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Sunday, October 14, 2012

Ethics Week: The Exotic Pet Trade.

(WARNING: Long article is LONG.) 

"The exotic pet trade is the most profitable trade after drugs." While true, this statement aligns something debateably bad with something almost definitely bad. Although, yes, a lot of exotic pet owners do not know what they're doing, the knowledge about the care of  exotic animals is now more accessible than ever. Exotic pets, including fish, birds, and reptiles, are usually available in shops in the developed world; people tend to worry more about large snakes, wolves, and big cats being handled by people without adequate resources.

That said, a warning: Beware of Stampy.



For those of you who do not know the earlier episodes of The Simpsons, Stampy was Bart's former pet elephant. Stampy was won from KBBL radio thanks to a lucky phone call. The prize was supposed to be a thousand dollars, but Bart insisted on picking the African elephant - a joke prize - over the actual money. The radio station was forced to acknowledge the deal, and managed to send the family a full-grown African elephant, whom Bart christened "Stampy." The end result was an animal that the family could not afford to keep and was certainly not happy in suburbia. Luckily, Springfield happened to have an elephant sanctuary. Stampy, now a partially-tame elephant, was then referenced on at least two separate occasions in subsequent episodes.

Bart and Stampy's situation is a legit exotic pet lover's worst nightmare: a giant animal kept in horrible conditions without any research done beforehand. Indeed, a lot of pets are bought on impulse without any forethought whatsoever. In the case of exotic pets, this mistake can be quite damaging. The owners of such pets are lucky if they can find a shelter willing to take exotic animals. For convenience, I will refer to people in this situation as "Stampies."

The exotic pet trade has been going on since time immemorial. For ages, kings and emperors had things called "menageries" - collections of animals so extensive that they were basically private zoos. The first official menagerie supposedly started with Charlemagne in the 8th century, although cheetahs and other 'exotics' had been kept as royal pets long before that. The aristocratic menagerie later evolved into the modern zoo.

Source.


Oh, gods...old zoos sucked. If you have ever seen the old, old pictures of animals in cages just barely big enough to fit them, that is exactly what they were like. Zoo exhibits now are actually quite nice compared to the boxes animals used to be stuck with. I'm not saying that all tigers should be kept in captivity, but eventually, that may be all we have. We might as well give them a good home while their old habitat is being destroyed.

Exotics can be seen as nature's last refuge. The Spix's macaw and scimitar-horned oryx come to mind; both of these species are now extinct in the wild, and are being bred in captivity so that they may be reintroduced once their habitats recover. Although the initial intent may have been for pets or sport, the result remains positive. If there are any Spix's macaws left, they number less than 50, if not 0. 71 (the number of Spix's in captivity) is a bigger number than 0.

The counterargument is that the exotics trade encourages capture from the wild; while this may be true in the initial phases, as time goes on, people will eventually prefer animals that are slightly socialized to be around humans, come free of parasites, and will overall be cheaper than going into the wild and catching them. The main issue is always habitat destruction, but who's to say that exotic pets can't be spokes-animals?

The exotic pet trade has been around for a long time. Things have gotten better, not worse, with that time. (Individual cases vary; on the whole, things have gotten better.) A lot of the exotic animals that you'll find in zoos have been bred in captivity. Thanks to how long it's been going on and, with improvements in technology, potential exotic pet owners can now become educated. There's a chance to go, "How much will this elephant really cost me?" before buying it. Should one go forward with getting an exotic, parasites and other issues with wild-caught specimens will be less of a burden.  Stampies are now easily preventable.  If that is not a good thing, I don't know what is.

Another thing that many people against the exotic pet trade don't realize is that Stampies occur regardless of the legality of the pet. There is always someone who will buy a big dog to make themselves feel tougher, only to realize that they got more than they bargained for. Siamese cats are very loud and can keep people up in the middle of the night, but don't they look so cute as kittens? That's why purebreds in particular wind up in shelters. People get too relaxed and don't do research. Don't think you can handle a Great Dane just because it's a dog, and hey, you've got a friend with dogs.

From www.dogbreed.info.com


The examples above stem from ignorance, just like most of the reports of Burms and retics escaping on the news. The main difference is that there are plenty of people willing to take in a Great Dane or Siamese, and a lot fewer people willing to handle a giant snake. People abandon dogs and let dogs escape all the time; does it ever make the news? Not usually. We've just grown that accustomed to dogs.

Another thing that tends to come up regarding the pet trade is the possibility of invasive species. The worst animal invasions do not come from the exotic pet trade at all.  Any introduction of any foreign species can be devastating to an ecology, regardless of intent. Nobody wanted to bring Japanese beetles into the U.S., or Brown Tree Snakes into Guam; they got there by accident. Rabbits and cats are pretty much domesticated, yet they wreak havoc in Australia and did the same thing in Hawaii. Although not necessary invasive, cows are unintentionally the most environmentally-destructive animals in the world; rainforests die just so that Mickey D's can sell hamburgers, and cows produce methane, one of the leading greenhouse gases. Whether an animal is 'exotic' or not doesn't mean a darn thing. Humans will touch almost anything in nature. If you really want to protect a place's ecology, ban humans.

This is not to say that the trade should go completely unregulated. Rather, if exotic legislation was based on rationale instead of fear of the strange, we would see a lot less of it. Places like Hawaii and Australia naturally have a lot more laws than other areas; domestic animals and stowaways have already wreaked havoc on the ecosystems there. Florida has issues not only because of the ecology being perfect for giant snakes like the Burmese python, but also because the Miami airport cannot handle exotic imports very well. The Lizard King has more details on the politics therein if you feel inclined to research them. Point is, they actually have reasons for the laws as opposed to, say, a nationwide ban on all pythons. Yes, that almost passed.



Even then, some creatures that could be considered 'exotic' are now almost in the realm of normalcy. Ball pythons and parakeets (budgies) come to mind. In states where they are legal, ferrets are now recognized as a sort of 'domestic exotic' (nobody knows where pet ferrets came from, but at the same time, not everybody has one and they aren't legal everywhere).  More and more species formerly called 'exotic' are now common sights. I'm going to go out on a limb and call this man-made biodiversity a good thing; more options means more learning opportunities, and more chances to connect with the big, wide world that people tend to take for granted. 

Am I saying that everybody should have a wolf or tiger? No. Am I saying that nobody should dive into a pet period? Yes. It just so happens that some pets are more 'normal' than others, and it is not uncommon for people to bite off more than they can chew regardless of how normal a pet is. Research something before you buy it, whether it's a cat, dog, steppe runner, or anaconda. (That last one is a horrible idea unless you've been keeping reptiles for at least a decade, by the way.) If there's a law preventing you from keeping something, look into why. No matter how much I advocate Darwin Awards, a happy pet-human relationship is preferable to death.

Results not typical...but very cute.

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