In today’s society, domestic pets are very popular. As of 2006, more than 69 million households (63 percent) own at least one pet (“How Many Pets”, par. 1). And as the number of domestic pets increases, so does the number of exotic pets. But what exactly are exotic pets and what dangers do they present? Should they be banned because of these dangers? And if so, are all exotic pets dangerous, and should they all be banned?
Exotic pets are very difficult to define. An exotic pet is a rare or unusual animal kept as a pet which is not commonly thought of as a pet. There are many different types of exotic pets. Ferrets, rabbits, rodents, reptiles and amphibians, salamanders and newts, snakes, turtles, hermit crabs, insects and millipedes, scorpions, and tarantulas are just a few examples of exotic pets. Some other various types of exotic pets are animals such as big cats (non-domestic), monkeys, pigs, primates, raccoons and wolf dogs (McLeod, par. 2).
Exotic animals are usually animals that are not native to our land. Because of this, they can present a biological threat to the public. Although all animals harbor and can transmit bacteria, pathogens, and viruses to humans that have the potential to cause illness, many people associate these pet-related illnesses with unusual or exotic pets. A zoonotic disease is an infectious disease that can be transmitted from animals to humans (Smith, “Exotic Pets Zoonotic Disease”, par. 6). There is controversy over diseases that are claimed to be spread by exotic pets. Many people who argue for the banning of exotic pets present an illusion that diseases are spread by exotic pets, and that non-exotic pets in comparison are “clean and safe” to own.
Although approximately 70 percent of emerging diseases come from “wildlife”, those animals are animals that exist in the wild, while most of the commonly kept exotic pets are captive bred (Smith, Exotic Pets Zoonotic Disease, par. 9). Some diseases that are often claimed to be associated with exotic pets are salmonella (reptiles and amphibians), tuberculosis (non-human primates), herpes (monkeys), rabies (all mammals), hepatitis B, hantavirus (rodents), and ebola (primates) (Smith, Exotic Pets Zoonotic Disease, par. 18). The controversy over some of these diseases is that groups that oppose the ownership of exotic animals create an image that these diseases are always or most commonly spread by exotic pets, which is not the case. While salmonella is a serious infection in young children and the elderly, it does not really affect healthy individuals.
And the infection is most commonly transmitted through improper handling of raw meat and eggs. Only 0.2 percent of salmonellosis cases have come from reptiles within any given year. In her article “Exotic Pets Zoonotic Diseases”, Melissa Smith points out that “cats are the most common animals found with rabies, exotic pets are almost never found with rabies. And no one in the US has ever contracted rabies from an exotic pet” (par. 20). So although exotic animals are capable of spreading disease and do present a biological danger to humans, the exotic pets that are kept captive do not usually present the same or as many dangers as exotic animals that are found in the wild.
Some exotic pets can be dangerous and pose a physical threat to the safety of the public as well. Between the years of 1990 and 2012, there have been 75 human deaths and 543 human injuries due to exotic pets (“Exotic Animal Incidents”, par. 1). In the city of Allentown, Pennsylvania a woman named Kelly Ann Walz was mauled to death by her pet black bear at the age of 37 (Murano, par. 2). Another woman named Sandra Piovesan bled to death at the age of 50 after being mauled by a pack of nine wolf dogs that she raised as pets (Murano, par. 7). In Sumter County, Florida on July, 1 2009, a family’s pet Burmese python strangled a toddler (“Exotic Animals…”, par. 20).
And in 2011 in Zanesville, Ohio, a man named Terry Thompson was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, and dozens of exotic animal cages- including lions, tigers, wolves and bears- were found wide open. A total of 48 animals, 39 of them being big cats, were deemed a serious threat to public safety and were shot and killed by law enforcement officials (Kendall, par. 1-2). As much of a threat as these animals pose to human safety, the animals themselves are put in danger as well. Between the years of 1990 and 2012 there have been 200 animal deaths and 55 injuries caused by direct human action (“Exotic Animal Incidents”, par. 2). So the exotic animals and the humans both pose a threat to each other to some extent.
Although some exotic pets can be very dangerous, others may only be as dangerous as, if not less dangerous than a domestic animal. There are many exotic animals that pose little to no threat to the public. Fennec foxes are one of the most popular exotic animals and thrive with the proper owner. They make good house pets, weigh as much as a Chihuahua and are harmless (Smith, “10 Exotic Pets”, par. 12). African servals also make excellent pets, but are often lumped into the same category as lions, tigers, and other big cats. A pet serval is not likely to stalk a child if it ever happened to break free from its owner’s home. And servals have actually been responsible for no human deaths in the United States (Smith, “10 Exotic Pets”, par. 17).
Exotic animals, dangerous or not, may still have a large impact on the nation’s environment. Animals that are not native to our land become “invasive” when they thrive and reproduce in new surroundings and harm the native plants and animals, placing them at risk of extinction. Although most species brought to the United States, such as cattle, are beneficial rather than invasive, when exotic animals escape or are released into the wild and face no natural predators, they can cause major problems (‘Exotic Animals…”, par. 11). Florida is considered to be “ground zero” in the invasion, with more exotic pets arriving daily and more protected species at risk than anywhere else except Hawaii (“Exotic Animals…”, par. 6). There are up to 100,000 pythons roaming in the Everglades, and dozens of other non-native reptiles and amphibians that thrive in the state’s temperate and subtropical climates (“Exotic Animals…”, par.12).
For example, exotic armored catfish, which are a result of escapes or releases from aquarium fish farms, occupy waters adjacent to the Everglades National Park and are considered a threat to the park. The males dig out the river banks and create burrows to attract a female, where they lay and guard her eggs. In large numbers, these burrows can potentially destabilize the banks, leading to an increased rate in erosion (“Exotic Animals…”, par. 14). Florida property owners and agencies spend more than 600 million dollars a year, and the United States spends over 137 billion dollars a year in damage and containment efforts due to these invasive exotic animals, which is nearly double what the nation spends on cancer treatment (“Exotic Animals…”, par. 15). And between diseases such as citrus canker, which has killed off tons of citrus trees, weeds and the bugs that are killing forest plants and crops, the overall economic impact is severe. “Imported insects or animals can spread and compete with, reduce, or eliminate other species of wildlife. They can also facilitate the spread of human disease and severely impact our agricultural commodities and our environment (“Exotic Animals…”, par. 30).
There is an ongoing debate surrounding the banning of exotic pets. There are many animal rights organizations such as PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and Born Free USA that want to ban the ownership of exotic pets because they have seen the things that happen in some cases. They have seen inhumane holdings and their overstrained owners who were misinformed or rushed into the ownership. They did not know the amount of time, money and care that their animals require, which leads to sanctuaries that have to care for the neglected, aggressive animals, and feed them with low donations and an inadequate budget. These reasons understandably make those organizations want to ban the ownership of exotic animals. But there are also thousands of exotic animal owners that take incredible care of their pets and do not wish to see their ownership banned.
REXANO (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership) is an organization that tries to educate the public about the (surprisingly low) dangers of exotic animals and demonstrates the peaceful coexistence of animals and people. So while there are always two sides to everything, the subject of exotic animal ownership is not just black and white, which makes the discussion of banning exotic pets a very complex one. There are five different categories under which state regulations fall. “1. A complete ban on private ownership of exotic animals including non-domestic felines, wolves, bears, reptiles, and non-human primates; 2. Partial ban on private ownership of some exotic animals (ownership precludes previously mentioned species); 3. A license or permit is required by the owner as a way to register the animal with local and state authorities; 4. No license or permit required to register the animal with authorities, but there may be other regulation regarding the transportation or veterinary related; or 5. No statue or regulation” (Dow, par. 2).
Out of all 50 states there are 20 that have a complete ban, 8 have a partial ban, 12 require a license and/or permit, 9 do not require a license and permit, but do have other regulations, and 2 (West Virginia and Wisconsin) have no laws governing the ownership of exotic animals (Dow, par. 2). There are currently over 13 million reptiles including snakes (venomous and non-venomous), crocodilians, and lizards housed in private residences. Large carnivores are also very popular among exotic animal owners with 15,000 big cats, 2,000 bears and 1,000 wild candids living in homes across the nation. There are also an estimated 15,000 non-human primates living as exotic pets (Dow, par. 3).
Both dangerous and not dangerous exotic animals have an impact on our country, whether it be through the dangers they present to the safety of the humans, or the dangers they present to the environment. While exotic pets do have some negative impacts on our country, not all are a major issue or pose a major problem. If the animals can benefit from the care of humans without posing a danger to them or the environment, then there is no reason why they should be banned. It is best to distinguish the harmful from the harmless and deal with them accordingly. But knowing the difference requires a vast amount of knowledge and a lot of research. Instead of banning exotic pets in general, we should have stricter laws and regulations concerning exotic animals. There should be regulations on who can own certain types of animals, what is required in own an exotic animal, and what exotic animals should be allowed to be owned as pets.