Captive-bred VS. wild-caught exotic pets

Exotic animal ownership has greatly increased in popularity in recent years, as more varied species become available, and, with technological advances, the means for keeping them have become more accessible. There are a myriad of ethical issues involved with keeping exotic pets, not least of which is how to meet their complex health and welfare requirements in captivity.

What are exotic pets?

Exotic pets refers to any species that are not indigenous to the country in which they are kept as companion animals. This is not just 'unusual' animals, like corn snakes, or capuchin monkeys, but also includes: different aquarium fish, such as goldfish; various rodents, such as hamsters or guinea pigs; and birds, such as budgies or canaries.

Essentially, exotic pets are anything that is not a dog, cat, or horse. It would perhaps be too simplistic to state that exotic pets are any species that are not domesticated. It is hard to distinguish between those that are 'wild' and those that are 'domesticated', as there is a scale of intermediate states between these two extremes – i.e. various degrees of 'feral' and 'commensal' animals that live closely to us. On top of this, the captive population of each exotic pet species often originates from several different sources, which do not all easily fall into 'wild-caught' versus 'captive-bred' categoriesi. It may be useful to consider two contrasting examples: the pet dog and the pet parrot. Through centuries of selective breeding on the dog, we humans have acted as a buffer against natural ecological pressures (e.g. foraging), which has resulted in animals that behave very differently to their wild ancestors. Every captive-bred parrot in the UK, on the other hand, is only a couple of decades away at most from their wild counterparts. Many of their instincts, such as those geared towards avoiding predators, are still very much at the forefront of their minds, and are reflected in their behaviourii.

Where do they come from?

The suitability of an exotic animal as a pet is dependent not only upon their individual temperament and species, but also where they originated from and how they found their way to the pet owner. There are multi-lateral treaties in place to regulate the international trade of threatened species, such as CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora). However, this does not take into account trade within countries, or within political blocks like the European Union. In 2005, the EU was the largest reptile importer, valued at 7 million eurosiii. Movements are underway to address the legal gap in conservation, disease control and animal welfare. While exotic pets are coming more from captive-bred sources year on year, wild-caught animals have made up to 95% of the tradeiv. In 2010, the UK imported over 36,500 CITES reptiles, 42% of which were wild-caught or ranchedv.

There are multiple concerns about collecting animals from the wild. The practice has an impact not only upon the biodiversity of particular exotic species, but also on others that depend upon them, within the same ecosystem. Wild-caught pets can further impact on ecosystems in the country they are being transported tovi. From an individual perspective, the stress of capture and transport means there is a high fatality riskvii. Wild-caught individuals find it hard to adjust to their new environment and are more likely to exhibit behaviour problems, even years after they have arrived with their owners. They are used to foraging or hunting in a very different way and often with very different prey or food items to what they have in captivity. It can take a lot of effort and anxiety, for both owner and pet, to convert the animal to a more captive-appropriate food source. Conversely, sustainable harvesting of certain exotic species can help conserve threatened habitats and can provide greater economic stability to the community that live near such habitats. Wild-caught individuals can widen the gene pool of a captive population, which is particularly important for zoo conservation projectsviii.

'Captive-bred' animals can in fact come from a wide range of sources. Two terms coined of late are 'captive-farmed' and 'captive-hatched' pets. The latter is generally where wild-caught animals have laid eggs after capture, then their resulting offspring are raised in captivity. The parents may die before or after laying, which reduces the number of reproductively-viable individuals within that species' population. When an animal is said to have been bred on a 'farm', generally it is within its native country and born into captivity. Mislabelling has been known to occur, in an attempt to get around export regulations on CITES-listed species, where 'farmed' individuals are in fact wild-caughtix. Some believe that farm breeders tend to have lower welfare standards than those that breed exotic pet species on a much smaller scalex. Captive-farmed animals have nearly the same transport stress and acclimatisation issues as wild-caught animals. Nonetheless, buying a farmed individual has the benefit of conserving the species, without putting too much strain on wild populations; in addition to providing greater financial stability to the local community.

Captive-bred exotic pets are increasingly being bred in their country of purchasexi. They may still be traded between countries, such as between the UK and the USA. These animals tend to come from smaller-scale breeders, as opposed to farms. However, they may only be one or two generations removed from wild-caught animals. Such exotic pets can sometimes be more expensive than pets bought directly from their country of origin, as the breeders have invested more in each individual, in terms of time, care and veterinary bills. As a result, they are generally better acclimatised, healthier, parasite-free and a lot more is known about their backgroundxii.

Are they suitable for captivity?

The exotic pet owner needs to make an informed judgement call on whether keeping a particular animal as a companion is appropriate, given not only the welfare of that individual, but also the welfare of the species, the environment, the local community it came from and the owner's community. Before purchasing an exotic pet, the prospective owner should think about whether that specific individual would suit captivity, particularly given its history. They should ask searching questions, such as: how long the exotic pet could live; how big it could grow; whether it would be easy and affordable to keep; if it is dangerous in any way; whether it could easily become ill, or make others ill; and what specialised veterinary care there is in the owner's local area. Unfortunately, the expertise for providing such answers may only be passed on at the point of sale, if at allxiii. Advice should instead be sought in advance through taxon-centred professional societies of biologists and veterinarians.

Exotic companion animals often have complex needs, such as with nutrition, housing, temperature, exercise and social factors. These needs do not become easier when particular pets can sometimes outlive their owners, such as with various tortoise species. The owner should consider whether they can and, specifically, how they will provide for the exotic pet within captivity throughout its lifetime. At a minimum, the UK Farm Animal Welfare Council recommends anyone who owns any animal should meet the 'Five Freedoms', which are:

  • freedom from thirst, hunger, or malnutrition;
  • freedom from discomfort;
  • freedom from pain, injury and disease;
  • freedom to express normal behaviour;
  • and freedom from fear and distress.

The means to ensure each of these freedoms are met varies greatly between species and between individuals. There are still many gaps in the scientific literature on different species, which raises questions about whether particular animals should be kept in captivity at all. For other species, there is plenty of evidence for how in the wild they can range for miles and miles, and how they can live in complex social groups. These kinds of conditions would be very challenging to replicate in captivity. Such cases have again led people to ask whether pet ownership is justifiedxiv. At a basic level at least, it is useful to consider whether the exotic species of interest is predator or prey. For example, in the wild, would a rabbit choose to co-habit with humans, a potential predator in their eyes? If not, how can this issue best be addressed?

As well as the environmental impact the exotic pet trade can have, from a community perspective, exotic pets can be carriers of diseases, such as rabies and salmonellaxv. These are transmittable to other animals and to people. The exotic pet owner is faced with the consideration of whether their pet could be a danger to others in other ways, such as bites, especially if their animal is large.

Once these considerations have been made and planned for, keeping an exotic pet can be an extraordinarily rewarding and eye-opening experience. Pet-keeping remains one of the closest forms of human-animal interaction in Western society. Given a hypothetical choice of who to be stranded with on a deserted island, 54% of people surveyed in the USA said they would prefer their pet to another humanxvi. Captive animals have been shown to have a significant impact on the recovery of hospital patients, including exotic pets like bearded dragonsxvii. As living specimens, they are of great educational value, raising public awareness not only of their exceptional behavioural characteristics, but also of their natural habitats.

Maintaining cognitive well-being in captivity

Many exotic pet species can now survive and breed very well in captivity, exhibiting relatively amenable dispositions towards humans and to the artificial environment around them. However, some of these same species are particularly prone to developing behavioural problems in captivityxviii,. The key for the exotic pet owner is to constantly monitor their pet in order to maintain their cognitive well-being. While not all natural behaviours are considered to be desirable in captivity, animals should be given the opportunity to express a normal range and balance of behaviours, similar to what they would have displayed in the wildxix. What constitutes natural behaviour, not only for the species, but also for the particular age-sex class, is a subject of debate in several specialist fields.

Different forms of environmental enrichment can prevent exotic pets from feeling boredom, fear and aggression, all of which can lead to abnormal problem behaviours. Providing a captive animal with choice is an essential part of any environmental enrichment program, such as different forms of substrate to dig into, or different locations in which to forage. Enrichment should be targeted and assessed carefully for successxx. For instance, a hamster ball may well provide exercise, but if it collides with many obstacles, or is in the presence of any apparent predators, like dogs, it will have a detrimental effect on the hamster.

Environmental enrichment is not the only answer for preventing behaviour problems in exotic pets. There are a variety of sensory, physical and cognitive adaptations for exploratory learning in the animal kingdomxxi,xxii. In other words, no matter what environment an animal finds itself in, it wants to find out more about it. Pet owners can take advantage of this and provide their pets with all form of new things and actions to learn. Initiating species-specific, reward-based training programmes can be hugely enjoyable for both pet and owner. They provide alternative outlets for stress and frustration, as well as being a means of mitigating unavoidable captive practices, such as regular veterinary check-upsxxiii. Providing exploration opportunities and training can furthermore increase an animal's problem-solving ability2. The training approach taken should be adapted to the individual pet's nature and circumstances. For example, clicker-training may not be appropriate to a parrot that is sensitive to certain noises.

Where do the APBC stand on exotic pets?

The Association of PetBehaviour Counsellors is primarily concerned with counselling owners about their pets’ behaviour problems, which also involves optimising the welfare of exotic species in captivity. As we have explored above, there are a variety of avenues of acquiring an exotic animal as a pet, both legal and illegal, that have impacts upon the individual, the species, the environment and the local community. The APBC believes that once in captivity, by whatever route, every pet has a right to the best possible welfare. Whilst condemning any form of capture and breeding that compromises animal and human welfare, the APBC therefore aims to provide the best service for pet owners to improve their pets’ behaviour and welfare, without passing judgement on the way in which an individual pet was acquired.

In conclusion, extensive research and careful planning is needed to ensure the specific physiological and behavioural needs are met for any exotic species of interest. Animal welfare science is an exciting field that has expanded vastly recently. New, sophisticated techniques for properly assessing different animals' cognitive well-being are being developed all the time. Whether you are thinking about becoming an exotic pet owner, or are one already, seek expert advice from your local exotic vet. They will be able to refer you onto an appropriate APBC member in order to assess your particular situation and provide objective, up-to-date information on how best to keep your exotic pet.

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Zoe Demery 2012