The exotic pet trade in the UK has increased dramatically since the 1950s, with at least 3 million reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates and birds being kept as pets.
UK regulation and legislation has not kept up with this boom and fails to adequately ensure these animals are being properly cared for and that their basic needs are being met, meaning many are suspected of leading lives of suffering behind closed doors.
In a hard-hitting report published this week, charities Born Free and the RSPCA say the extensive trade in and keeping of exotic wild animals in the UK presents a ‘ticking time bomb’ for animal welfare, species conservation and human and animal health.
The charities have published a joint report – The Exotic Pet-demic: UK’s ticking timebomb exposed – which presents strong evidence that the private keeping of exotic wild animals poses significant risks to animal welfare, species conservation, animal and human health, and environmental integrity, and calls for urgent changes in the law.
Risks to wildlife and humans
Will Travers OBE, Co-founder and Executive President of Born Free Foundation said: “As well as potentially catastrophic welfare implications, our report shows this trade has clear impacts on the decline of species, risks to native populations of animals and, as the past year has shown starkly, risks to human health.”
He explained that animals of all kinds, including many that are threatened with extinction, are taken from the wild or bred in captivity to supply the demand for exotic ‘pets’.
“Many of these are destined to end up in the United Kingdom, all too often in conditions which seriously compromise their welfare,” Will Travers added. “Exotic pets can present a serious risk to the health and safety of their owners and other people and animals that might come into contact with them. In addition, non-native species can threaten our own native wildlife and may be vectors for disease.”
Last year, the RSPCA handled more than 6,000 calls relating to almost 23,000 exotic pets – from lizards and snakes to raccoon dogs and monkeys.
“Many of the problems we deal with are the result of a lack of understanding how to care for exotic pets,” Chris Sherwood, Chief Executive of the RSPCA said.
“These animals have the same, complex needs as their wild brothers and sisters, but it can be extremely difficult to fulfil those requirements in a domestic environment and that leads to suffering.”
The importance of the report on exotic pets
The new report reveals that exotic pet ownership in the UK is extensive, driven by factors including an animal’s rarity or aesthetic appeal, portrayal in mainstream and social media, and personal status of the owner.
The Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association’s 2021 report estimated that 59% of households (17 million) in the UK keep a total of over 33 million animals (excluding fish) as pets, with 11% of households having acquired a pet since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This report offers far-reaching recommendations and we hope it will be a springboard to further discussion about the way we regulate the keeping and trading of exotics and improve their welfare,” Chris Sherwood added.
“This important report highlights why the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, which approaches its 2nd reading, doesn’t go far enough, particularly in its failure to propose a full ban on primates being kept as pets,” he said.
“We also want to go further and restrict the keeping of other exotic, wild animals whose needs cannot be met in the home and who face a life of suffering if kept as pets. There needs to be better regulation of the keeping and trade in exotic pets, and we are proposing that the government gives consideration to a positive list system as a possible way forward.”
Why aren’t current laws around the exotic pet trade enough?
The report says current laws are inadequate and need an urgent overhaul. Data shows the shocking extent of wild caught and captive bred animals being imported into the UK, with over 400 CITES listed species amongst those transported to the UK between 2010 and 2019.
In addition, millions of terrestrial non-CITES species are legally imported every year. But this is the tip of the iceberg, as many others are believed to be transported to the UK illegally.
The report reveals strong evidence of exotic pets being commonly deprived of one or more of the basic welfare requirements specified in UK legislation, including: a suitable environment, suitable diet, the ability to exhibit normal behaviours, social needs, and freedom from pain, suffering, injury and disease.
The low welfare practice of keeping exotic animals with complex needs results in extensive animal suffering.
Will Travers OBE, Co-founder and Executive President, Born Free Foundation, said: “Current legislation relating to the trade in and keeping of exotic pets is reactionary and unable to keep up with or predict where demand will be focused in the future. This not only places government and policy makers on the back foot, but also results in countless species being imported into the exotic pet trade before legislation can take effect, with potentially disastrous consequences for conservation and animal welfare.”
In addition, the report raises serious concerns about the conservation and environmental impacts of the exotic pet trade, described as ‘an important and increasing driver of biodiversity loss.’
Exotic pets also present a risk of injury and infection to traders, keepers, handlers, and other close contacts, and can potentially harbour zoonotic pathogens, which can cause serious disease in individual people, and may present a risk of emerging infectious diseases and potentially pandemics. Current UK regulations do not adequately mitigate the risk of human injury or infection from the trade in and keeping of exotic pets.
The escape or deliberate release of exotic pets can also result in the establishment of invasive alien species, with potentially serious consequences for native wildlife and environments, and significant associated mitigation costs.
What’s the desired outcome of the report?
With the release of this new report, The Exotic Pet-demic: UK’s ticking timebomb exposed, Born Free and the RSPCA are calling on the government to:
● Amend the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill to close a loophole that would allow primates to be traded between license holders
● To introduce further restrictions on other exotic wild animals being kept as pets
● Consider and consult on the possibility of developing a robust ‘Positive List’ system to restrict the keeping of pets to those species which meet strict criteria aimed at ensuring their welfare and conservation, and protecting human, animal and environmental health
● Consider and consult on its future approach to the trade in and keeping of exotic pets to mitigate and prevent animal welfare, conservation, human and animal health and safety, and environmental risks, as well as respecting species protections in other countries.
A current Born Free petition is also calling for the UK Government to review and reform laws on the private keeping of Dangerous Wild Animals (DWA). Sign it here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/581252
Learn more the exotic pet trade
- Paris lion cub pet shines a light on the shocking reality of exotic pet trade
- King update: Born Free’s rescued lion cub starts a new life
- The Tiger Kings in Europe
Learn more about the illegal wildlife trade
- Wildlife Trade Laws must be reformed with ‘One Health’ approach
- Born Free Launches Global Nature Recovery Investment Initiative
- End Wildlife Crime: New initiative presented at the House of Lords calls for an International Agreement
- Ways to prevent the next pandemic
- Inside the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
- Hear my chat with UN Ambassador Aidan Gallagher at the Illegal Wildlife Trade Conference 2018
- Remembering elephants at CITES 2016
- Cecil the lion’s legacy at CITES 2016
- Rhino horn trade debate ahead of CITES 2016