The complete lack of any regulation of the exotic pet trade is a major concern and oversight which impacts not only the animals themselves, but also humans and local ecosystems. This article will first explain exactly what an exotic pet is and then analyse why the lack of legislation is a major issue which needs to be remedied.
What is an exotic pet?
Some animals, such as big cats, primates, and endangered species are very clearly exotic pets – but it is more difficult to determine whether or not animals such as sugar gliders, kinkajous, and river otters are exotic pets. Exotic pets have been defined as animals that are not native to the region and / or not domesticated, regardless of whether they are wild-caught or bred in captivity. While this working definition is far from perfect, it is useful for considering whether or not a particular species is an exotic pet.
It is an unfortunate reality of the trade that it does not actually make much of a difference whether an animal is listed as wild-caught or captive bred. This is because, firstly, regardless of whether a species is wild-caught or captive bred, it will have specific needs and care requirements that nearly all hobbyist animal keepers either will not be able to manage or will not understand. This is the reason why so many exotic pets are released into local ponds or parks and why morbidity for exotic pets is so high.
Secondly, the distinction between wild-caught and captive bred is typically a false distinction because captive breeding programs have largely failed. A report from the WWF found that animals are often “laundered” at captive breeding facilities. What this means is that poachers will catch an animal and then sell the animal to the captive breeding facility which will then sell the animal on to a third party as a pet which has been bred in captivity. If you make the choice to purchase an exotic pet which the seller assures you has been bred in captivity, you are actually more likely than not purchasing an animal which was either stolen from its nest or, in the case of primates, likely ripped from its dying mother.
The exotic pet trade – and why it is an issue
It should not be a surprise that the exotic pet trade is associated with serious animal welfare concerns. Unfortunately every step of the exotic pet trade value chain involves cruelty and inhumane treatment of the animals. Rosemary-Claire Collard has written extensively on the exotic pet trade and how it turns animals into “biocapital” and “companion commodities” as the trade involves “severing them from their social, ecological, and familial networks and replacing these systems with human-provided supports” many of which are insufficient, leading to the high morbidity rate for such pets.
For some, animal welfare issues will never be a pressing reason or motivator to push for change. However, the exotic pet trade also harms humans in a number of significant ways. Firstly, the trade carries with it a heightened risk for the development and transmission of zoonoses. For example, in 2003 a number of Gambian Giant Pouched Rats were imported to the United States as companion animals – these rats carried a virus called monkeypox which was then transmitted to their human owners.
Aside from zoonoses, there are also concerns over the impact that the trade has on biodiversity. Scientists are now urging one another to use caution when announcing the discovery of a new species, particularly in regards to where the species was discovered. This is because novelty is considered extremely important in the trade and, as a result,expert trappers and hobbyists follow news of new discoveries and will quickly rush to find and trap the new species. In one instance, a species of skink was found being sold in a German reptile fair just three months after its discovery had been announced. Animals which are already vulnerable or endangered are being trapped en masse to be sold to collectors and hobbyists in the Global North. This stripping of wildlife has a major, and predictable, impact on local ecosystems.
Another issue which the exotic pet trade brings with it is the introduction of invasive species. As mentioned above, nearly all hobbyist animal keepers are not at all equipped with the knowledge, skills, and resources to provide non-native, undomesticated animals with the care they require. In fact, in a recent Spanish study, “necropsies revealed that 90% of terrapins were in poor condition, probably due to inadequate diet and environmental conditions at owners’ home”. Especially for rare or newly discovered species, it is nearly impossible to provide them with adequate care and the care they receive will never be comparable to living a free life in a natural environment.
As keeping exotic pets is very difficult and costly, many owners choose to dump their pets in ponds or parks rather than try to sell them on, donate them, or euthanise them. While many of these animals will die, some animals will be able to adapt to their new environment – and may perhaps adapt a little too well. Ireland also has issues with invasive species; in fact, you probably encounter one of these species on a daily basis – the grey squirrel. Invasive species are a major issue for local ecosystems because they can easily disrupt the balance of the ecosystem and dominate a niche which was previously held by a native species.
Invasive species can also introduce new diseases to a previously isolated animal population. One prime example of this is the “salamander plague” which has killed millions of salamanders across the EU – precisely because non-native, imported pet salamanders were released into local wetlands and ponds.
The path forward
The good news is that there are a number of successful regulatory models which Ireland could easily adopt and introduce. The UK utilises a licensing system which is fairly clunky and which has been shown to be rather ineffective and toothless. The US primarily relies on the Lacey Act of 1900 which severely limits the number and types of species which are imported into the country. While this Act has had some minor success, it has not prevented millions of animals from being brought into the US, kept, and sold there as pets. The strict measures of the Lacey Act have also inadvertently created a global system of “animal laundering” in which animals exported from banned countries are sent to the EU to be “laundered” before then being sent to America.
Instead of a licencing system or regulation such as the Lacey Act, Ireland would likely see the most success following the Belgian model and instituting a system of positive lists for allowed species. The Belgian government has a series of lists which include the animals citizens can keep as pets; the lists are categorised as per mammals, reptiles, and birds, etc. Positive lists are much more effective than negative lists because, as mentioned above, new species are constantly being discovered and negative lists therefore require continual updating in order to remain relevant.
Belgium has viewed the positive list model as generally successful and the government has reported a decrease in exotic pet sales and trafficking in the country. When introducing the positive list regulations, the government liaised with opponents and made an allowance for future possible amendment and additions to the list. The regulations are broadly viewed as positive and the government has even noticed that, after an education campaign about the positive list regulations, Belgian citizens began reporting online listings of exotic animals for sale.
It would not be difficult for the Oireachtas to also institute a positive model for exotic pet keeping – especially as there would be no prior legislation to amend or otherwise grapple with. When considering the realities of the exotic pet trade, it is difficult to understand exactly why the government has not yet taken action on this important issue. It is an easy issue to fix, especially as there are successful legislative models to use for inspiration. Also, it is difficult to believe that the exotic pet trafficking lobby has enough power, influence, or capital to sway public opinion or resist change. The exotic pet trade industry is considered a multi-billion dollar industry globally, but most of the trade is illegal and the money is not well accounted for.
It can be argued that, if positive lists were implemented in countries across the Global North where most of the demand for exotic pets is generated, the wildlife traded could be ended – or at least significantly curtailed. Ending the global wildlife trade completely would necessitate the introduction of many different pieces of legislation in each jurisdiction because the wildlife trade is something of a hydra with connections to the food, fashion, entertainment, sport, and companion animal industries. Although it will be difficult to curtail the global wildlife trade, World Animal Protection has convincingly argued that there are economic, political, social, and moral imperatives for doing so.
At the end of the day, the government – and, by extension, the taxpayer – is left holding the bag when non-native turtles and amphibians are dumped in local waterways, when small mammals transmit zoonoses, and when large mammals or reptiles escape and wreak havoc – as they often do. It is time for Irish citizens and legislators to consider why they are taking on these financial and public health burdens just so that a hobbyist can keep a python in a cramped cage or put a frightened spider monkey in a dress or film a lonely otter splashing in a tub. We need to ask ourselves – is this worth it.
Clifford Warwick and Catrina Steedman discuss the difficulties and utility of defining “exotic pets” in their article ‘Exotic pet trading and keeping: Proposing a model government consultation and advisory protocol’ published by the Emergent Disease Foundation.
Elaine Toland, Monica Bando, Michèle Hamers, Vanessa Cadenas, Rob Laidlaw, Albert Martínez-Silvestre, and Paul van der Wielen discuss the difficulties of managing the complex needs of exotic pets extensively in their article ‘Turning Negatives into Positives for Pet Trading and Keeping: A Review of Positive Lists’ published in Animals.
TRAFFIC, ‘Captive-bred…or wild-taken? Example of possible illegal trade in wild animals through fraudulent claims of captive-breeding’ WWF Report, 2012.
Rosemary-Claire Collard ‘Putting Animals Back Together, Taking Commodities Apart’ (2014) Annals of the Association of American Geographers 151.
Professor Dorothy Crawford wrote extensively about the threat of zoonoses transmitted from exotic companion animals in her book Deadly Companions. This book was published in 2007 and the cover presciently depicts a coronavirus.
Sandra Altherr and Katharina Lameter, ‘The Rush for the Rare: Reptiles and Amphibians in the European Pet Trade’ (2020) 10(11) Animals 1.
Those who are interested in learning more about the threat the exotic pet trade poses to biodiversity should read the article ‘Thousands of reptile species threated by under-regulated global trade’ published in Nature Communications and the article ‘Supplying the wildlife trade as a livelihood strategy in a biodiversity hotspot’ published in Ecology and Society.
Alberto Maceda-Veiga, Josep Escribano-Alacid, Albert Martı´nez-Silvestre, Isabel Verdaguer, and Ralph MacNally ‘What’s next? The release of exotic pets continues virtually unabated 7 years after enforcement of new legislation for managing invasive species’ (2019) Springer Nature Switzerland.
Erik Stokstad, ‘The coming salamander plague’ (2014) Science 530.
Angie Elwin, Jennah Green, and Neil D’Cruze ‘On the record: an analysis of exotic pet licences in the UK’ (2020) 10(12) Animals.
Benjamin Marshall, Colin Strine, and Alice Hughes ‘Thousands of reptile species threatened by under-regulated global trade) (2020) Nature Communications.
Elaine Toland, Monica Bando, Michèle Hamers, Vanessa Cadenas, Rob Laidlaw, Albert Martínez-Silvestre, and Paul van der Wielen ‘Turning Negatives into Positives for Pet Trading and Keeping: A Review of Positive Lists’ (2020) 10(12) Animals 1.
 The Animal Protection Agency’s report ‘It’s time to think ‘positive’!’ provides an excellent analysis of Belgium’s success.
Elizabeth Bennet ‘Another inconvenient truth: the failure of enforcement systems to save charismatic species’ (2011) 45(4) Fauna & Flora International.