The exotic pet trade

The trade in exotic species for pets threatens the survival of wild species, the welfare of the animals, and the health of humans and other animals.

The trade in exotic pets affects primates, reptiles and millions of ornamental fish, among countless others. At every stage, the animals suffer, whether they have come from the wild or from a breeding facility.

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. As pets, 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 like any other animal, but in fact they are commonly kept by breeders and hobbyists in small vivaria and racking systems that don’t allow them to do this.

Some animals die as a result of their owners’ inability to take care of them, such as the marmoset monkey found dead in a London street in 2018. 

The capture of animals in the wild can deplete native populations
by up to 70%, according to EcoHealth Alliance, and threaten biodiversity.

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.

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. They can end up abandoning animals or throwing them away, such as in the case of the lion cub found abandoned in a cage in a forest in the Netherlands in 2018.

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. In 2018 Eurogroup for Animals’ member organisation the RSPCA received 15,790 calls to their 24-hour cruelty hotline about exotic pets alone. Of the animals they rescued during the same period, 4000 were exotic pets. In 2017 AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection received 701 requests for rescue, but could only take care of 136 of them. 

The 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, which 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, can undermine the welfare of the animals and pose a threat to human and animal health and biodiversity.

What does the public think?

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.

Policy - current state of play

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, criminal gangs often specialise in species which are only protected in their country of origin, and enforcement is challenging, given the very diverse legislation regulating the exotic pet trade in EU Member States. 

Some Member States such as Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have adopted legislation including ‘Positive Lists’, which are 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.

Eurogroup for Animals

Eurogroup for Animals believes that Positive Lists are the most effective, concise, transparent, enforceable and economically feasible way to regulate the exotic pet trade. We would like to see more EU Member States adopt Positive Lists, and we will continue to work on the Think Positive Campaign which promotes their use, as well as raising awareness amongst pet owners. 

In addition, given the growing number of Member States adopting restrictions on the exotic pet trade, legislative opportunities to introduce an EU-wide Positive List are now offered by Article 114 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU), to avoid distortions of the EU internal market. Eurogroup for Animals then calls on the European Commission to take the first steps towards harmonising legislation and creating an EU-wide Positive List of species that are allowed to be kept and traded as pets.