Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Letter to the Editor: Everyone Has A Role To Play In Ending The Exotic Pet Trade


The theme for World Wildlife Day this year, which fell on March 3, is “The Future of Wildlife Is In Our Hands”. This call to action is a timely and necessary one in Malaysia, which has the unfortunate reputation as a hub for wildlife trafficking and the illegal wildlife trade. The Star’s recent exposé of how wildlife traders use social media for the illegal trade of protected species demonstrate that illegal wildlife trade continues to thrive in Malaysia despite the fact that the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 and Animal Welfare Act 2015 have been given statutory footing. 

 Judging by the comments in social media, it is clear that many Malaysians are not aware of, or are indifferent to, the suffering of wildlife traded as pets. Local celebrities and political personalities are among the individuals known to have purchased and kept protected species as companion animals. Comments from social media users are largely encouraging and envious, with many expressing the desire to purchase similar animals due to their beauty and the fact that exotic pets are seen as status symbols. 

Among the reasons given by wildlife traders and owners to justify the keeping of exotic pets are as follows: 
(i) That since the animals’ natural habitats have already been destroyed, they have no homes to return to, or since their mothers have been killed, the young have no way of surviving in the wild, and therefore keeping them in captivity as companion animals is the humane thing to do. 
(ii) That the animals were bred in captivity and are therefore used to captivity and are dependent on humans. 
(iii) That they genuinely love animals and regard their exotic pets as family members, and therefore oppose any attempt to restrict their ‘right’ to acquire and keep these wild animals or to remove existing exotic pets from their care. 
(iv) That there is virtually no difference between keeping wildlife and keeping dogs, cats and other domestic animals as companion animals. 
(v) That keeping wildlife in captivity and as pets can prevent a species from going extinct. 

However, there are many scientifically-proven reasons why wildlife should not be in captivity and why the wildlife pet trade is a threat to biodiversity, ecosystems and human health and safety. The wildlife trade threatens both biodiversity and individual animals being traded. Nor is wildlife trade a minor problem, with only a handful of people keeping wildlife as exotic pets. 

The Wildlife Conservation Society reports that reports that the threat of extinction of wildlife species due to the wildlife trade is a very real and immediate problem, as the wildlife trade, which is valued to be approximately USD8 billion annually, is surpassed in scale only by the illegal trade in drugs and arms. 

Many exotic species advertised as ‘captive bred’ are actually poached from the wild, since DNA testing cannot reveal whether an animal was raised in captivity or in the wild, and most consumers and laypersons are unable to tell the difference and uninterested in finding out, as long as they get to acquire a particular animal as an exotic pet. Captive breeding of wildlife is an expensive and frequently unsuccessful business, and often traders and poachers find it easier and cheaper to capture animals from their native habitats and then pass them off as captive-bred for licensing purposes or to assuage the guilt of customers. 

Wild animals, especially wild cat hybrids such as Bengal cats (i.e. Asian leopard cat and domestic cat hybrids) and serval and caracal hybrids are unsuited to indoor life and have been known to attack and seriously injure their human handlers and other pets. Even if captive bred, hybrid cats that escape or are allowed to roam become prolific hunters, killing native birds and wildlife and smaller mammals including pet dogs, cats and rabbits. Pet snakes, which are frequently abandoned once their human handlers tire of them, also end up killing birds and other wildlife. Released or abandoned turtles, including the red-eared slider turtle, may carry the salmonella virus and threaten the health of humans and other species. Any released or escaped introduced species will compete with native species for food and territory and cause imbalance in the local ecology. 

Many animals die of shock, stress, illness and injury during capture, transportation, transit and captivity. Baby turtles are sealed shut in their shells for transportation. Slow lorises have their teeth and claws clipped without anaesthesia. Many die due to a lack of treatment, and slow loris populations in the wild are in rapid decline due to the high demand for slow lorises as pets after popular YouTube videos show them being kept as amusing companions. All 8 species of slow lorises are now threatened, and the Javan slow loris is now one of 25 the most endangered primates worldwide. Birds, especially parrots, are sedated and have their beaks cut or taped up, legs bound and wings clipped or tied. Most are sedated and stuffed into bags or cardboard mailer tubes. The Animal Law Coalition reports that 60% of wild-caught birds do not survive to reach their destinations. 

Contrary to the claim that people who acquire exotic pets do so because they love the said animals and are able to care for them, many exotic pets often end up being released, surrendered to zoos and animal shelters, abandoned or unintentionally killed due to ignorance and neglect. The Humane Society reports that many pet snakes do not live past one year due to inadequate nutrition. Many animal welfare organisations and veterinarians can also attest to the fact that exotic pets, especially small animals such as hedgehogs, chinchillas and chipmunks, die from being improperly and roughly handled, especially by children. 

Keeping wildlife as pets can also endanger human health and safety. Scorpions, snakes and other venomous or poisonous animals are unlike domestic mammals and do not enjoy human contact. There are many reports of people being killed or severely injured by their pet snakes and scorpions. Wild cats, sun bears and macaques can maul and cause grievous injury to their human handlers. Monkeys, including macaques, can carry and spread viruses to humans, including the Herpes-B virus. Lizards and turtles carry the salmonella virus, which can be fatal to humans. Birds, especially parrots, can spread parrot fever and pneumonia, especially through the inhalation of their dry droppings in a cage or aviary. 

The only true way to show love and admiration for a particular species is to protect their habitats and wild populations and observe them in their natural environments. Contrary to the popular argument by exotic pet enthusiasts that they can ‘learn’ a lot about a species by acquiring and keeping them, there is not much to be learned from keeping wild animals indoors confined to small tanks, cages and enclosures, away from members of their own species. 

Cats and dogs are different from exotic pets in that they have become dependent on humans for their physical, social and emotional needs through 5,000 – 30,000 years of selective breeding and evolution. Even so, cats, dogs and other domestic animals still need exercise, outdoor time, opportunities to play and engage in behavior natural to their species, and the companionship of their own kind. This need is even greater in wild animals that undergo extreme stress from being confined and handled by humans. 

People who acquire exotic animals usually do so for their own egos and short-term enjoyment, not because they genuinely care for the welfare and continuance of the species. They have no realistic plans on how to rehabilitate their exotic pets, return them to their native countries or environment or reintroduce them into the wild. Numerous studies, including by the UK Royal Society, have shown that wild populations are less likely to mate with a captive member of the species, and as such the claim that the captive breeding of exotic pets can restore wildlife populations has no scientific merit. 

Despite the existence of laws such as the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010, there are very few regulations in place making it difficult for people to purchase, acquire, or keep exotic animals, especially when proper licenses have been obtained. Also, the international wildlife trade involves a multi-million dollar organised crime network, and poorly-funded, shorthanded government agencies are no match for wildlife traders. Bribery, corruption and plain incompetence makes it difficult for many developing countries to stop the illegal wildlife trade. 

Wildlife conservation groups and enforcement agencies in Malaysia rely heavily on ordinary citizens and travelers to be their eyes and ears. However, due to manpower concerns, not all reports can be acted on expediently. It may seem blindingly obvious to social media users that enforcement agencies should just ‘call up the number on the Facebook page and catch the offenders’. However, wildlife traders often stay one step ahead and make their movements difficult to trace by using unregistered prepaid mobile phone numbers and ensuring payment is made in advance before the animal changes hands. In order to aid conservation groups and enforcement agencies, those who wish to report wildlife crime must be vigilant and relay accurate information, such as the species, address, photographic and documentary evidence and contact information, as well as be available to be contacted. Reports can be made through Perhilitan’s official website or through their Careline at 1300-80-10-10, or to the 24-Hour NGO-run Wildlife Crime Hotline at 019 356 4194. 

As consumers and social media users, we must remember that our actions have consequences. Conservation groups and enforcement agencies need our assistance, support and awareness in order to be able to execute their responsibilities effectively. 

When we click ‘like’ on or share photos and videos of wildlife being kept as pets and in captivity, we are condoning, enabling and encouraging the wildlife and exotic pet trade. We are normalising the practice of poaching, abusing, exploiting and confining wildlife. Instead, we should raise awareness and in our social media comments, draw attention to the threats to wildlife populations, and other animal welfare and safety concerns. Monkeys and apes that appear to be grinning or yawning are not trying to entertain humans, but are showing aggression and fear. For every slow loris holding an umbrella or a toy, 7-8 others probably died during capture and transportation. We should therefore advise friends and family against purchasing or acquiring exotic pets, and persuade them to adopt from local animal shelters or to visit and support sanctuaries and rescue organisations instead. 

Nature-lovers who enjoy watching and photographing wildlife must take extra care not to unwittingly disclose the location of endangered species, including the nests of birds and location of trapdoor spiders, frogs, scorpions and other small animals on social media, which could lead poachers and wildlife traders to them. 

We vote every day with our money, and so as people who claim to love animals and the environment, we should not purchase exotic pets or wildlife products such as elephant ivory or crocodile and snake leather. We should not patronise circuses, petting zoos and amusement parks which keep wildlife in captivity or harm and exploit animals. We should avoid shopping at pet stores that sell exotic pets, and should lodge reports on the sales of wildlife to Perhilitan or wildlife conservation groups that can assist in investigating and acting on our reports. 

Ending the wildlife trade is not the role of government enforcement agencies alone. The loss of biodiversity, ecological imbalance and threats to human and animal health and safety affect all of us. We all have a role to play in protecting wildlife and reducing the demand for exotic pets. Keeping wildlife as exotic pets should not be a status symbol, but a symbol of self-deception, ignorance, selfishness and vanity. 


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