What Is Wrong With Exotic Pets?

Clifford WarwickClifford Warwick PGDipMedSci CBiol CSci EurProBiol FSB is a Consultant Biologist & Medical Scientist.  He qualified in biology through research in 1990 and later trained in primary health care at The University of Leeds School of Medicine, graduating in 2004. His professional and academic qualifications have been awarded for non-invasive research work in reptilian biology, biological strategies, and in human medicine — specialising in zoonoses (transmission of disease from animals to humans),
 gastrointestinal disease, fever, and biological strategies in health and disease.  
He was made a Fellow of The Institute of Biology (now Society of Biology) for his ‘distinction in biological research’.  He also became a Member of the European Communities Biologists Association and a Fellow of The Royal Society of Public Health.  In 1992 he won the British Veterinary Association Intervet Animal Welfare Award.  More recently he was awarded Chartered Scientist status by the Science Council and the Society of Biology, and Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics.  Clifford has produced around 100 peer-reviewed publications in biology and animal science, and around a dozen peer-reviewed publications in human medicine, as well as innumerable popular articles.

Here Clifford explains to AIA’s Animal Spirit magazine, what is wrong with exotic pets.

  1. What exactly are “exotic animals” and what does the term encompass?

What is ‘exotic’ to one country is often regular wildlife to another.  So, exotic pets can described as any animal species that is non-native to and not normally domesticated in a country or region, and that is produced, sold or kept for amusement or companionship. Of the multi-billion dollar international trade in wildlife and its products, around one-fifth is driven by demand for exotic pets. Many animal traders try to refer to certain exotic species common in the pet trade as ‘domesticated’ simply because they have been bred over several generations.  But true domestication is a phenomenon based on very long-term selection of pre-existing specific traits – such as strong socio-affiliative behaviours to other species – and exotic pets simply don’t figure right in this. The very fact that people ‘need’ to keep their lizard, snake, or bird caged confirms it isn’t fit for captivity. If people were to treat their dog or cat as they do an exotic pet they might face prosecution for cruelty.

  1. Briefly, could you provide our readers with an overview of the most common welfare issues associated with the keeping of reptiles as pets?  Should we be keeping exotic animals as pets as all? 

Reptile keeping is a prime example of what is wrong with the exotic pet sector in general. Vast numbers of reptiles are wild-caught – causing untold degradation of populations and ecological alteration. Handling, transport and storage cycles are often repeated en route through the trade chain and domestic environment, and each stage harbours a disturbing tale of animal abuse, injury, disease and death. A recent study at a major pet dealer found that 72% of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles and mammals destined for the pet trade die within just six weeks – that is, before they are even sold. Of those reptiles that do make it into the home at least 75% die annually. Whereas most dogs have genuine life-sharing associations with their keepers and achieve natural longevity, reptiles are typically and essentially imprisoned against their will in small unsuitable dried-out fish tanks. Of the minority that survive to grow, many are unwanted and cast into local habitat where they can become invasive species – 51 foreign types of amphibian and reptile now occupy areas around London, UK alone.

  1. You have published some excellent articles that offer a practical guide to local authorities to help them uncover welfare problems in pet shops and animal markets. Could you elaborate on this?   

I do write a lot, but I am merely one among very many scientists and veterinarians reporting on a fast developing field of investigation – i.e. the documentation of the harms inherent to the global trade in animals.  I’m not a campaigner, so all I can do is provide information and trust someone can use it.  Whilst those who sell and buy exotics must take responsibility for the actual harm of that business, it is the civil servants who sit on their hands that are the real obstacle to improving matters.

  1. Besides the major welfare issues associated with the keeping of exotic animals, there are also good public health reasons for not keeping such animals in the home or petting zoos.  Could you elaborate?

Absolutely, humans are also victims of reptile (and other exotic pet) sales, because many (at least 70) diseases of people are now linked to captive wild animals. These animal-linked illnesses are called ‘zoonoses’. Ironically, whilst so many people are aware of protecting their family’s health from tropical bugs and pests when they go abroad, they unwittingly invite a raft of germs into their homes in and on the bodies of innocent ‘carrier’ pet animals, crudely wrenched from their natural homes to become a spectacle in someone’s lounge – it’s what we are calling the ‘zoonotic Trojan horse’.

  1. Many people have negative views of snakes and lizards because of cultural conditioning. Could you give our readers an insight into how you developed such awe and respect for these magnificent creatures?      

I really don’t know why I got so involved with reptile biology as such. Originally, I wanted to become an astrophysicist as I had an innate understanding of that field when I was a kid, but as I’ve never been out of work for even a day I shall not complain about having worked in biology for so many years! To me all animals are equal biologically, but I did find reptiles fascinating. So little was known about them at that time (four decades ago) so I guess the subject was somewhat ‘undiscovered country’ – which I always find intriguing.  As I learned more of their physical and psychological sensitivities, and the accompanying lack of sympathy from most people, I wanted to ‘stand up for them’ against the tide of abusers. Many of their abusers were cold, hard, exploiters of their flesh and skin, but one of the most – if not the most pervasive (although arguably insidious) abusers are those who claim to admire them – pet sellers and keepers. One of the unfortunate things about the situation is that modern science has clearly shown that reptiles, amphibians, fishes and invertebrates (whether squid, bees or any we look at) are way more perceptive and sensitive than previous generations believed. Indeed, there may be not significant differences in key areas of physical and mental perception between all well studied animals now. Therefore, only an out of date ‘fool’ would regard a reptile or other so-thought ‘lower’ animal as not needing all the considerations of those we fully accept as sentient and sensitive. The challenge is trying to get this message to the majority of unsuspecting purchasers along with others such as animal ‘hobbyists’ and civil servants who choose to ignore it.

One thought on “What Is Wrong With Exotic Pets?

  1. Thank you for addressing this very interesting and important topic. The interview with Warwick raises important questions about which animals should and should not be kept as pets. Taking as a basic premise that we shouldn’t keep as a pet any animal who we need to confine to a cage, then we should examine pet keeping practices well beyond the realm of exotics. What about all the so-called “pocket pets”–the hamsters, gerbils, rats, etc.–who spend their entire lives within the walls of a tiny cage? Or fish? Or birds?


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