Honey bears, sugar gliders, corn snakes, green iguanas, black panthers, gray parrots, rosy boas, flying squirrels, bearded dragons, veiled chameleons, spotted pythons, leopard geckos, even poison dart frogs—these are just some of the exotic animals people try to sell as pets.
But just because someone is selling an exotic or wild animal with a cool-sounding name doesn't mean that the animal should be kept as a pet. Even though it can be easy enough to buy an exotic animal, it’s a bad idea. It’s bad for the animals, it’s bad for us, and it’s bad for the environment. And if that's not enough, in many places it is ILLEGAL to keep exotic animals!
It's Bad for the Animals
Animals like dogs and cats don’t do well WITHOUT people, and wild and exotic animals don’t do well WITH people. Since we don’t fully know what exotic animals need to be happy and healthy, we cannot give it to them in captivity.
What little we do know of the needs of many of these animals shows us that it's simply impossible to meet their needs when we try to keep these animals as pets. Many species of monkeys, birds, and wildcats often travel several miles in a single day. There's no way a walk on a leash through the park will cut it. And wildcats like tigers need major territory. Unless your backyard is the size of an entire city, you couldn't even meet the first requirement for a happy, healthy tiger, monkey, etc.!
Since the vast majority of people who try to keep exotic animals don’t understand their needs—and couldn’t meet them even if they did—the animals may be caged, chained, or even beaten into submission. Sometimes, people will cut off an animal’s teeth or claws so that the animal can’t hurt his owner even when he does struggle.
Because people can rarely meet the needs of exotic animals, malnutrition, stress, trauma, and behavioral disorders are common. Unfortunately, getting medical care for an exotic animal is extremely difficult. In many cases, owners are afraid to bring these animals to their veterinarian because it is often illegal to keep them in the first place. What’s more, many exotic animals hide the symptoms of illness, and most people wouldn’t even know what symptoms to look for. And finally, finding a proper vet could require a visit to the zoo. It’s not easy to find a vet to treat your sugar glider’s salmonellosis, your lemur’s herpes, or your parrot’s proventricular dilitation syndrome
It's Bad for Us
As one dealer of exotic animals put it, "If it walks, crawls, slithers or flies, chances are we have it." Chances are, they have crawling, slithering, flying dieseases, too. Estimates vary, but experts agree that at least one in three reptiles (including turtles and green iguanas) harbor salmonella and shigella bacteria. About 77 to 90 percent of reptiles carry salmonella bacteria. And the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service says that 90 percent of imported green iguanas carry "some strain of intestinal bacteria." If passed on to humans, this bacteria can be deadly!
In addition to salmonella and herpes B, just a few of the diseases we can contract from exotic animals kept as pets are chlamydia, giardia, hepatitis A, rabies, ringworm, tuberculosis, and scabies.
Some of the other nasty things that exotic animals can infect humans with are measles, monkey pox (a disease similar to small pox), marburg virus, molloscum contagiosum, dermatophytosis, candidiasis, streptothricosis, yaba virus, campylobacteriosis, klebsiella, amebiasis, and infections from various nematodes, cestodes, and even icky arthropods (like lice, mites, fleas, etc.). Some of these diseases are not life-threatening, while some are very serious—even fatal. And this is just a PARTIAL list—in fact, no one knows all of the diseases that exotic animals can transmit to people!
If the bugs don’t hurt us, the bites will. Exotic animals, by definition, are not domesticated. Their behavior tends to be unpredictable, and they may change with the seasons or during their life cycles in ways we don’t understand. You've probably seen a green iguana before, right? In the wild, these awesome-looking lizards hang out basking in the trees all day. But when they think that a predator is nearby and feel threatened, these lean green machines can drop up to 50 feet into the river below, using their long tails to swim to safety. If they can't run away when they feel threatened, however (like if they're kept as a pet in a small cage), they resort to another line of defense—tail whipping and biting. Just one whip is so powerful that it can break the leg of a small dog.
Exotic animals rarely bond with their owners. It's nothing personal. Would you know how to interact with a troop of monkeys, for example, if you had to live in the wild with them?! Unfortunately, exotic animals are more likely to bite, scratch, or sting. So, either these animals are kept in a cage their whole lives, or they could harm those who try to keep them.
It's Bad for the Environment
Where do exotic animals come from? It is very hard to breed most exotic pets in captivity—one of the many telltale signs that even the experts don’t understand what these animals need. To meet the demands of those who actually want an exotic animal as a pet, dealers often have to take the animals from their native lands. This disrupts the environments they are stolen from, and can disrupt the environments they are taken to, if they escape or are set loose. In some cases, it is illegal to remove these critters from their homes. And even worse, some of the animals could be endangered or threatened species!
Most people who buy exotic animals have no idea what they’re getting into. Eventually, the owner may realize that it is simply impossible to meet the animal’s needs, and see how cruel it is to keep a wild animal captive. Even the most well-meaning person can become frustrated after trying to meet the high demands and special needs of a "pet" monkey for 30 years. But what can a person do? Most shelters aren’t equipped to handle exotic animals. Reputable zoos certainly won’t take them. Certainly the dealer won’t take the animal back! There are a few sanctuaries for exotic animals, but space is very limited.
There just aren’t many options. Some people will even set the animal loose. This is dangerous and illegal. The exotic animal can spread diseases to native species, and might kill native animals and legitimate pets. They might even attack people. Setting an exotic loose is also cruel to the animal, since they are not adapted to live there.
The government does respond to the problems posed by exotic animals kept as pets, but the laws are often inadequate. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have each spoken out against the keeping of certain exotic animals as pets. Some state and local laws ban the sale or keeping of exotic animals. Other states require that a person get a license before keeping them. Still other states have no laws about keeping them. Obviously, more and better laws are needed.
Unfortunately, dealers and disreputable pets stores can quickly learn to avoid the law. For example, in 1975, the FDA banned [link] the distribution and sale of baby turtles or turtle eggs after a quarter million children were diagnosed with having contracted salmonella from turtles. However, the sale of turtles with shells larger than four inches was not outlawed, and it is still easy to buy baby turtles illegally. In fact, red-eared sliders are one of the most popular exotic pets—and, sadly, most of them die within three to six months because people don't know how to properly take care of them!
The point is that even though the government does try to help, we have to rely on our own common sense and compassion to prevent the cruelty and damage that owning an exotic animal can cause. Exotic animals are not good pets. Let’s concentrate on saving their natural homes, not bringing them into ours!