Animal advocates want attitudes about exotic pets to evolve

An animal advocacy group hopes to raise awareness around the problems of keeping exotic animals as pets.

Group says exotic pets have complex needs, leading to neglect, abandonment

Canadian singer Justin Bieber's pet capuchin monkey settled into a new life at a German safari park after being seized by custom authorities in 2013 when the singer brought the animal into the country without proper documentation or proof of purchase. (Matthias Schrader/Associated Press)

A runaway cheetah in the Kootenays. A missing python in Delta. Hundreds of forgotten parrots on Vancouver Island.

Exotic pets make headlines because of their unusual nature, but one animal advocacy group says the practice of keeping exotic animal species — wild animals not native to Canada such as parrots, monkeys, and pythons — is growing more common.

Now, it's hoping to shift that trend.

"I think most people, if you ask them if it's okay to keep a tiger as a pet, they understand it is not," said Melissa Matlow of World Animal Protection Canada, an animal welfare charity based in Toronto.

"What [we] are still working on is creating awareness about the acceptability of other animals as pets [like] many reptiles, many birds. People just misunderstand their complex needs.

"They tend to be an impulse buy."

Patchwork of laws

Currently, exotic pet ownership is regulated by an uneven patchwork of municipal and provincial laws across the country, which makes it difficult for an average pet owner — and even law enforcement — to know what is legal.

This past week, Matlow's group organized workshops in B.C., New Brunswick and Ontario to educate enforcement personnel, health officials and the SPCA around the latest issues around exotic animals.

Legal regulations around exotic animals often come into force due to tragedy. For example in B.C., laws restricting the ownership and breeding of certain non-native animals were introduced in 2010 after a young mother was mauled to death by a pet tiger near 100 Mile House.

New Brunswick recently introduced exotic animal laws after two young children were killed by an escaped pet python in 2013.

But the issue is complicated by the sheer volume of species currently kept as exotic pets. Currently, B.C. has a list of over 1,000 banned species, but it doesn't come near the number of every possible wild animal that could be kept as a pet.

Challenges in care

Even when owning an exotic animal is technically permissible, there can be other problems.

Matlow says her group, using surveys and estimates from U.S. data, believes about nine per cent of Canadian households keep exotic animals as pets. The U.S. data suggested the most common exotic pets kept were freshwater fish and exotic birds.

"Sometimes they are promoted as a beginner pet or an intermediate pet with very little information," she said.

But not all of these animals are safe, Matlow added.

"They are sometimes marketed as great for kids, but children who are younger than five should not be around many of these animals like reptiles and turtles that carry salmonella and other diseases."

A blue and gold macaw named Clyde eats a nut at a warehouse where 95 birds awaiting adoption are being housed by the Greyhaven Exotic Bird Sanctuary, in Vancouver, B.C., on Tuesday January 23, 2018. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Some exotic pets — like parrots — can live as long as 70 years, sometimes outliving their owners. When households can no longer take care of these pets, Matlow says it's difficult to find new homes for them.

One famous example of this was Wendy Huntbatch's World Parrot Refuge in Coombs, on Vancouver Island. The society that operates the refuge had to find homes for nearly 600 birds after Huntbatch died and her husband no longer wanted to care for them.

Paths forward

The Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg have introduced legislation which sets out which animals can be kept as pets — like dogs, cats, hamsters, etc. Anything not on the list would be automatically banned.

This way, Matlow explained, the burden is on the exotic pet owner to prove they can take care of their pet before it's obtained.

A pet ball python, like this one, vanished in Delta, B.C. this summer. The ball python is not native to Canada and would be considered an exotic pet. It is not, however, on the list of banned species in B.C. (Shutterstock)

Dr. Adrian Walton, a veterinarian based in Maple Ridge, says there's been positive developments in prosecuting violators on the basis of animal cruelty.

"We've had multiple cases in the past of serious cases of animal cruelty and abuse that stalemated because prosecutors didn't feel like there was a way forward for a conviction," Walton said.

In a recent case in Ladysmith, B.C., prosecutors pressed charges of animal cruelty against a man who had 34 animals in his possession including cats, and exotic animals like boa constrictors, turtles and bearded dragons.

"We're starting to see across the country the judicial system start to realize that there are issues with how we are holding and handling these animals."

Read more from CBC British Columbia

With files from CHEK