The Dangers of the Exotic Pet Trade: From Tigers to Turtles by Emily Kennedy

By: Emily Kennedy

The introduction of the Internet and advancements in international shipping has brought the world closer together as well as elevated consumers’ interests in the exotic aspects of different countries.  The majority of such interests are positive in that people are learning more about other cultures than their own and many countries have benefited financially from international trade and tourism.  Some consumer interests cause more harm than good, however, one such interest is the exotic pet trade.

The exotic pet trade is the trade of live animals that have not been domesticated and are typically native to developing countries.  People not interested in having the simple dog or cat, which have been domesticated for thousands of years, increasingly have expanded their idea of a pet to include more novel animals such as non-human primates, parrots, reptiles, and even big cats.  The inclusion of exotic pets into the home can have devastating effects that not only affect the animals, but the owners and environment as well.

Many of the animals in the exotic pet trade are taken out of environmentally sensitive areas such as the rainforest.  The capture and sale of animals from the wild often includes killing the mother in order to take the young, further increasing the extinction rate of many already endangered animals.  Some birds and reptiles, in addition, have a calculated mortality rate that can reach sixty to seventy percent, and even eighty to ninety percent for reef fish.  The loss of animals from the wild is a dangerous outcome since ecosystems rely largely on animal carriers to spread plant seeds through their fur and dung.  Animal prey and predators furthermore rely on each other so as not to starve from either loss of prey or overpopulation due to lack of natural predators. 

Supporters of the exotic pet trade are quick to point out that the majority of animals involved in the trade are in fact bred in captivity and, therefore, do not affect the wild.  The problem is that these captive bred animals are still called exotic because “they have not been intensively and selectively bred for life with humans,” says Mark Derr, author of many social and environmental books as well as articles for the New York Times, Audubon, Atlantic Monthly, and Natural History.  This “wildness” and rarity of the exotics are in fact what entice buyers.  The outcome is that animals that have not been “wired” for over thousands of years to live with humans are now living with humans. 

A baby tiger or monkey may be a very cute and lovable pet, but once it grows older and stronger the safety of the owner is at risk.  Some solutions for controlling older animals have been to de-claw or de-tooth them.  This method is a demoralizing practice that takes away the very parts of an animal that often defines it.  How does a bird feel if it cannot fly?  Even if an animal does keep all of its body parts, the minimal space it has as compared to the wild often creates insane, depressive, and violent behaviors.  Such mental problems can be often seen in self-mutilation such as tearing fur or feathers off their limbs (refer to pictures of Denise the Gibbon).

Denise, a poor victim of the 
exotic pet trade

The safety of the public is not only an issue for people with dangerous animals such as big cats and non-human primates, the risk of contracting diseases between human and animal is a much larger threat.  The spread of monkey-pox from infected prairie dogs in 2003 and the ever-present risk of reptile-associated salmonellosis are just two examples of how seemingly “safe” exotics can be dangerous.  In the case of Salmonella, risks to children rise as the popularity of baby turtles, lizards, and snakes grow.  Ninety percent of reptiles are asymptomatic carriers of Salmonella bacteria says Michelle Jacmenovic, a research associate of the Humane Society’s Wildlife Advocacy Division.   Simon Hable, Director of the North American branch of Traffic, an international organization that monitors the trade in plants and animals, has said that pet reptiles account for 2.5 million imports a year.

(Left) Denise when she first arrived to the Highland Farms Gibbon Sanctuary in Mae Sot, Thailand.  She had formerly been a pet. If not for her arms, you would think she was a Capuchin monkey.  Photo by Pharanee Deters. 
For photos of what gibbons should look like, go to  or

The source of these problems is due not only to illegal trades but, also, due to the unclear and loophole-ridden regulations of the exotic pet trade.  “It’s kind of an old-fashioned industry where we take people at their word,” says Mike Hoffer, owner of Hoffer’s Tropic Life Pets (which sold infected prairie dogs), of the trade.  The pet trade is full of infected, illegal, and mistreated animals largely due to loosely enforced and scattered regulations.  “The U.S. government doesn’t prohibit the ownership and sale of exotic animals, however, some counties and cities do,” says Susanne Quick of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.  It is relatively easy to illegally transport an exotic from one part of the country to another because laws are often unknown and misunderstood due to inconsistent regulations and lack of enforcement.

The ideal solution to the mounting negative aspects of the exotic pet trade would be to ban it nationally, even internationally if possible.  At a minimum, laws concerning the health and sale of exotics need to be made uniform and enforcement strengthened.  As far as international regulations are concerned, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) will meet this November to discuss increasing or decreasing CITES protection for 54 species of wild fauna and flora.  If our laws are not changed dramatically, the health and safety of the environment, wildlife, and the public are at a great risk. 

For more information and an update, please visit the CITES ( and Traffic ( websites.


Emily says what you can do:

  • Do not buy exotic animals
  • If you know people who are planning to buy an exotic animal, inform them of the trade and its negative aspects.
  • f you know of exotic animals being sold illegally, inform the authorities and follow-up.


Emily Kennedy recently graduated from Eckerd College with a BA in Anthropology and a minor in Environmental Studies.  She has volunteered at the Highland Farms and Wildlife Refuge in Mae Sot, Thailand and with the Primate Dept. at the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, FL.  For the past year she worked as a research assistant for a six-year, White-faced Capuchin Monkey project in Bagaces, Costa Rica.  Currently she is interning at the Jane Goodall Institute.

On November 3rd, 2004, Governor Pataki signed into law a measure that will ban the keeping of certain exotic animals as pets in New York State. S7616 which will make it illegal to keep primates, large cats and many dangerous snakes as pets in New York. Those owning prohibited animals on January 1st, when the new law takes effect, will be permitted to keep them provided that they can comply with stringent animal care and public safety requirements.


The chapter amendment to the law makes technical changes in addition to expressly permitting ownership of New World monkeys trained to assist people who are paralyzed from the neck down. Such ownership will be predicated on securing a permit from the state.