Domesticated animals have been bred to live and work alongside humans, whether your dog sleeps on your bed or your horse hangs out in your barn.
It’s so appealing to have a pet that only a few people have. For those of us who are fascinated by the unique, that squirrel, fennec fox, or pangolin is attractive. We imagine ourselves cuddling that skunk or watching that lemur make their way through our lives.
However, capturing and then removing wildlife from their natural habitat, or purposely breeding and handling them, will not necessarily make them domesticated; true domestication takes hundreds of years. You can acclimate any animal to people, although it might take most of the pet’s lifetime with a lot of bumps along the way.
However, some species, such as ball pythons and corn snakes, can have good lives as pets if provided with the specific care they need.
Generally speaking, it’s not in the best interest of an animal or their health or welfare to be removed from the wild, but many wild places are in a poor state and many wild animals suffer tremendously because of habitat loss and other environmental changes.
Sometimes people find baby squirrels or raccoon kits who appear to be alone and if they are to survive, they need human assistance. People learn how to take care of them - correctly, incorrectly, or bad enough to do harm - and fall in love with them, trying to keep them as pets because they were such easy keepers as babies. However, when those begin to mature, their outlook may change. Most people, even though they are well-meaning, cannot provide good welfare even for captive-bred exotics. The animals end up frustrated, cantankerous, messier, and more destructive, a bit like teenagers but far more aggressive or dangerous. Sure, some number of them will accept living in captivity, but it's not possible to tell which newborns will allow themselves to become semi-domesticated pets.
Life in the wild is all about eating, drinking, and reproducing, with some playtime and sunbathing tossed into the mix. Wild animals have a job: to survive and reproduce, and they have to use their wits to succeed. A captive life with insufficient husbandry may mean the animal has no use for their basic natural skills and therefore boredom is often a significant part of their daily life. Monkeys need to climb and prairie dogs need to dig. Zoos create enrichment programs and species-specific environments for their exotic inhabitants that individuals may not be able to provide.
Giving an exotic animal a healthy diet can be challenging since you usually cannot just grab prepared food off a shelf as you would do for a cat or dog. Often you need multiple items to create a species-appropriate diet, even hunting in the outdoors for some things. For example, pygmy marmosets have a specialized diet of tree gum. Fennec foxes eat insects, small rodents, lizards, plus birds and their eggs. Pangolins eat ants, termites, and larvae. Skunks need mostly lean protein and vegetables. Tarantulas are carnivores, and they feed on insects, frogs, toads, small lizards, and so on. Compare all that with going to a store and buying your pet’s food.
The Exotic Pet Trade
Obviously, not all exotic pets are purchased from illegally trafficked sources. Many species, such as bearded dragons, ball pythons, parrots, skunks, prairie dogs, sugar gliders, and axolotls have been captive-bred for years. However, according to the U.S. federal government, the black market in wildlife is the world's second-largest, only trailing drugs.
Trafficked animals are frequently transported in inhumane ways, and often most of the animals that survive capture die during transport. Because so many die, traffickers take more animals than they think they will need, reducing free-living populations.
Smugglers have invented many methods to increase the number of animals they can get through security. One man arrested at the Los Angeles airport had Asian leopard cats in his backpack, birds of paradise in his checked luggage, and pygmy monkeys hid in his underwear. In some other cases, baby turtles are taped shut into their shells and packed by the dozens into tube socks. Infant snakes have been transported inside CD cases. Poached bird and reptile eggs can be concealed in specialized vests that elude the airport's security X-rays.
For traffickers to get one wild animal to survive to be sold as a pet, numerous others must die. Purchasing an illegally trafficked animal may result in you receiving an emotionally upset or unhealthy animal whose only interactions with people were when they were captured and transported.
Invasive Species: One Difficult Situation
Burmese pythons come from South Asia, where they live in grasslands, marshes, and other water-oriented land. The carnivorous species was brought into the U.S. by the exotic pet trade between 1996 and 2006. Because people did not expect their Burmese snake to get as big and unmanageable as they do (they can grow almost 7 feet in a year), people dumped them in large numbers into the Great Outdoors to fend for themselves. The most affected area is the Florida Everglades, which has a climate that allows the snakes to thrive. Also, in 1992 during Hurricane Andrew, a python-breeding facility was destroyed, unintentionally releasing the snakes into the Everglades.
In South Asia, Burmese pythons spend long periods fasting because of seasonal variations in prey. They can easily succumb to cold stress, and mortality rates in winter are up to 90%. In Florida, the snakes have no such seasonal hunting variation or cold stress, and the species has thrived.
The Burmese is large enough to prey on white-tailed deer and the Everglades now have decreased deer populations. The Florida panther (the state animal) also feeds on deer are now endangered there. Populations of other animals such as rabbits, foxes, coyotes, and birds are decreasing there as well. The Burmese python is now the top predator in the Everglades, over the native alligator. Additionally, the snakes brought in a parasite called Raillietiella Orientalis which is now endemic to reptiles in Florida.
Another sad aspect is that as the Burmese python takes over the Everglades as an invasive species, despite ongoing efforts to eliminate it, in South Asia their population is dwindling because so many have been taken from the wild for the exotic pet trade. They are now a protected species in their homeland.
Appropriate Care is Difficult and Sometimes Impossible
Wild animals need specialized diets and environments to meet their basic nutritional needs. Inappropriate diet or husbandry causes illness; many reptile owners unintentionally cause chronic kidney failure with inadequate husbandry and diet. Imagine how much harder it is to care for an animal that is not legal in your country or to access appropriate veterinary care.
When you own wildlife, you have some risk. Most animals who are afraid or terrified will respond aggressively, likely biting or scratching. Pulling an animal out of its natural life and placing it in an artificial environment can result in poor welfare. Pain or illness can also cause an aggressive reaction, causing an animal to bite. Dog and cat bites can injure, but the bite of an upset large wild animal is much worse.
However, most bites are not nearly as bad as that of the Komodo dragon, which has venomous saliva and a bite of 1,000 pounds per square inch (PSI) of biting force. Other biting forces include:
- Average cat or rabbit: 67 PSI
- Human: 162 PSI
- Dog: 300-588 PSI
- Cougar: 350 PSI
- Gray Wolf: 406 PSI
- Average macaw: 500-700 PSI
- Golden eagle: 750 PSI
- Chimpanzee: 1,300 PSI
- Nile crocodile: 5,000 PSI
It’s also wise to consider your legal and financial accountability in owning an unpredictable animal, wild or not. Can you afford the appropriate housing, diet, and veterinary costs for an unusual animal? Can you find insurance to cover any problems with that pet that could occur to someone outside the household? Can you find a veterinarian willing to treat your exotic pet?
If you wish to own an exotic animal, you can find responsibly bred captive exotic pets. Purchase these from a breeding facility certified by some government agency. In the U.S., that means buying from a USDA-certified breeder; in the U.K., there is no such equivalent, but to own an exotic you are required to get a license from your city council. In Australia, you cannot legally buy an exotic animal; you can only buy a native species, and the breeders also need to be licensed by a state authority, usually the Dept. of Heritage and Environment.
Many exotic animals have been captive-bred to be excellent pets and can experience good captive welfare. Captive-bred animals are likely to be used to some human interaction. Wild animals are a bad choice for pets for so many reasons – temperament, health, environment – and animals that have been bred by people make far better pets, no matter what species they are.
Dr. Meghann Berglund contributed to this article