The Internet has fueled the cruel exotic pet industry, but can also be a powerful force in ending it.

The Internet has made it easier than ever to buy and sell exotic pets; harming wild populations and changing the way that people view wild animals. Fortunately, online tools can also help understand the exotic pet trade and how to combat it.

History of the exotic pet trade
The popularity of non-traditional pets has exploded in recent years. Among them are wild animals, including many different kinds of reptiles, amphibians, fish, birds, and mammals. Humans have a long history of keeping wild animals as pets, with people having kept animals as pets or for entertainment for thousands of years[2]. In modern times the continued growth of the exotic pet industry is a significant threat to wild animal populations worldwide, increasingly causing the loss of species in the wild and driving many of the traded species closer to extinction. This trade has many far-reaching impacts, including the introduction of invasive species, the transmission of disease, and the welfare of the trafficked animals[8]. There is no one definition of exotic pet, but they tend to be wild animals that are not domesticated like cats and dogs. This lack of a clear definition could have to do with the fact that to some individuals there is no such thing as exotic pets – they are simply wild animals.

“. . . they are not pets, they are wild animals. Is this a subconscious way to make them appear more domesticated than they ever will be, or to help these animals become more socially acceptable?”

Shakira Free-Miles[3]

Since these animals are not domesticated it is often very difficult to meet their specific needs in the average household. They are not adapted to life in a person’s home, and so exotic animals often suffer from poor welfare and high levels of stress[4]. The pet trade restricts these animals’ natural behaviors and causes fear, stress, pain, and usually early death[2]. Many people who bring home an exotic pet also have unrealistic expectations of the animal’s behavior and may expect them to behave as if they were a typical domesticated pet[4]. This can contribute to the animal’s suffering, as many end up neglected or abandoned.

Impact of the Internet
The exotic animal trade has been hugely influenced by the Internet, however, the online market remains poorly understood and regulated. The growth of the Internet has led to more people having access to the exotic pet trade and allowed sellers to expand their businesses. Animal parts have shown up for sale on high-profile sites like eBay and Amazon, and the Internet has provided an easily accessible platform for illegal animal trafficking where wild animals can be sold as companion pets. Social media plays a part as well, with traffickers using Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and other platforms for advertising their sales. Purchasers posting videos and photos to their own social media channels also spreads the influence of keeping exotic animals as pets. These videos and images don’t just affect the animals involved directly, but also the public’s view of their wild counterparts.

Seeing species that are threatened with extinction as pets makes people think that they are less endangered than they really are[5].

The attention generated on social media from posts about exotic pets can increase the number of people buying them, despite being uninformed about their care or the legal status of purchasing the animal as a pet[8]. Social media also provides an avenue for communication between exotic pet owners and prospective owners, allowing for the exchange of information for individuals to ask about acquiring their own exotic pets[8]. Unfortunately, even the biggest social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube have been very slow to react to the exploitation of wild animals on their platforms[5].

Welfare concerns and ethics
The appeal of many frequently traded exotic pets is sometimes obvious. They may be cute, a status symbol, or a means of gaining attention. However, the ethics of keeping these animals as pets is often dubious. The exotic pet trade affects the welfare of animals as they face terrible conditions during transportation and compromised care once they arrive at their destination[6].

Transportation conditions can be so bad that it is estimated that for every one animal that survives its trip to the buyer, three more die[2].

Capture itself can lead to injuries; for example, one method of capturing birds involves coating trees with a sticky resin that can permanently damage feathers and limbs[2]. When it comes to primates, mothers are often killed so their infants can be sold into the pet trade. Captivity means having to adjust to a completely different life and environment. Animals are often fed inappropriate diets consisting of food that is convenient for humans, which can lead to a variety of health problems and early death. Housing will always be smaller than the animal’s natural range, and keeping social animals in appropriately-sized groups is often impossible[2]. Among exotic pets, rates of premature mortality are high, quality of life questionable, and access to proper veterinary care very difficult to find[3].

Exotic pets are often taken directly from the wild, or if they were bred in captivity they are likely only a few generations away from wild populations[2]. It is often easier to capture animals from the wild rather than breed them in captivity. Even those with successful captive breeding programs regularly have to take new animals from the wild to add genetic diversity to their breeding stock. For these reasons and others, captive breeding is not a solution for the conservation issues associated with the exotic pet trade.

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement between governments with the goal of ensuring that the trade of animals and plants does not affect their survival in the wild. Despite the regulations laid out in CITES, many traders are either unaware of the legalities of their businesses or unconcerned about the potential consequences[2]. The penalties for breaking these laws are often not severe enough to discourage wildlife traders, and the potential for profit can be high. Also, those tasked with enforcing these laws are often lacking the technical skills or knowledge base to combat this illegal trade[2]. The availability and ease of use of the Internet has lowered the barrier to entry for these crimes, while also decreasing the risk involved[6]. The constantly changing nature of social media has made it difficult for law enforcement methods to keep pace, and their tools are often outdated[8]. Even when it comes to animals captured or being sold illegally, sellers rarely feel the need to post on the dark web (the part of the Internet not indexed by search engines) and advertise openly on public sites[8]. These sites are currently largely unregulated and only loosely monitored. There are also potential links between animal trafficking and organized crime[6], and the trade can lead to the exploitation of rural communities[2].

Asian small-clawed otters
Wildlife trade researchers Penthai Siriwat and Vincent Nijman investigated the trade of the Asian small-clawed otter and the smooth-coated otter in Thailand through the use of Facebook groups[8]. Though otters are protected in Thailand, they are frequently traded within the country and international trades have also been intercepted. Thailand is a hub for the illegal wildlife trade, with a high rate of social media usage, and the wildlife trade is widespread and easily accessible[8]. Otters as young as newborns were taken from the wild and sold, despite a very low chance of survival. Though each seller only had a small number of otters, all together the trade poses a significant risk to wild populations of both otter species. They concluded that the continued prevalence of the trade highlights the need for better enforcement and increased legislation in both Thailand and worldwide.

Slow lorises
Slow lorises are frequently exploited on social media both as pets and also as props for tourists to pose with. These nocturnal, venomous primates are very sensitive to light. Slow lorises are often sold at a cheap price because they are known for not living long as pets[2]. This inevitably leads to more slow lorises being captured from the wild to replace the deceased. Through investigating Instagram posts, nocturnal primate researchers Honor Kitson and K.A.I. Nekaris found slow lorises being used as photo props in a bar in Marmaris, Turkey[5]. The bar staff kept them under bright lights and allowed the use of flash photography which causes both stress and potential damage to their eyes. The slow lorises were kept in unsuitable housing, fed inappropriate foods, and had their teeth clipped to prevent them from inflicting a venomous bite.

Slow lorises are also frequently kept as pets, and videos of them being inappropriately handled or fed unsuitable foods have been viewed millions of times. Encouragingly, a counter social media campaign by International Animal Rescue called “Tickling is Torture” gained widespread attention and educated many people on the reality behind these viral videos.

Combating the trade
Though the Internet has likely increased the amount of wildlife being sold as exotic pets, it also provides exposure to this widespread issue and the opportunity to both better understand the industry as well as educate the public. Since it is not realistic for law enforcement agencies to monitor the trade on the Internet, there is also the possibility for the recruitment of the public’s help in reporting instances of illegal wildlife trading[8]. They also suggest that discouraging people from sharing online photos and videos of exotic pets through education also makes a difference in stopping the spread of online trade.

Since the traders themselves are so difficult to legislate, another way of combating the trade is to reduce the demand among consumers through education and public awareness campaigns[7]. Changing human behavior is never easy, and simply providing information usually isn’t enough. Most attempts to reduce the demand for wild animals as pets focus on conservation and welfare issues, however, it is unknown how effective these methods are at reducing demand[7]. Wildlife conservation researchers Tom Moorhouse, Margaret Balaskas, Neil D’Cruze, and David W. Macdonald wanted to find out what factors would actually lead to a change in people’s behavior when it came to their opinions of purchasing exotic pets[7]. They used an online survey to test for the impact of information concerning the risk of disease the animal presented, legal consequences, welfare concerns, and conservation issues when it comes to the demand for exotic pets. They found that informing people of the risk of disease and the legalities of purchasing an exotic pet were the most effective, and could reduce demand by up to 40%.

Emphasizing the personal risk that exotic pets pose to people is the best way to reduce demand for them.

It may be surprising that a species’ conservation status doesn’t particularly discourage people from wanting to own them, but the researchers think that could have to do with the (incorrect) notion that the pet trade helps conservation or that an animal’s rarity could make it more desirable to collectors.

Though more work is needed, large online retailers like eBay and Alibaba have pledged to end the sale of all wildlife products on their platforms, and social media sites like Facebook and Instagram are also cracking down[8]. Facebook is known for taking tips on illegal activity seriously, and Instagram has launched a Wildlife Alert System that warns people searching for certain hashtags of possible animal abuse[8]. Especially among species where the exotic pet trade is affecting their conservation, better regulation and enforcement on the Internet is needed. Improved analytical methods to understand these online networks and the creation of new tools to combat them should be a conservation priority[8].

[1] Baker, S. E., R. Cain, F. van Kesteren, Z. Zommers, N. d’Cruze, and D. W. MacDonald. 2013. Rough trade: animal welfare in the global wildlife trade. BioScience 63:928–938.

[2] Bush ER, Baker SE & MacDonald DW (2014). Global trade in exotic pets 2006-2012. Conservation Biology, 28 (3): 663-676.

[3] Free-Miles, S. (2019). Exotic pet welfare and ethics. BSAVA Congress Proceedings 2019, 270–271. doi: 10.22233/9781910443699.35.6

[4] Grant, R., Montrose, V., & Wills, A. (2017). ExNOTic: Should We Be Keeping Exotic Pets? Animals, 7(12), 47. doi: 10.3390/ani7060047

[5] Kitson, H., & Nekaris, K. (2017). Instagram-fuelled illegal slow loris trade uncovered in Marmaris, Turkey. Oryx, 51(3), 394–394. doi: 10.1017/s0030605317000680

[6] Lavorgna, A. (2015). The Social Organization of Pet Trafficking in Cyberspace. European Journal on Criminal Policy and Research, 21(3), 353–370. doi: 10.1007/s10610-015-9273-y

[7] Moorhouse, T. P., Balaskas, M., Dcruze, N. C., & Macdonald, D. W. (2017). Information Could Reduce Consumer Demand for Exotic Pets. Conservation Letters, 10(3), 337–345. doi: 10.1111/conl.12270

[8] Siriwat, P., & Nijman, V. (2018). Illegal pet trade on social media as an emerging impediment to the conservation of Asian otters species. Journal of Asia-Pacific Biodiversity, 11(4), 469–475. doi: 10.1016/j.japb.2018.09.004