These cantankerous animals should never be kept as pets

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

Story at-a-glance -

  • Sadly, there are people who demand to keep wild animals as “pets,” and as a result, there’s a very lucrative black market for wildlife traffickers
  • There are many reasons people should never view wildlife as pets, one of which is the fact that cruel and inhumane methods are used to procure wild animals for the pet trade
  • In addition, adult wild animals are often dangerous and some carry disease
  • The demand for wild animals as pets keeps the despicable exotic pet trade in business
  • People interested in having an animal companion should adopt one of the millions of abandoned domesticated pets waiting in animal shelters and rescues around the country

As many of you know, I'm both a small animal veterinarian (my practice also includes exotic birds, reptiles, and other less common pets) and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

I can't tell you how disturbing it is for me to read headlines like these that appeared recently in The New York Times: "These Otters Are Popular Pets in Asia. That May Be Their Undoing,"1 and "My Neighbor Took a City Pigeon as a Pet. Is That Legal?"2 From the otter article:

"… [I]n Japan, where more than a dozen animal cafes now feature otters, they have become sought-after exotic pets, displacing owls, slow lorises, sugar gliders and star tortoises. Many cafes and pet shops sell otters to anyone interested in taking one home."

The arrogance and self-absorption of humans who assume wild creatures exist for our pleasure and entertainment never ceases to amaze me. If you have the stomach for it, you can read more about the poor otters at the NYT link at the end of the article. In the case of the pigeon, according to the concerned neighbor, "I believe she [the woman who is keeping the pigeon] ties down the bird's foot with a piece of string attached to a metal rolling grocery cart." Unbelievable.

In the US it's illegal to keep most wild animals as pets

Although the laws are often ignored, in the U.S., it's illegal to keep wild animals as pets with the exception of pigeons and starlings (neither of which should be kept as pets, either, as far as I'm concerned).

There's lots of confusion surrounding the difference between wildlife and exotic animals. "Wildlife" are animals indigenous to the area or country that you live in. "Exotic animals" are wildlife native to other countries. Only licensed wildlife rehabilitators are legally allowed to keep injured and rehabbed wild animals either temporarily or permanently (with an additional permit required for each permanently injured animal).

These experts are trained to care for sick or injured wildlife until they can be returned to their natural habitat. They're also trained to prevent young animals from becoming imprinted or socialized to humans and domestic animals. However, some rehabbed animals have permanent injuries that prevent them from surviving in the wild. Rehab facilities or wildlife educators can apply for special permits that allow them to provide care to these animals for the rest of their lives.

Part of the criteria for maintaining a permanently injured wild animal is to demonstrate that you're capable of providing a species-appropriate diet, ample-sized enclosures with natural environmental enrichment, exercise and foraging opportunities.

For example, I've cared for opossums in the past who could no longer survive in the wild due to injuries. My options as a federally licensed wildlife rehabilitator were to euthanize them or apply for a permit for them to become wildlife educational animals, which is what I did.

5 reasons you should never think of wild animals as pets

1. Wild animals sold as "pets" are typically procured by cruel and inhumane means — Infant animals are what buyers want. They bring the biggest profits to dealers, so poachers commonly kill the mother first in order to take her babies.

A certain percentage of animals become so stressed after being torn from their natural habitats that they die before reaching their destination. Certain species are also bred in captivity, often in situations similar to puppy mills, as well as in zoos, circuses and roadside tourist attractions.

2. Wild animals are dangerous — Countless adult wildlife wind up living full-time in cages — neglected, abused, poorly nourished and stressed. Not surprisingly, many of these confined animals — born to travel in their natural habitat several miles every day — develop the propensity to bite, scratch and attack any creature within range.

Across the country, privately held wild animals have escaped from their enclosures and attacked humans and other animals, sometimes with fatal results.

3. Some carry disease — Many young wild species not only grow into unpredictable, destructive, dangerous adults in captivity, they also carry highly infectious and potentially fatal bacteria and viruses, including salmonella, toxoplasmosis, zoonotic parasites, herpes B, rabies and monkey pox.

4. When you acquire a wild animal to hold captive, you help keep the exotic pet trade in business — The exotic pet trade, which includes those trafficking in wildlife, is a despicable industry that causes suffering to millions of animals, disrupts ecosystems, threatens extinction of entire species and is a menace to public health and safety.

Much of the buying and selling of wild animals is done through trade magazines, at auctions and increasingly, over the Internet. These animals come from mills, no different than horrid puppy mills. It's unethical to support these unfathomable conditions.

5. Wild means wild — Wild animals aren't designed to live in a captive environment. They require special care, housing, diet and maintenance that the average person can't provide. If your tiger or monkey gets sick, where will you take her for medical help? It's unlikely your local veterinarian has experience treating animals who under normal circumstances, live entirely in the wild.

As wild animals age, they typically become impossible to handle for the average pet owner. They end up being sold to roadside zoos, or are dumped on humane societies or wildlife sanctuaries, putting an economic burden on those organizations. Ultimately, the majority of these animals are euthanized, abandoned or live out their lives in deplorable conditions.

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Why not consider adopting a real pet?

In case it isn't obvious, my point here is that holding wildlife captive as "pets" is inhumane, potentially dangerous, and encourages poachers and others who traffic in wild creatures to continue their despicable practices. I hope that anyone who may be contemplating acquiring a wild animal as a companion will rethink their choice.

Again, it's illegal to care for wild animals without a license. Yes, there are some "exotic animal breeders" that can legally sell you a baby raccoon as a pet, but that doesn't make it an ethical or wise choice. And it's illegal to keep orphaned babies you may find, punishable by expensive fines for breaking the law.

I agree with this law, as it protects wild animals (assuring they get the proper care they need) and also protects the public (wild animals carry many parasites and infectious diseases that can harm or kill people). You should contact a local wildlife rehabilitator if you find a wild baby animal that appears to need help.

Please keep in mind that there are many homeless adoptable pets — dogs, cats, birds, hamsters, gerbils, rabbits and others — in shelters and foster homes across the country that would be forever grateful for a spot in your home and heart. Why bring home a wild animal who prefers living wild, when so many real pets are waiting hopefully at your local shelter?