species and/or species with differing degrees of domestication may also be called exotic. Scientists do not fully understand the needs of all of the animals that fall under this category of companion animal, much less how to ensure their welfare.
Research suggests that traders and people living with exotic animals are similarly uninformed. Sellers often tout certain species as suitable for home environments despite lacking information to support that claim. Other concerns include interrupting species conservation and ecology, as well as spreading zoonotic diseases.
The number of animals involved in the exotic companion trade each year is unknown, though worldwide estimates are in the billions. According to this review, one study reported that 11 billion specimens comprising 977 kgs (about 2154 lbs.) of “wildlife” were imported into the U.S. between 2000 and 2013. Researchers approximate that 25% of global exotic pet trading is illegal, with certain sectors as high as 44%. Exotic companions may either be bred in captivity or captured in the wild; various modes of transport are used supply the animals to local and international buyers.
Species diversity is vast within the trade. Fish and birds appear to be the most numerous, with separate studies identifying at least 4,000 different species of each. Other studies suggest there are about 290 types of mammals, 550 types of reptiles, and 170 types of amphibians traded around the world. The total number of species is likely more than 13,000, and this estimate does not account for “morphs” of species caused by selective breeding.
Because several species are not yet completely understood, exotic pet traders can market them as “easy to keep” animals suitable for first time pet owners. Animal welfare groups such as the ASPCA and Animal Protection Agency acknowledge that exotic pets are, in fact, quite difficult to live . As many as 75% of reptiles and 90% of aquatic fish sold annually reportedly die due to unsuitable living conditions. Exotic animals may also cause harm to humans: people living with extoic animals are deemed to have a “disproportionate risk” of contracting zoonoses.
For unclear reasons, efforts to educate sellers and buyers have failed. Some research links exotic companion keeping to borderline and narcissistic personality traits and a desire for social recognition, so it may be that buyers / keepers don’t have the best interests of the animals at heart. One study of people with lizards found that they had a general interest in lizards before getting one, but ultimately took poor care of them. Relinquishment of exotic animals to sanctuaries and care centers is common, often because people realized the animal was more difficult to care for than they had thought. Meanwhile, other animals arrive at sanctuaries due to neglect.
The authors suggest that exotic animal welfare could be improved with clear “consumer advice.” Toy turtles, for example, must label features that may harm purchasers (such as parts that children can choke on). Real turtles, however, can be purchased without assuring that the buyers understand how to properly care for them in a safe manner. Potential systems for ensuring the safety of both animals and people are “positive lists”, which state precautions similar to consumer safety guides. Veterinarians are in overwhelming support of positive lists and areas in Canada and Europe are considering or developing them.
Several models for identifying a species’ suitability as a companion animal have also been devised. The authors recommend Warwick et. al.’s EMODE system, which assigns animals an “easy”, “moderate”, “difficult”, or “extreme” label in terms of their difficulty to keep as pets. EMODE is based on 6 questions which contribute to an overall score and determine a species’s category. It should be noted that some of the paper’s authors were involved in the development of EMODE, but see no financial benefit from it. It is available for free online.
The authors conclude that maintaining a database with EMODE rankings and developing positive lists for species could improve exotic companion animal welfare, public health, and human safety. They argue that such a scheme would bring much-needed order to the exotic pet trade and hopefully foster a greater sense of responsibility in the industry.