Exotic pets? Like my ex's evil Siamese cat?By exotic pets, we mean animals that aren't domesticated like household dogs or cats. Some are wild animals that have been captured in their native habitat; others are bred in captivity. But many of them make very bad pets, since more often than not they retain their wild habits without adjusting to a human environment or to captivity.
What kind of beasts are people keeping as exotic animals?You name it, and somebody somewhere probably has it as a pet. Siberian tigers, African rhinos, Australian parrots, all kinds of monkeys, apes and other primates -- even insects, piranhas, lungfish and poisonous reptiles -- are part of the burgeoning trade in exotic animals.
How big is the trade in exotic animal pets?Huge. Some experts estimate the legal trade in exotic animals is a $10 billion annual industry. But the illegal trade in exotic animals could be double that size, though it's nearly impossible to gauge its economic impact because it operates in secrecy, like much any other organized criminal network. In fact, some critics believe illegal animal trade is more profitable than the international trade in drugs or weapons -- ounce for ounce, some animals are worth more than cocaine.
Who's buying exotic pet animals?It's a worldwide market, but the two countries most often cited for trade in animals are the United States and China. Over 37 million individual birds, amphibians, mammals and reptiles from 163 countries were legally imported to the United States from 2000 to 2004. America is probably responsible for about one-third of the trade in exotic animals. China is also an enormous market, where many animals or animal parts -- shark fins, tiger penises and bear paws -- are thought to have medicinal uses, aphrodisiac qualities or other magical properties.
What happens to exotic animals when they arrive?You mean "if" they arrive: Untold thousands of animals die in the field after coveted body parts are chopped off with knives or chainsaws, and thousands more die while being transported in tiny cages, inside spare tires or plastic tubes, stuffed into storage containers with hidden compartments and other ingenious hiding places. In 2002, a man was arrested at a Los Angeles airport with two Asian leopard cats in a backpack, several rare birds of paradise in other luggage and a pair of pygmy monkeys in his underwear. One customs agent estimates that animals transported under cruel conditions like these have a mortality rate of 80 to 90 percent.
Where do the surviving exotic animals go?Some exotic animals are lucky enough to go to professionally managed zoos, while less-fortunate animals end up at medical research labs, hunting ranches, roadside attractions, petting zoos, circuses, breeding mills, pet stores or slaughterhouses. There are legal auctions held across the United States for exotic pet buyers, but the Internet has become the leading place for people to buy exotic animals. If you have a credit card, you can log onto any of dozens of websites and buy a tiger, a giraffe and a dozen stingrays, and have them all delivered in a matter of days -- it's that easy, despite the dangers to you, your family and your community.
What kind of dangers do exotic pets present?First, there's the obvious risk of animal attack. Young wild animals may seem cute, but as they get bigger and stronger, the stress of living in an unnatural environment can cause these animals to lash out at people, especially small children. If these animals escape or are set free, they can present a real danger to other animals and people in the surrounding community -- even if they never come near those animals or people.
But if I never get near a wild animal, how could it harm me?Disease. Exotic animals are notorious for spreading exotic diseases, as well as more common conditions like salmonella infections. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimate that reptiles and amphibians cause about 93,000 salmonella cases every year. Herpes-B, Ebola, SARS, monkey pox and tuberculosis are also easily transmitted to humans from exotic pets, and many of these illnesses are deadly. A report in the Journal of Internal Medicine estimated that 50 million people worldwide have been infected with animal-borne diseases since 2000, and up to 78,000 have died.
What effect is the exotic animal trade having on surviving wild populations?
They're getting wiped out. For some endangered species, such as Asian bears, rhinoceroses, elephants and tigers, the trade in exotic pets is making it nearly impossible for wild animals to breed and survive. More than 330 rhinos were slaughtered in South Africa alone during 2010 -- nearly one rhino a day -- leading many experts to conclude that at the current rate of capture and killing, the animals will soon disappear.
Additionally, exotic pets that are released into the wild after they become too big or too troublesome are a genuine danger to people and to the local ecosystem. Perhaps the most well-known example is the growing population of invasive Burmese pythons that are wreaking havoc on Florida. As the python population soars, native animals are under increased stress for food and other resources -- as well as the stress that comes from being killed and eaten by a python.