By Blake Wolfe
TORONTO - For anyone considering an exotic pet, knowledge is power.
Earlier this month, an 80-cm caiman — a reptile related to the crocodile — was rescued from a pond in Toronto’s High Park. The animal, which was taken to Reptilia Zoo in Vaughan, is assumed to be a former pet that grew too large or difficult for its owner to care for and was released.
High-profile stories of exotic or unusual pets either escaping or being set free by their owners are nothing new. Before the High Park caiman shot to its 15 minutes of fame, Darwin ‘the Ikea monkey’ captured headlines around the world in December 2012 after it escaped from owner Yasmin Nakhuda’s car, parked at the Toronto furniture store.
In recent years, Toronto Police have responded to numerous calls involving snakes on the lam in local apartment buildings. And while most likely a supermarket purchase rather than an unconventional pet, Humane Society officers were called in April after a lobster was found in a St. Catharines parking lot.
Not all of these incidents are so light-hearted, however. Last August, two New Brunswick boys were killed by a four-metre-long African rock python that had escaped its enclosure in a pet store underneath the apartment in which they were sleeping.
Mary Barros, of the Bear Creek Exotic Wildlife Sanctuary, said that 95% of the animals dropped off at her Barrie-area facility are former pets, including a three-toed sloth named Sydney whose owners could no longer care for her. Barros said that many of the creatures at Bear Creek, including tigers, wolves and primates, can be easily purchased as pets online.
“You can buy pretty much anything on the Internet these days,” she said.
Izzy Hirji, a spokesman for Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, said that sales of such animals are also occurring in southern Ontario at auctions, some of which are advertised through online ads. The Sunderland facility houses Darwin the Ikea Monkey following a legal battle over his ownership. Hirji said half of the sanctuary’s 25 primates are former pets.
With the rise in popularity of pets outside the realm of cats and dogs, Toronto Animal Services’ Fiona Venedam said she expects the number of prohibited animals impounded by the city to rise in coming years.
“There’s a high demand for these animals,” Venedam said. “
Fines for keeping a prohibited animal range from $205 to a maximum of $5,000, she said, adding that additional fines can be incurred if a prohibited animal, such as a bear or hawk, is also protected under provincial or federal legislation.
Despite the city’s efforts to prevent ownership of certain animals as pets, Venedam acknowledged that many are smuggled into Canada and are sold through the Internet or directly to collectors.
Although the average exotic pet owner is more likely to keep a snake than a caiman, several animals common in the exotic pet trade are not permitted as pets in some GTA communities.
While creatures like chickens, raccoons and goats can’t be kept as pets in Toronto, many animals that would be considered exotic are also banned, particularly large snakes over three metres and any venomous or poisonous animals, including tarantulas and scorpions. Crocodilians — which include caimans — are universally banned as pets in the GTA.
However, bylaws can vary between municipalities, particularly in regards to pets of the eight-legged variety. While the Town of Newmarket bars large and/or poisonous snakes, the municipality does make exceptions for New World tarantulas and emperor scorpions.
Similarly, the City of Mississauga’s animal bylaw permits ownership of non-deadly tarantulas and scorpions, instead specifically prohibiting species such as the black widow and wandering spiders, both of which can kill humans. According to a city staff report, that decision was made after Mississauga staff consulted with the Toronto Zoo on which species are harmless.
Most animals prohibited as pets in the GTA are in line with the recommendations of the Pet Industry Joint Advisory Council of Canada (PIJAC), which advocates on behalf of the Canadian pet industry. While a cohesive exotic animal policy does not exist in Ontario, PIJAC president and CEO Louis McCann said that the organization has been consulted by the Ontario government in its review of exotic animal guidelines. Such a policy was developed in British Columbia in 2009, he said.
“Because of different lifestyles and needs of pet owners,” McCann said, “it’s not just about cats and dogs anymore. However, it must be an informed decision when someone is purchasing an animal.”
Exotic pets sold in Ontario pet stores come from a variety of sources. While many are imported from around the world through distribution companies, many smaller stores, such as Scarborough’s All Reptiles carry out captive breeding in-store, manager Karen Truong said. She said animals can also come from local breeders, many of whom started out as hobbyists themselves.
Lee Parker, facility manager at Reptilia who caught the High Park caiman, said while a caiman is not a good choice for a pet, he is not opposed to people owning exotic animals like snakes and reptiles — a potential alternative to cats and dogs for allergic animal lovers. However, he stressed that owners first research the bylaws in their communities and purchase only from reputable and knowledgeable sources.
On average, Reptilia takes in 75 animals a year, many of which are surrendered pets that are re-housed with other facilities as space becomes available, he said.
“It’s all about picking a suitable pet,” said Parker. “People need to find a reputable dealer who has the expertise and experience in dealing with such animals. Overall, it’s a personal choice and if someone does end up with something that is illegal or difficult to care for, they need to contact a sanctuary rather than release it into the wild.”