Australia, do you know where your exotic pets come from?

By Angela Heathcote | February 20, 2019

New polling has found that almost a quarter of pet owners in Australia have done no research into their new exotic animals.

FRESHWATER FISH, birds and small mammals are among the most popular exotic pets owned by Australians, but do you know where they’ve come from? According to a poll by World Animal Protection more than a quarter of exotic pet owners did no research before buying a wild animal.

The polling looked at 500 owners of exotic pets who owned wild fish, birds, reptiles and small mammals, excluding domesticated animals such as cats and dogs.

“We were shocked to see just how little research people did before buying a wild animal as a pet,” says Simone Clarke, Executive Director of World Animal Protection Australia and NZ. “And 26 per cent of exotic pet owners did absolutely no research before buying a wild animal as a pet and a further 27 per cent spent only a few hours researching their animal.”

Most people became interested in buying an exotic animal through friends and family, the polling revealed. The second reason was “general interest”, which Simone puts down to the popularity of these pets on YouTube, Instagram and other social media channels. “There’s a growing online trend that is hiding the cruelty behind the trade.”

For Taronga Zoo’s forensic wildlife pathologist Lydia Tong, determining whether an animal has been bred in captivity or taken from the wild for the exotic pet trade is increasingly difficult to determine. And it’s having a big impact on the environment, she says.

“In order to make wild-living species available to be sold as pets there are going to be impacts on that species and the environment they come from,” Lydia says  “Habitat may be disrupted [when hunters] find and catch the animals, and removal of animals can alter the sensitive ecological balance, especially when fads lead to excess pressure on particular species.

“Animals kept as pets or bred in the pet industry can almost never be released back to the wild populations – the risk of introducing disease to the wild populations is too high, and pet animals and their offspring often don’t have the skills to survive in the wild.”

Exotic pet trade, a growing multibillion-dollar industry

Lydia is a part of a new research group called WildEnforce, which is a collaboration between Taronga, UNSW, UTS and the Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation (ANTSO).

WildEnforce have developed a quick and easy test to look at an animals keratin (what hairs, nails, spines, feathers, scales and scutes are made of), which keeps a record of what the animal has been eating. The test is effective because the diet of wild animals is almost impossible to replicate in captivity.

“In the future, we hope that our tests will help to stop illegal trade and its associated environmental, conservation and welfare impacts on the many and amazing species we share this Earth with,” Lydia says.

Before purchasing an exotic pet Lydia recommends you ask yourself the following

Is it legal for me to own this species as a pet where I live?

Can I provide this species with everything it needs to live a healthy and happy life?

This is considerably harder with exotic/non-domestic species than it is for domestic animals, and especially hard to provide in your own house or backyard. Fulfilling the nutritional and environmental needs of exotic and wild species is complex and expensive, and if you can manage that, can you also fulfill their social, reproductive and psychological needs? Ask yourself how does that species live in the wild? Are they solitary animals that normally avoid humans? Do they dwell in deep dark rainforests? Do they travel large distances as part of their normal life? Are they nocturnal? When you think about the lifestyle of that animal, do you think that life in a human household will suit it? There are lots of things to consider when bringing an exotic animal into your care.

Do I have access to veterinary care for this species?

Can I afford this veterinary care or can I find an insurance company that will insure my pet? Most veterinarians will happily provide basic care for any species, but if your animal gets significantly unwell, you may need to have access to a specialist exotics or wildlife veterinarian. Maybe find out if there is a vet with a special interest in non-domestic species near you – and even better – chat to them about your plans to get a pet.

How can I be sure that any animal I might purchase has been ethically sourced? 

You must ask:

  • Where was the animal bred?
  • By whom?

If a seller is evasive about telling you where the animal has come from, this is a big warning sign. Many wild species breed very poorly or slowly in captivity – and so it is not possible or commercially viable to breed them in captivity. Therefore animals may be illegally taken from the wild and passed off as captive-bred animals.

Sometimes they or their parents may have been illegally brought in from overseas – and these animals will not have been screened for potentially serious infectious diseases.

If you cannot be told where the animals have come from, or from whom, nor shown appropriate breeding or import/export certification – think very carefully about whether you want to support a business that may be encouraging unethical or potentially illegal practices that harm the very species you hope to care for.