New report: Wild animals as ‘pets’ threaten the environment and public health
Dogs and domestic cats may be the most conventional and numerous companion animals, or ‘pets’, but wild animals, such as snakes and lizards, and even meerkats and monkeys, are increasingly in demand around homes in Europe. Wild in nature and often unpredictable, these animals are not only potentially dangerous to people, able to inflict severe physical injury, or transmit harmful diseases, but they suffer. Requiring specialised care and specific living conditions, many wild pets become too much to handle and are simply abandoned, causing serious problems for the local environment and native species and can cost billions of Euros to be removed.
A new report, ‘Wild Pets in the European Union’, launched today at the European Parliament provides an insight into the legal and illegal trade in and keeping of wild animals in European households. It provides evidence that these animals pose a threat to their often inexperienced keepers, other animals, indigenous species and the natural environment.
Daniel Turner, co-author of the report and spokesperson for ENDCAP, the coalition of NGOs behind its publication, explains. “The trade not only threatens biodiversity and the local ecology but, many experts agree, represents an increasing risk to the health and welfare of European citizens. Animals, particularly those caught from the wild, may carry harmful pathogens that are potentially infectious to humans. Such diseases are called zoonoses. More than 60% of all human infectious diseases and up to 75% of emerging diseases may be traced to wild animals.” Turner continued; “Well-known examples include avian influenza and psittacosis from birds; salmonellosis from amphibians, reptiles and birds; and hepatitis A, tuberculosis, monkey pox and herpesvirus simiae-B from primates.”
Fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and captive-bred birds are all imported into the EU and traded between EU countries, and are commonly kept as ‘pets’ by members of the public. While the majority are traded legally, 25% are thought to be imported illegally, with the majority likely to be captured from the wild. Annual records indicate that legal imports include approximately 1.5 billion ornamental fish; 10 million live reptiles; millions of captive-bred birds and small mammals (such as prairie dogs and meerkats); and increasing numbers of non-human primates, although the majority of these end up in medical research rather than as pets.
The EU’s multi-billion Euro exotic pet industry is one of the largest international markets for wild animals, with outlets including pet shops, garden centres, street markets, via newspaper advertisements and, increasingly, online via the internet.
Will Travers OBE, CEO of the Born Free Foundation and President of the Species Survival Network, expressed his concerns about the loss of biodiversity which the capture of and trade in wild animals causes: “Harvesting methods used to collect the animals can result in serious disturbance to habitats, displacement, injury and death. For example, an estimated 90% of wild reptiles captured for the pet trade die before the end of their first year in captivity.” Travers continued; “Furthermore, the accidental or deliberate release of wild pets can lead to the establishment of invasive alien species, which can disrupt ecosystems and displace local fauna. The EU reportedly spends over €12 billion annually on controlling invasive alien species. Of over 5,000 respondents to an EU Commission survey on Invasive Alien Species (which ended in April 2012), more than 80% indicated they wanted greater restrictions on the sale of exotic species of animals and plants.”
ENDCAP is making the following recommendations:
- The European Community (both the Commission and Member States) urgently review the impacts caused by the ongoing trade in wild pets in relation to biodiversity, alien species, public safety and animal welfare;
- Appropriate and immediate action be taken to harmonise animal protection regulations across the EU;
- Import controls be extended to include certification that the capture, storage and shipping of wild animals does not result in animal suffering as a result of injuries and mortality;
- Additional measures be adopted to guarantee appropriate minimum captive wild animal welfare standards;
- The introduction of measures to exclude wild-caught animals from the pet trade;
- Provisions to ensure that all risks to animal and human health and safety are minimised;
- Serious consideration be given to the introduction of a ban on all the import of all wild animals as ‘pets’.
Notes on specific trade:
The premature mortality rate for reptiles in the pet trade is very high. An estimated 90% of wild-caught reptiles captured for the pet trade die before the end of their first year in captivity, even though the natural lifespan of commonly-traded species may range from between 8-120 years (Altherr & Freyer 2001). The analysis of published materials shows that reptiles are particularly sensitive to captivity-related stress. More recently, an investigation at a US commercial supplier of wild pets to Europe identified that 80% of amphibians, reptiles and mammals became sick, injured or died, and the mortality rate of approximately 70% over six weeks, was apparently, ‘standard’ for the pet industry (Warwick & Toland 2012). A scientific study in the UK carried out by the Animal Protection Agency, (2012), has shown that at least 75% of reptiles die within one year in the home.
The incidence of venomous snake bites is rising in Europe, due mainly to the increased keeping of exotic highly venomous species such as rattlesnakes.
Salmonellosis is the most commonly recorded zoonotic disease transmitted to humans from reptiles. In the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, 280,000 cases of salmonellosis were attributed annually to the trade and keeping of baby turtles. It is estimated that 90% of captive reptiles harbour salmonella.
Keeping of non-human primates as ‘pets’ varies considerably between individual EU countries. The actual number of primates kept as pets in the EU is not known, although between 2,500 and 7,500 may be kept by private individuals in the UK alone. The Netherlands, Bulgaria, Italy, Portugal, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Hungary have implemented bans on the keeping of primates. Denmark bans the import and keeping of the majority of primate species. Belgium has a ‘positive list’ for mammal species which prevents the keeping of some primate species, whilst Austria and Poland ban the private keeping of Great Apes. The UK requires keepers of those primate species listed by as part of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act (1976) to be licensed, and has a non-binding Code of Practice for the keeping of non-human primates. Many primatologists, conservationists, zoo professionals, primate rescue organisations and other respected professionals support significantly restricting or ending the keeping of primates.
ENDCAP is a coalition of 24 NGOs from 14 European countries, which work together to seek higher standards in the protection and welfare of wild animals in captivity in the European Union.
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