In the US, states, and even local jurisdictions, have different laws about owning exotic pets. Some exotic pets are illegal in residential areas but allowed on large plots of land. Other times they can be legal if you get a permit. It also sometimes depends on the exotic animal in question. A pet ferret is legal in most states, but that doesn’t mean you could bring home a lion or a cheetah.
However, even if it’s legal to own an exotic animal, many of those animals get into homes through illegal trade. Wildlife trafficking is a multi-billion-dollar business. Each year, tens of millions of wild animals get captured and sold to buyers around the world for a variety of reasons. They don’t all become exotic pets—some get eaten, put on display, or used to make clothing—but the vast exotic pet market helps keep demand high. So, no matter what your state allows you to own, simply buying an exotic pet could be fueling an illegal business.
Additionally, many wild animals sold as pets are actually laundered, which means they are poached and/or trafficked illegally but are intentionally mislabeled and sold as “legal.” Since the mere origin of an animal can render its sale and ownership in violation of the law, individuals who have illegally “wild-caught” animals will often falsely label them as “captive-bred” so that they comply with industry import/export requirements. No matter what the label says, it can sometimes be hard to discern the true origin of a wild animal or potential future exotic pet due to the frequent practice of false labelling. As seen in an example involving the illegal exportation of reptiles from the US, violators conspired to falsely label wildlife in order to avoid detection while smuggling animals out of the country.
how does the exotic pet trade harm animals?
The exotic pet trade can be notoriously harmful to the animals that get captured and sold. Many die in transit, where they get stuffed into makeshift hiding places, poorly fed, or otherwise improperly handled. If they survive, they often end up in cramped spaces far from their natural habitats and others of their kind.
The capture of wild animals also harms their natural ecosystems. Even animals that aren’t being poached can be indirectly affected as the decline of other species throws their ecosystem out of balance.
Then there’s the harm exotic pets can cause if they escape or get released into the wild. If an animal ends up in a place where it has no predators, it can reproduce and wreak havoc on the natural ecosystem. This is what happened with the Burmese python, which is native to Southeast Asia and arrived in Florida as a popular pet. A few pythons got loose, and now there are thousands of them in the Everglades, competing with native animals over food and preying on endangered species.
what are the risks to humans of owning exotic pets?
Many wild animals carry viruses and bacteria that can spread to humans if we interact with them too closely. These days, scientists estimate that around three out of every four new infectious diseases come from contact between humans and wild animals. These diseases, called zoonotic diseases, include some of the most deadly and infamous diseases such as HIV, Ebola, and SARS.
These germs don’t always make the animals sick; that means even if an exotic pet seems healthy, it could be carrying diseases that would make a human sick, like salmonella, Lyme disease, or a coronavirus.
Exotic pets can be dangerous for other reasons too. As adorable as they might be when they’re little, they still have their wild instincts that can come out unexpectedly. Animals that once seemed sweet and cuddly, like tiger cubs or baby chimps, can quickly turn ferocious—and once they get big and strong, they’re not easy to handle safely.
what’s the difference between owning an exotic pet and a domestic animal?
Exotic pets are expensive. The cost to purchase them varies from extremely low to extremely high, but regardless of the initial investment, their lifetime care can be very costly. They require specialized diets and veterinary care. If your dog gets sick, you can generally go to any vet and get help. If your chimpanzee gets sick, you’ll likely need to shell out for a specialist.
On top of that, many exotic pets, like reptiles and parrots, live long lives compared to dogs or cats. Taking care of them can be a lifelong commitment costing tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Living with an exotic pet as opposed to a domestic animal may be harder on the owner—but it’s also probably harder on the animal. Having lived alongside humans for many generations, domestic animals tend to do well in human homes. It can be far more difficult to meet the needs of an exotic pet.
For one, the food they require to be healthy can be hard to come by, and many exotic animals need far more space than they get in an average home. Some, like reptiles, also need special heat and humidity levels that can be challenging to maintain. And whereas a dog might be perfectly happy socializing only with humans, many other species have social needs that can’t be met in isolation.
Ultimately, unless you’re able to meet all the needs of an exotic animal in your home, living with a domestic animal tends to be much better for the pet owner and the pet.
thinking of buying an exotic pet?
Maybe you’ve been charmed by a TikTok video of a big-eyed creature adorably eating a carrot or being combed to sleep with a toothbrush—who hasn’t? But before looking for an exotic pet of your own, it’s worth considering what it would take to care for this pet, and how owning it could harm the animal, the planet, and even you.