Why Do People Want Exotic Companion Animals?
Humans have enjoyed the companionship of animals for tens of thousands of years. Although today there are many different types of companion animals, most species have gone through a process of domestication over a long period of time. Domesticated animals are adapted to live alongside humans and are well suited as animal companions. Exotic animal companions, on the other hand, have not been domesticated, and keeping them poses a number of problems.
The nature of exotic animal guardianship means that such animals are usually captured from the wild, which can counteract conservation efforts. The welfare of exotic animal companions is often compromised. Wild animals are, in most cases, accustomed to large expanses of wild territory — not only is a residential setting a fraction of the size the animal is used to, it can often fail to meet the animal’s needs in drastic ways.
Furthermore, the illegal trade of exotic animals can lead to animals being stored in overcrowded conditions. Besides the issue of animal welfare, this can lead to the spread of disease. Keeping wild animals in crowded proximity at markets has been linked to major outbreaks of diseases in humans, such as the global COVID-19 pandemic.
Researchers have been trying to understand what motivates people to seek wild animals as companions. Their ultimate goal is to dissuade people from purchasing exotic animals. The current thinking is that people are generally unaware of the problems associated with keeping exotic animals as companions, and social media plays a significant role. The way in which exotic animals are portrayed in general is thought to heavily influence a person as to whether they think exotic animals make suitable companions (for example, seeing a monkey in its natural habitat versus seeing a monkey in someone’s home). Understanding all of this is extremely important for reducing exotic animal ownership.
As the authors note, zoos may play an important role in influencing people’s perceptions of wild animals. Zoos receive millions of visitors every year, and they have a unique opportunity to educate visitors on the harms of exotic animal guardianship. However, their messaging only applies to visitors who listen to the zookeepers’ messaging. When people pass by a zoo or view close encounters with zoo animals online, they may begin to think that zoo animals would make good companions.
In this study, researchers investigated how photos of animals affect people’s thoughts on exotic animal guardianship, specifically the effect of the context in which the animal is photographed. To do this, they showed photos of pythons and sloths in six different settings to volunteers and asked how much they agreed with the statement “I would like to have a python/sloth as a pet.” The settings ranged from a naturalistic zoo setting with no humans present, to an urban setting where humans are engaging the animals.
The researchers discovered that the setting did not actually predict how much a person would want to keep a sloth or a python, which contradicts previous research. Roughly 2 in 5 people indicated they wanted to keep a sloth as a companion, and 1 in 5 said they wanted to keep a python. Younger generations in general were more interested in keeping a sloth or a python than older generations. This may be a result of images shared over social media, a tool that is used extensively by younger people. On the other hand, it may simply be that any interest in exotic animal guardianship fades with time, which would explain the lessened interest in older generations.
It’s tempting to think that context doesn’t have any impact at all, but the researchers caution against drawing this conclusion. Instead, it’s more plausible that the context wasn’t enough to make a difference in people’s attitudes in this case. This seems fairly reasonable — the reality is that our perceptions of animal companionship (and pretty much anything else) are built up over time and shaped by key events. When framed this way, it’s hard to see how looking at a photo for 15 seconds would change our opinions on something like animal guardianship.
All in all, there is more work to be done to understand what motivates exotic animal guardianship. However, a key finding from this research is that the younger generations are more likely to want an exotic animal companion, possibly due to the influence of social media. This presents an important opportunity for both researchers and animal advocates. By understanding how social media impacts beliefs about keeping wild animals as companions, advocates can use this tool in campaigns to discourage exotic animal guardianship.