“God loved the birds and invented trees. Man loved the birds and invented cages.”
The illegal wildlife is a huge business with numerous different aspects. For the sake of brevity, I’m looking at the trade in exotic pets.
In 2005, the wildlife trade business was the second-largest illegal trade in the world after drugs. Some of these animals are rare, endangered or unsuited for domestic life. For example, in China there is a huge demand for exotic pets which ranges from fennec foxes to saltwater crocodiles to raptors and owls. Certain species are seen as fashionable and despite it being illegal, there is demand for them and so there is supply. Some animals are collected specifically because of their rarity, making it a status boost and supporting the owners vanity. The problem is, that many of these animals are taken from the wild thus reducing populations and causing biodiversity loss. There are also risks around escape and disease.
Animals may be bred in captivity, in which case they are prone to inbreeding and this results in health issues, deformities and genetic weaknesses. Those animals which do not have the cute appeal or have health issues will probably find themselves killed.
The other way that animals are obtained is by taking them from the wild. When it comes to primates, this is often done by killing the parent for meat. The baby will continue to cling to their mother after her death making it easy for poachers to take them. The adult is sold for meat and the orphans are then smuggled out of the country.
The journey from habitat to their new owners home is a stressful one for animals. They are in shock from the abduction and are often neglected, causing starvation and dehydration. They tend to be crammed in with other animals and so spread disease amongst themselves. These diseases can also spread to all the areas the animals pass through. A combination of how the animals are captured, how they are shipped and how they are cared for on this journey to owner means that many animals die before they get there. This is factored into the retail price of the pets.
If they are “lucky” enough to survive the journey, they then must be traded.
A National Geographic documentary showed slow lorises being used to make money on the streets of Thailand – $10 for a tourist to take a selfie with the slow loris. But some of these vendors could also, illegally, arrange for tourists to buy one. Police in the area were bribed to look away and the illegal animals were part of a big criminal syndicate. This is big business and based on the documentary, one which seems to go on fairly explicitly.
As a side note, this animal selfie trend has it’s own issues. The animals, which range from slow lorises to tiger cubs, tend to be hand reared to encourage them to behave tamely, they have their own diseases and can spread or catch diseases from the tourists, the animals tend to be sedated and undergo procedures such as tooth removal to make them suitable for handling. They tend to be kept in unsuitable conditions, with poor hygiene and poor health care. In the case of some animals, especially those like tiger cubs, they are photographed being fed (presumably because it makes them more willing participants) so are kept underfed – if the cub is not hungry that means no money.
Some wild animals are available to buy in pet shops. In America, the law about what can and can’t be sold as a pet varies from state to state and in some cases the law is specific about what can’t be but this means that it is a finite list and with wild animals being turned into pets, the law can’t keep up. Other options for buying your exotic pet include the internet, local papers, even through social media sites.
This lack of regulation, or enforcement of law, means that animals which are bred for sale may be the result of inbreeding which leads to genetic weaknesses and poor health as well as deformaties. It also means that checks are not carried out to ensure the animals are going to a suitable home. In the UK, if you adopt a rescue animal, you often have to have a house inspection first so that the charity know that your cat or dog is going to be looked after. This won’t happen for illegal or unregulated trade, even though we’re talking lions and tigers and bears, not a little poodle*.
*Not that I’m saying cats and dogs don’t need good care, but the care they need is much easier to meet than the care needs of a big cat or primate.
It is estimated that 90% of wild caught reptiles die in their first year in captivity. Figures for other exotic pets are also shocking. Some of this is due to how they have been caught and transported prior to being sold but there are other factors.
A lot of exotic animals are just not suitable for pet life. Whether dogs and cats are suitable is an argument in itself but at least they’ve had several thousand years of domestication and we sort of understand and attempt to meet their needs. The case is not the same when it comes to exotic pets.
Diet and space are key issues in the care of wild animals. They tend to eat specific foods which aren’t always available outside of their natural habitat and some, such as lions, are going to eat a lot, and that is going to cost a lot. And this isn’t something everyone considers when they see a little lion cub drinking milk from a bottle… Space is a huge issue. Literally. A lot of these “pets” roam miles and miles in a day in the wild and are then relegated to tiny cages. Even those who are lucky and have larger cages have nothing like the space they should have. Lack of stimulation within the pet’s habitat is also going to be an issue. I’ve been housebound for several months and that drove me to boredom even though my size to home ratio is much higher than most cages and I had all my books and dvds and everything else around me.
The cost of keeping a lion means you’re probably only going to have one, despite them being pack animals. I’ve also seen documentaries about exotic pets where solitary animals, such as tigers, are kept in a cage with several others. And cages set up so that prey can see predators, what must that do to an animal to be watched by their enemy all day?
Most people want baby animals, because they are cute, and this means that there is no market for adults and no market for rehoming unwanted adolescents. This also increases the number of animals which suffer the trauma of being separated from their mother at a very young age. Like human babies, some wild animals go through an extended period of dependency and bonding with their caretaker. Indeed, in one of the documentaries I watched, the owner of a number of large cats was complaining that he didn’t really like them as babies because it was like having a small child around. They are needy and reliant on their caretaker for their needs and if these are not met, there are consequences. Obviously certain needs like food and drink will lead to death if not met but there are other needs which help to develop emotional and cognitive aspects and if these are neglected then the animal will suffer and there is a high chance that this neglect will show itself through behaviour and potentially lead to humans being harmed.
Even if an owner does everything right to care for their exotic pet, there is always going to be a risk of escape. And in the case of wild animals this is more severe. Spread of disease is one risk. Another is that it turns into an invasive species and disrupts the local ecosystems. But in the case of large and dangerous pets, the biggest risk is attack. And just the risk of the escapee attacking someone can lead to it having to be killed. There is also the danger to the pet owner. In 2011 in New York, a woman died after being bit by her pet black mamba. When pets attack humans, accidentally or intentionally, the result is almost always that the animal pays with its life, even if all they are doing is acting naturally.
Some exotic pet owners claim they are driven by a desire to protect animals and conserve endangered species but the effect is actually the opposite. The rush to own slow lorises has led to a dramatic decline in wild populations. They look adorable but are wild animals with venom and a painful bite. To “turn them into pets”, their teeth are removed. They have a very complex diet and owners often fail to meet their needs. In addition to that, they are nocturnal so are not suited to being brought out to be petted and shown off in the harsh light. The argument that animals can be bred and released later is also not one that stands up to scrutiny as breeding is unregulated and often the animals in question aren’t even living in the right country for rehabilitation. And in their life as a pet, they will have picked up diseases and illnesses which their wild counterparts do not have defence against.
The subject of disease is one which is worth returning to. Animals tend to carry diseases and these, like the common cold, tend to be regional specific strains. This poses a number of risks. Firstly, the animal may transfer the disease to humans. Secondly, it may be transferred to other animals and thus spread through a region where immunity is not developed. This risks a devastating impact on local wildlife.
However cute that picture on Instagram looks, remember that these are animals with needs that we can’t meet and whose lives we are harming and whose populations we are destroying. I think part of the problem with the exotic pets trade is that the animals are seen as objects, as fashions and as status symbols. Until we can turn conservation and compassion into more desirable traits, I worry that we will continue to see this form of animal cruelty and neglect.