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The contentious issue of the trade in, breeding and the keeping of exotic wild animals as pets in South Africa has not only deeply disturbing welfare implications for the animals concerned, but, just as importantly, is a significant threat to conservation and biodiversity.
The practice of importing and exporting wild animals as pets has been happening for decades. Much of the trade is driven by purely whimsical impulse purchases and for prestigious reasons. Entertainment fads often determine which wild animals are the fashionable pets of the moment and everything from the smallest reptile to a full-grown tiger can be sold to anyone for the right price. However, most owners don`t realise the huge responsibility or costs involved when they purchase exotic pets. Nor do they consider what is going to happen to these animals when the novelty wears off.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, the exotic pet trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, second only to the drugs and weapons trades in terms of its gross worth.
Millions of animals are forced into the exotic pet trade every year for the purpose of becoming someone’s pet or entertaining the masses in a circus or zoo.
While some wild pets have been bred in captivity, many exotic animals are plucked directly from their native habitats. The animals kept in captivity represent only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what is killed in the catching and transportation process. These animals are often smuggled illegally in horrific conditions and those that survive often suffer a variety of illnesses or injuries due to being kept incorrectly by ignorant owners.
Although as babies these animals might be cute and easier to maintain, they usually grow into dangerous adults with unmanageable needs where life in a domestic environment rarely satisfies their natural desires. Additionally, as exotic animals grow, their needs for food and space increase, sometimes astronomically. When it gets to that stage, the once-loved pets often end up in cages where they are neglected or abused and it’s not unusual for exotic pets to be malnourished and stressed. They also tend to develop behavioural issues that can lead to bites and attacks of their owners or even self-harming. Such animals typically are confined to small cages, passed from owner to owner, or disposed of in other ways. There are not enough reputable sanctuaries or other facilities to properly care for unwanted wild animals.
Exotic animals in captivity are bred intensively to supply the demand or create colour morphs that are sought after for their novelty value. Unwanted exotic pets can end up back in the exotic pet trade but some are released into the wild where, if they survive, can disrupt our local ecosystem.
Owning an exotic pet comes with some real health implications, too. Reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella, and more than 74,000 cases of salmonella poisoning are linked to these pets each year in the United States alone. Exotic pets like monkeys and rodents often carry viruses like herpes B, monkey pox and rabies, all of which are highly infectious and potentially fatal to humans. Exotic venomous snakes need specific anti-venom which hospitals in South Africa do not have. Exotic venomous snakes have been found in the wild in South Africa. This is a huge threat.
There’s also a wider issue of the global social and environmental responsibilities that we have to consider. Removing wild animals from their natural habitats negatively affects delicate ecosystems and biodiversity which rely on those species to further the life cycle of plants and keep animal populations in check. Habitat destruction and the trade in wild animals are the two largest threats to wild animals worldwide.
Countries across the world are being systematically drained of wildlife to meet a booming demand for exotic pets and there’s rarely a happy ending for the animal.
Exotic pet owners, pet shops and facilities that keep and display exotic animals perpetuate the exotic pet industry. They encourage people to think that it is okay to have these animals as pets and this means that other people, often less well-equipped and knowledgeable, think it is okay to have an exotic animal as a companion.
These remain wild animals that do not take comfort from living in a household. These animals have to be caged and are denied the opportunity and ability to act out their natural behaviours in order to form part of “the family”.