Beyond the Tiger King

Big cats as ‘pets’ are the tip of the iceberg. Animals, from frogs to otters, are suffering in the global exotic pet trade…
By Cassandra Koenen, World Animal Protection's Global Head of Exotic Pets

Viewers across the world have recently been captivated by Netflix’s show Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. It was hard not to think at the end of each episode: “Surely, it can’t get crazier than this.” But each time it did.

What the show’s narrative missed, arguably the most important part, was the exploitation of the tigers being used for entertainment.

Tigers are wild animals. In captivity, they suffer enormously. Kept in inadequate enclosures, tigers are unable to exhibit their natural behaviours, especially with their movement restricted. It causes stress, boredom and frustration.

One of the most common displays that a tiger is stressed is panting and pacing the perimeter of their cages, which is evident throughout Tiger King. Poor physical condition is another common sight, due to lack of proper nutrition and the ability to get adequate exercise. Tigers are also one of the most dangerous animals to care for and pose major safety risks to the people who keep them.

Today, there are more tigers living in captivity in the United States alone than there are in the wild. Of the estimated 7,000 tigers held, the vast majority live in unregulated private breeding facilities and backyards. But tigers are just the tip of the iceberg to the threat to millions of wild animals globally from the demands of the exotic pet trade.

Photo from World Animal Protection

Reliable numbers are hard to determine, but recent World Animal Protection research indicates there are over 17 million exotic pets in the US and 1.4 million in Canada. In the UK, according to the Pet Food Manufacturers Association’s (PFMA) Annual Pet Survey, there are an estimated 1.4 million tortoises, lizards, snakes, frogs and toads and ‘indoor’ birds alone.

The value of the global trade stands at $30-42 billion (around £24-34 billion). Snakes, parrots, iguanas, tortoises, lizards, savannah cats, servals, sugar gliders, fish, primates and even otters are just some of the species suffering as pets around the world.

The reality is that exotic animals are simply not suitable as pets. In North America, snakes, tortoise and amphibians make up large percentages of pets in homes. In the US, it’s estimated that 51 per cent of all exotics are reptiles. In Canada, snakes, turtles, tortoises and amphibians make up 30 of exotic pets.

Photo by Aaron Gekoski / World Animal Protection

Suffering is inherent in a life of captivity for a wild animal. It occurs at every step of the journey, from capture to handling, transport, holding, breeding and sale, before being placed in a home that’s a far cry from their wild environments. Captivity limits their natural behaviour and places both their mental and physical well-being at risk. While kept as pets, these animals often suffer from chronic stress and poor physical health in environments that can’t give them what they need to be happy and healthy. Despite their best intentions, most owners are not equipped to provide these animals with the care necessary to fulfil their intrinsic needs.

Our research has found that 43 per cent of exotic pet owners buy their animals on impulse. Almost half the owners don’t conduct any research at all or spend less than a few hours researching which exotic pet to buy or how to care for them. The mortality rate is high: in some instances, the post capture death rate has been as high as 90 per cent.

Those that survive are subject to a lifetime of chronic physical and psychological suffering. For examples, instances of excessive feather plucking is seen in African grey parrots from distress. Overbreeding in Ball pythons can cause a neurological condition known as ‘star gazing’, which results in their heads falling back, so they’re constantly looking up. Otters kept on display in cafes in Japan were observed to self-mutilate .

Photo from World Animal Protection

While there are large, industrial captive-breeding programs in many countries, research has shown that the demands of the exotic pet trade is a key threat to many animals’ survival with poaching and theft from the wild devastating natural populations, which only adds to existing threats, such as habitat loss.

At the recent CITES (Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species) conference in August, 2019, 20 different species were identified as being at threat from the global exotic pet trade and in need of greater protection. The Indian star tortoise, Asian small-clawed and smooth coated otters, leopard and Tokay geckos, Horned, Pygmy and Hump snout lizards and Spiny-tailed iguanas have all experienced critical threats to their populations.

One species that was proposed for greater protection and, sadly, wasn’t successful, were glass frogs. Due to their unique appearance, with transparent abdominal skin through which their internal organs are visible, glass frogs have become popular in the international pet trade. However, many are obtained from illegal sources. The main exporter to the United States is Panama, followed by Costa Rica and Suriname. In Europe, glass frogs are regularly sold online and at reptile and amphibian fairs. Without greater protection, this species’ populations will continue to be under threat.

Photo by Aaron Gekoski / World Animal Protection

Some species are targeted by poachers at their most vulnerable stages of life, including babies, juveniles, and egg-bearing females. Our investigations into the trade of otters in Indonesia showed that poachers will use dogs to smell out dens, known as holts), then kill the fiercely protective parents and take the young. In West Africa, Ball python hunters will take pregnant females or their eggs from the wild and sell them into the trade.

Trading in big cats in the US and other countries is illegal. But much of the buying and selling of exotic animals that takes place is legal.

There is no aspect of the exotic pet trade that’s free from suffering. Ultimately, these animals are not meant to be pets. They never have. No amount of love, affection and quality care can ever make up for the harm that is inherent in the trade.

COVID-19 demonstrates that the wildlife trade is not just an animal welfare catastrophe. It is a global health risk. The appalling and stressful conditions exotic pets endure results in lowered immunities, making it even more likely they’ll succumb to infection.  These zoonotic diseases can be transferred to humans from wild animals. If we are to prevent future pandemics, action must be taken to end the trade of all wild animals, including those intended for the exotic pet trade. This is important not only for animal welfare and biodiversity, but also to protect human health.

Now is the time for our leaders to end to the global trade of wild animals and for each of us to stop buying wild animals as pets. Wild animals don’t belong to us. They belong in the wild.

World Animal Protection:

World Animal Protection’s Instagram:

Tiger photo (top) from World Animal Protection.

NOTE: The best way to solve the crises facing the planet and its wildlife is by having open, honest, respectful conversations and hearing diverse voices from around the world. The New Big 5 project does not necessarily support or agree with every opinion or idea expressed by photographers, conservationists or organisations featured on the New Big 5 website. The many different wildlife charities, photographers, film-makers and conservationists we’ve collaborated with also do not necessarily support or agree with every idea or opinion expressed by other people or organisations on the website. It’s ok to disagree and debate. But we hope the opinions and ideas can inspire people, make people think, and be part of the conversation to help our planet and the animals that live on it.

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