The exotic pet trade

The trade in exotic species to be kept as pets threatens the survival of wild species, the welfare of the animals, and the health of humans and other animals.

At every stage of the trade in exotic pets, the animals suffer, whether they have come from the wild or from a breeding facility.

The capture of animals in the wild can deplete native populations by up to 70%, according to the EcoHealth Alliance, and threaten biodiversity. Crude and non-species-specific methods may be used to catch wild animals, which can damage the ecosystem and result in injuries or death for both target and non-target animals. A study in 2013 under the United Nations Environment Programme in West and Central Africa estimated that for every chimpanzee kept as a pet or in a zoo, another ten die in capture or trade conditions. 

Even if they survive the journey to Europe, the animals’ suffering is far from over. They are often kept by people who don’t know how to care for them, or in conditions that don’t correspond to their physiological and ethological needs. A study published in 2019 demonstrated that snakes need space to stretch their bodies to their full natural length, but in fact they are commonly kept  in small vivaria and racking systems that don’t allow them to do this.

Problems also arise when social animals are kept in isolation, or solitary animals are kept with others. Species such as African grey parrots can pluck out their own feathers due to boredom and a lack of opportunity to socialize with other parrots. Sugar gliders are also very social animals, and can self mutilate when kept alone. On the other hand, solitary animals such as big cats, when kept together, can pose a serious threat to each other.

Some animals die as a result of their owners’ inability to take care of them. An owner might lose commitment to an animal due to traits such as its long life expectancy, large size, complex housing needs, aggressive nature or high cost. Eurogroup for Animals’ member organisation AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection reported that in 2015, three-quarters of the animals they rescued had been abandoned.

Rescue centres and sanctuaries simply cannot keep up with the amount of animals being abandoned.

Discarded animals that do not end up dead or in shelters may add to the problem of invasive alien species (IAS) and can impact biodiversity and disrupt ecosystems in their new environments. Some examples of abandoned animals in Europe that have become IAS include the red-eared slider turtle and the American grey squirrel.

There is currently no available, up-to-date information on the trade in wild pets in the EU.

This makes it difficult to evaluate the exact source of all animals and thus the impact of their removal from the wild. The lack of proper regulations on the keeping and trade of exotic pets in many Member States, coupled with insufficient knowledge of some private keepers, undermines the welfare of the animals and pose a threat to human and animal health and biodiversity.








Why do people want to keep exotic animals as pets? The reasons are varied. Some people take pride in the sense of uniqueness that comes from keeping non-typical pets; others can see it as a sign of status; others do enjoy taking care of these animals. Whatever the reasons, those who keep exotic animals, even those with the best of intentions, almost always underestimate the complicated needs of exotic species.

An opinion poll conducted by Savanta ComRes for Eurogroup for Animals and AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection in 2020 indicated strong support for better regulation of the trade and keeping of exotic animals as pets within the EU. 87% of respondents across the six surveyed countries: Italy, France, Germany, Finland, Spain and Poland, agreed that exotic animals should not be kept as pets, that the trade should be better regulated (92%), and that the EU should have a greater role in this as part of Common Market rules (88%).


At EU level, Regulation 338/97 sets the foundations on the trade of endangered species and protection of wild fauna. In 2016, the European Union released its EU Action Plan against Wildlife Trafficking to 2020, which includes a specific action to discuss the role played by the exotic pet trade on wildlife trafficking. Furthermore, the EU passed Regulation 1143/2014 which sets out provisions on invasive or exotic species. However, existing legislation only covers less than 1% of existing wildlife species and criminal organisations often specialise in species which are only protected in their country of origin. Finally, enforcement is challenging, given the very diverse legislation regulating the exotic pet trade in EU Member States. The EU Biodiversity Strategy to 2030, adopted in May 2020 in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, highlights that efforts to reduce wildlife trade are crucial to both prevent and build resilience to future zoonosis outbreaks.

Some Member States such as Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Malta and Croatia have adopted legislations including Positive Lists: lists of species that are allowed to be kept and traded as pets. Other Member States have developed ‘negative lists’ of banned species, but these lack the clarity of Positive Lists as to what is permitted, because new species emerge that have not been foreseen by the law, making it impossible for policymakers to keep up with importers that exploit these loopholes.