By Jo-Anne Nina Sewlal
The exotic pet trade has thrived because people want to own a pet that is different.
So what makes a plant or animal exotic? Basically something that is not native to the area is considered an exotic. What we need to realise is that many of these exotic animals are taken from tropical regions, including the Caribbean, such as the Cuban macaw (Ara tricolor) which was hunted to extinction.
Parrots are also threated, like the St. Lucia parrot (Amazona versicolor), St. Vincent parrot (Amazona guildingii), and the imperial parrot (Amazona imperialis) of Dominica. But the pet trade is not limited to birds. Also not only is this decreasing our biodiversity but it affects the biodiversity and ecology of the countries that these animals are sent to. This article will explore some of the reasons why the exotic pet trade has thrived and how it affects our environment.
People buy exotic pets for many reasons. One main reason is that they are taken as a symbol of wealth, because the price to own one is extremely high. Another reason is that it may be perceived as part of a trend or entertainment fad. An example of this was seen in the 1980’s television show “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” which rose in popularity and with it the trend to own pet turtles.
But let us start from the beginning and see how these animals are caught. What many people fail to realise is how these animals get to be in the pet store or available for sale in the first place.
These animals are often violently removed from their natural habitat. They may be captured in traps. A disturbing trend with pets both domestic and exotic is that people prefer them when they are young, so that there is a demand for kittens or cubs. However, animals that exhibit parental care are very protective of their young, and this often results in the mother being killed while she tries to prevent her young being taken. This has the additional effect of removing individuals of reproductive age from the ecosystem, thus reducing the population.
This process stresses the animal. They are often transported in small cages, so that many individuals do not even survive the journey to the country. Even fewer reach the pet store alive.
In many cases these animals are illegally caught and shipped, so to avoid detection many of these animals are shipped in small cages or packed close together. Not only is the journey stressful for the animal especially after being ripped out its home and way of life and away from its family for social animals, but if an individual is sick or diseased it can spread to the other animals in that shipment.
These young animals will grow in size and mature, so sadly another reason why these animals are abandoned is because they are just not cute and cuddly anymore. Also as they grow they need more space and food.
So most of the time when these animals are sub adult or adults, they are abandoned by their owners, who cannot provide enough of these requirements.
This is especially true for animals like the large cats. In the wild, these animals prowl and protect huge territories, up to 259 square kilometres. These animals are physically designed to hunt and kill their prey with sharp claws and teeth designed to rip flesh apart.
Therefore, these animals may also be abandoned because they are too big to control and pose a threat to the safety of the owner and their family. But many wild animals do not have to be mature to pose a threat to human health. For example, reptiles and amphibians carry salmonella, while mammals like monkeys and African rodents carry viruses like rabies, monkey pox and Herpes B, all of which can be transmitted to humans and are fatal.
Often when these pets are abandoned or escape, they will mingle with the native species. These species may also be able to better compete with the native species for resources like food and space and in some case mates. Many times the exotic species will have a native counterpart, so that they will mingle with the native population. This interaction can result in them passing diseases to the local populations. They may even breed with the native species which in some cases result in the production of sterile offspring. This becomes an even greater problem when the species that it is pushing out of food and space or mating with is a keystone species.
Ecologically this means that without a keystone species, the ecosystem will not be able to survive. For instance, some plant species depend on animals to disperse their seeds by producing fruit which is eaten by animals and deposited in the animals’ faeces.
This dependency may go so far that the plant may have evolved to attract a specific animal to its fruit. Therefore, if the population of this animal species is removed rapidly from the ecosystem then that plant may become rare or endangered as there are fewer animals to disperse its seeds. In extreme cases it may go extinct as it may not have time to evolve to attract another animal disperser. The process of evolution takes a lot of time, over multiple generations. Keystone species also help in regulating the populations of animals. Many predatory animals get a bad reputation on nature documentaries when they are filmed killing gazelles or zebras. But the reality of the situation is that the numbers of these animals have to be kept in check. They are grazers, and if their population is allowed to grow uncontrollably then they will be taking away resources such as food and space from other grazing species.
One of the major threats to biodiversity is habitat loss. Many people think that they are doing a good deed by taking these animals in and providing a home for them, but they are actually doing more harm than good. Taking in exotic pets is very harmful to our environment. Many of these animals bring with them diseases. It may be that these animals were slowed down by their illness which is why they were captured in the first place. Alternatively, these animals may be vectors for disease.
Many wild animals are removed from their natural habitat as food, locally referred to as wildmeat. Removing them to supply the exotic pet trade is another pressure to be added to the overhunting that these animals face. Also the species that is being taken and traded may be a keystone species, therefore upsetting the ecosystem they came from.
Therefore, through the exotic pet trade these animals, which cause no harm to the environment in their natural habitat, are now alien invasive species.