Exotic Companion Animals: Demand, Release, And Invasiveness
I don’t know about you, but many people I’ve met knew that peculiar neighborhood kid who kept snakes and lizards at home. Whenever I got a chance to visit, I was always amazed by their stillness and tranquility in the dark glass boxes that they were kept in. Or maybe you, just like I, were like that kid yourself, raising exotic animals, driven by fascination for their otherworldliness. Peering through glass at mysterious tarantulas or an illustrious chameleon, we saw nothing unloving about commodifying these animals, keeping them enclosed in terraria, vivaria, insectaria and various other -aria their entire lives, knocking on the glass to make them move…
In any case, this blog post is not about that. Today I want to discuss a couple of other issues surrounding the exotic companion animal trade, namely factors influencing why such animals get released, their invasiveness in the environment, and ways to lower the demand for exotic companion animals at all.
A previous report, highlighted by Faunalytics, described how surprisingly easy it is to buy exotic animals across the U.S. Unfortunately, the extensive review found that only a fraction of the sellers required any sort of background information about the buyer, while even fewer indicated the potential harmfulness of the animals for sale. The 2016 report stated that many of the laws intended to regulate the exotic animal trade are poorly monitored and difficult to enforce, while corresponding federal legislation is non-existent.
You might not intuitively think so, but quite a few people who keep exotic companions such as frogs end up releasing their companions into nearby forests. Who knew they’d spawn 200 young, after all! Not to mention the iguana who became boring after 15 years… In fact, researchers have found that there are certain biological and economic factors that animal advocates and legislators can use to determine species most likely to be released. Among these, the most influential factors are the quantity of animals on the market, their price (lower price equals higher release probability) and adult mass (higher mass leads to more releases). The suggested overarching reasons for releasing exotic animals is the mismatch between the expected amount of care – due to the size, longevity, or virility of the animal – and the actual amount of care needed to maintain the animal in captivity, as well as economic factors such as market abundance and price.
Although more than half of surveyed lizard keepers report getting them out of interest for the species, nearly a third committed to purchase the animals wanting to be different from other people. … Needless to say, the welfare of exotics kept in captivity is often not well understood, nor provided for.. The Australian study cited above found that despite 91% of keepers being confident in their knowledge about their companion reptiles, a significant portion did not comply with the private reptile keeping guidelines. Meanwhile, wild-caught exotics are exposed to additional welfare problems. A study on slow lorises, a species of nocturnal primates, revealed that they are exposed to extreme restrictions while kept at home and exhibit various stereotypies, often heightened by inadequate social settings. Actually, even rescue centers were shown not to be able to ensure optimal conditions for these wild animals.
But what happens to these animals upon their release to the wild is another story, one that has a lot to do with the unwanted species’ invasive potential. Indeed, the exotic animal trade is by far the most common introduction pathway for invasive amphibians. Meanwhile, although large-bodied reptiles are more likely to be released, their smaller counterparts are actually much more successful at establishing populations in their new exotic habitats.
Organisms’ capacity to establish themselves in nature successfully is typically assessed via determining their self-sustaining population formation and geographical spread probabilities. When the invasiveness of a species is high, the released animals pose a very real threat to local fauna, often displacing them from their natural habitat via competition, predation or hybridization.
O.K., so the trade is definitely harmful to both the traded and endangered. But is there any way to curb the demand for exotics? A team of researchers from the U.K. recently set out to study precisely that. After carrying out an online survey with different strategies to deter people from potentially buying exotic animals, they found that some information is simply much more potent in affecting purchasing willingness. They estimate that with appropriate communication about the disease and legality risks associated with exotic animal trade, such educational outreach could potentially lower consumer demand by up to 40%. Here, the scientists found that it all has to do with personal costs – people do not tolerate risks of contracting a disease or being penalized well. Meanwhile, warnings regarding animal welfare and conservation (not direct costs for the buyer) do not deter the consumers from expressing their willingness to buy exotic animals.
Although animal advocates are typically aware of the manifold and multi-faceted issues surrounding the exotic animal trade, it is often unclear what actions we should take to pursue effective advocacy in reducing the demand for them. We know that the market is widespread and easily accessible to consumers; we also know that animal release, welfare issues in captivity, and risks for invasions are rampant. However, it seems that certain messaging, specifically appealing to personal risks for the buyers, might effectively reduce the willingness to buy exotic animals. Efforts should, therefore, be focused towards targeting high-risk species, and realized via informing the public about the implied issues of buying and keeping exotic animals in captivity.
This, it seems, is the best path forward, until we gather more data to help us push the issue further. Just imagine, we might actually stand a chance at effectively reducing the number of people who participate in the exotic animal trade. For my part, I wish that some advocate would’ve approached me back in the day to help guide my interest in these fascinating creatures towards making less exploitative choices.