Full Title Name:  Detailed Discussion of the Exotic Pet Trade

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Asia Siev Place of Publication:  Michigan State University Publish Year:  2022 Primary Citation:  Animal Legal & Historical Center 1 Country of Origin:  United States

I. Introduction

The term ‘exotic pet’ is vague and nebulous. It contains anything from the common parakeet to a Bengal tiger. They are undomesticated, their genetics and traits have not been selectively chosen by humans for millennia like dogs or cats. Exotic pets are growing more common, especially in wealthy countries. The exotic pet trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, both legal and illegal. It is estimated that the global trade in wildlife is worth between $30.6-42.8 billion annual, of which about $22.8 billion is legal. See Engler, M. & Parry-Jones, R. (2007). Opportunity or threat: the role of the European Union in Global Wildlife Trade, TRAFFIC Europe (June 2007), available at https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/3604/opportunity_or_threat_eu_imports.pdf.

Often, animals are taken from biodiversity rich countries but capital poor and exported to wealthier nations in Europe and the United States. It is difficult to both regulate and keep track of these markets due to their global nature.

Regulation exists at the international level, like the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) but also down to the municipal level. The lack of coordination between levels of governance allows illegal exotic pet trade to pass as legal pet trade. At the state level, most regulation focuses on human safety and security concerns. There is little discussion around the condition exotic pets are kept in or how people come to own exotic pets.

While CITES is a landmark treaty, it does not address animal welfare. CITES functions more as a trade organization rather than a conservation organization. It prohibits the trade of protected species, but does nothing to address the welfare of those species.

This discussion focuses on the exotic pet trade as a whole, from forest to cage. With insights into the sources of exotic pets including captive breeding and capture, the paper addresses the conditions these animals face. The paper concludes with suggestions to help curb demand for exotic pets.

II. Sources of Exotic Pets

Exotic pets must come from somewhere. Some populations of exotic pets enter the pet trade through captive breeding programs. While these animals are not domesticated, they are more exposed to human interaction compared to their wild-caught counterparts. Wild caught animals may be legally obtained if the species in question is not protected by international treaties like CITES or laws like the Endangered Species Act. Many nations may prohibit taking from the wild through national or regional laws.  However, oftentimes when dealing with exotic pets, wild caught animals are often poached from protected populations to meet the demand for the pet trade.

It is difficult to discuss the supply of exotic pets without also discussing the demand for them. Various social media platforms have made a tangible impact in the demand for exotic pets. This section seeks to distinguish between captive-bred and wild-caught exotic pets as well as examine the role of social media in driving demand for certain species.

A. Captive breeding

Captive breeding of wildlife takes many forms, such as tiger farming where captive tigers are bred for trading pelts, bones, teeth, and skulls. Some argue it can be an ethical and sustainable method to prevent detrimental sourcing from the wild. Captive-bred exotic pets are thought to be more docile to their wild-caught counterparts.

Allowing certain species to be captive-bred for the pet trade still puts their wild counterparts at risk for poaching. The Palawan Forest Turtle is fully protected under domestic legislation in the Philippines. However, the turtles can be traded internationally if they are captive-bred. Palawan Forest Turtles have never been bred in captivity. To get around this legislation, traders will label shipments of wild-caught animals as captive bred. See TRAFFIC, Captive-Breeding Claims Turned Turtle (June 16, 2015), available at https://www.traffic.org/news/captive-breeding-claims-turned-turtle/.

Other species that have been known to breed in captivity are still at risk. It can be difficult to distinguish between captive-bred and wild-caught animals. Some methods include assessing an animal’s general health, appearance, and behavior. Certain color morphs of animals are only known to appear in captivity, for instance. For a more accurate determination, DNA genotyping can be used but these tests are time-consuming and expensive, especially if the animal was stopped enroute to its destination. See Jessica Lyons and Daniel Natusch, Methodologies for differentiating between wild and captive-bred CITES-listed snakes (last accessed July 9, 2022), available at https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/com/ac/28/E-AC28-14-01_Annex4.pdf.

Another complexity to add to captive-bred exotic pets is the expense. Breeding any animal is expensive and there can be months where breeding programs are not profitable. In 2014, the Indonesian Ministry of Forestry granted six companies the ability to export over three-million captive-bred Tokay Geckos for the pet trade. TRAFFIC found that in order to produce one million adult-sized geckos a year, a facility would need at least 140,000 breeding females and 14,000 males. It would also need 30,000 incubation containers, 112,000 rearing cages, and a 100 percent survival rate. To be profitable, these animals would have to be produced and exported for less than $1.90 USD. With large up-front costs, to meet export quotas, a large number of the geckos would have to be taken from the wild and sold as captive-bred. See TRAFFIC, Tokay Gecko Breeding Doesn’t Add Up (November 24, 2015) available at https://www.traffic.org/publications/reports/adding-up-the-numbers-an-investigation-into-commercial-breeding-of-tokay-geckos-in-indonesia/.

Certain species like sugar gliders do have successful breeding populations in the pet trade. A genetic sampling of sugar gliders from seven states, including two major suppliers, found that the individuals originated from a source population around Soron, Indonesia. This suggests that some populations of exotic pets are truly captive bred, but there are still vast opportunities for illegal capture of animals to masquerade as legal. See Campbell CD, Pecon-Slattery J, Pollak R, Joseph L, Holleley CE. 2019. The origin of exotic pet sugar gliders (Petaurus breviceps) kept in the United States of America. PeerJ 7:e6180, available at https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.6180.

B. Capture

Some exotic pet species either do not breed well in captivity or are completely sourced from wild populations. In the aquarium trade, cyanide fishing is a common practice for many species, like the raccoon butterflyfish. Fishermen will use cyanide to quickly and cheaply stun ornamental fish so they can be sold into the aquarium trade. However, the use of cyanide is extremely destructive to coral and other reef inhabitants. This method is common throughout Southeast Asia, and although illegal in most countries, it still occurs. See Scientific American, How Dangerous Is It to Use Cyanide to Catch Fish? (August 10, 2011) available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/cyanide-fishing/.

Other animals face extreme amounts of stress as they are traded from poachers to sellers to pet stores. For every ten birds or reptiles captured in the wild, as few as three actually make it to the pet store. Rosemary-Claire Collard, Animal Traffic: Lively Capital in the Global Exotic Pet Trade (September 2020), available at https://www.dukeupress.edu/animal-traffic.

The chances of a new exotic pet living through its first year after purchase is just over 20 percent. The high mortality rate of the pet trade in turn drives demand for more animals, destroying ecosystems and depleting wild populations. Id.

The life of any exotic pet is generally not a kind one. These animals are forcibly removed from the environments that produced them and confined and made dependent upon humans for survival. Even if these animals are released back into the wild or escape from their owners, they face new realities in which they will not be able to adapt. In 2014 in Sooke, Canada, an African Serval was spotted trotting down the road. The animal was an escaped pet, and a few days later was killed by a vehicle. See Times Colonist, Exotic serval cat on the loose struck, killed by vehicle in Sooke (December 15, 2014), available at https://www.timescolonist.com/local-news/exotic-serval-cat-on-the-loose-struck-killed-by-vehicle-in-sooke-4616997 and Axios Columbus, Zanesville’s exotic animal massacre, 10 years later (October 18, 2021), available at  https://www.axios.com/local/columbus/2021/10/18/zanesville-exotic-animal-massacre-10-years-later.

This story is not uncommon for any sort of exotic pet. When these pets escape or are released into nonnative environments, both the animals themselves and the environments are placed at risk.

C. Social media

Rosie and Winnie are leucistic sugar gliders with 1.3 million Tik Tok followers. The account page is filled with videos of the sugar gliders frolicking outside and hiding in their owner’s shirt. Accounts like this one are now commonplace. Owners share their experiences through images and videos.

There is a danger in this idealized depiction of exotic pets. It normalizes wildlife in domestic settings as a form of entertainment for an audience.

Social media has radically changed how individuals obtain and perceive information. This change is especially apparent in the exotic pet trade. Content is largely unregulated and left to private social media companies to moderate. This phenomenon occurs globally, not just in the United States. A study conducted by the University of Adelaide evaluated social media activity of celebrities across the Middle East and found there was an overall positive public response to posts featuring exotic pets. See Animals, Endangered Exotic Pets on Social Media in the Middle East: Presence and Impact (July 2019), available at https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/9/8/480/htm.

In 2012, private exotic pet ownership in the United States reached 29 million pets. See Michelle R. Amidzich, Stop Pur-Petuating the Norm: Amending the Lacey Act to Include A "Dangerous or Potentially Dangerous Wildlife" Definition for Exotic Pet Protection, 23 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 56, 60 (2021) available at https://irp.cdn-website.com/ee52edf5/files/uploaded/VJEL_Vol.%2023_Issue%201_FULL.pdf. "The demand for private exotic pet ownership exploded because the internet provides ease of access to social media and e-commerce websites." Id. It is expected that those numbers have steadily increased since 2012 with the popularity of social media platforms.

Likewise, in late 2018, there was a boom in demand for otters as pets in Japan, linked to a rising number of “otter cafes,” television programs, and the popularity of otters as pets on social media platforms. Between 2016 and 2017, at least 39 small-clawed otters were seized enroute to Japan. See TRAFFIC, Asian Otters at Risk from Illegal Trade to Meet Booming Demand in Japan (October 19, 2018), available at https://www.traffic.org/publications/reports/asian-otters-at-risk-from-illegal-trade-to-meet-booming-demand-in-japan/.

Not only does social media play a large role in the normalization of owning exotic pets, it also serves as a digital marketplace for exotic pets. A cursory Google search of ‘exotic pets for sale near me’ yields over 60 million results in an instant. Websites like exoticanimalsforsale.net offer thousands of listing of exotic pets available in states like Texas and Florida, both of which only require permits for exotic pet ownership. See Animal Legal & Historical Center, Exotic Pet Laws (updated 2022). There is an abundance of websites selling a menagerie of exotics, including birds, reptiles, fish, and small mammals. In other words, the digital wildlife market is booming. Social media provides anonymity for both sellers and buyers. It connects sellers and buyers around the world with ease.

The World Wildlife Fund conducted a study on Myanmar’s digital markets on Facebook and the results are telling. From 2020-2021, advertisements for wildlife items on Facebook (live animals and their parts and derivatives) increased by 74%. Out of the 173 species being traded, 71% of those species were completely protected under Myanmar law. Furthermore, a vast majority of the animals (87%) were harvested from the wild. Live animals constituted the majority of sales posts, at 96%. See WWF, Going Viral: Myanmar’s Wildlife Trade Escalates Online (2021), available at  https://wwfasia.awsassets.panda.org/downloads/wwf_online_trade_ii___v2_2.pdf.

A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) examined nearly 2,400 live animals, parts, and products of species protected under CITES for sale on US based platforms. Of those advertisements, 19% were live animals to be sold as exotic pets. See IFAW, Digital markets: wildlife trafficking hidden in plain sight (2021), available at https://www.ifaw.org/resources/digital-markets-wildlife-trafficking-report#:~:text=IFAW's%20newly%20released%20report%2C%20Digital,%2C%20US%2Dbased%20online%20marketplaces.

Facebook in particular is notorious for illegal wildlife trade. In 2016, TRAFFIC undertook a rapid assessment to monitor wildlife trade occurring on 14 Facebook groups in Malaysia. During a five-month period, these groups advertised to 67,532 active members live wild animals for sale. 86% of all traded species were governed by CITES, with nearly half of the advertised animals (44%) in trade being birds. Other species offered for sale included the banded linsang, the flat-headed cat, and the pig-tailed macaque. See TRAFFIC, Trading Faces: A rapid assessment of the use of Facebook to trade wildlife in Peninsular Malaysia (March 2016), available at https://www.traffic.org/site/assets/files/2434/trading-faces-facebook-malasia.pdf.

In response to the issue, organizations like TRAFFIC and the WWF have formed the Global Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online. The coalition has united companies like Google, eBay, Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok, and others to help end online wildlife trafficking. Social media sites ban certain words and ads for particular products. However, sellers can circumvent these filters by coming up with a code word. Since 2018, more than 11 million posts for illegal wildlife have been blocked or removed from 47 companies operating around the world. Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking, 2021 Progress Update (last accessed July 11, 2022), available at https://www.endwildlifetraffickingonline.org/2021-progress-update.

D. Physical markets

While social media has created a new and somewhat untraceable market for exotic animals, physical markets still remain. Some of the most infamous of these physical markets are the exotic animal auctions. Missouri’s Lolli Bros. Livestock Auction, the Triple W Livestock Auction in Tennessee, and the Mid-Ohio Alternative Animal and Bird Sale are just some the numerous auctions that take place annually.

In Mt. Hope, for three days, three times per year, people from across the United States gather to buy and sell exotic animals to stock their petting zoos, private ranches, backyards, and living rooms. Trucks unload cage after cage, box after box, and trailer after trailer of exotic animals: insects, reptiles, snakes, parrots, monkeys, camels and zebras– “We’ve got zebras from five states!” the auctioneer at Mt. Hope later crowed into his microphone. As one auction poster boasts: “If it was on Noah’s ark, chances are we have it here.

See Rosemary-Claire Collard, Animal Traffic: Lively Capital in the Global Exotic Pet Trade (September 2020), p. 62-63, available at https://www.dukeupress.edu/animal-traffic.

Common exotic pets like birds and reptiles can be found at major chain stores like Petsmart and Petco. However, the exotic animal trade thrives in physical marketplaces like the Mid Ohio Alternative Bird and Animal Sale. These markets present a menagerie of animals for sale. Typically, the animals offered for sale are kept in small, temporary containers that are insufficient for their care. Proponents of these wildlife markets claim that the minimalistic provisions and insufficient housing for these animals are not stressful due to their temporary nature. See Animals, Dropping the Ball? The Welfare of Ball Pythons Traded in the EU and North America (March 2020), available at https://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/10/3/413/htm.

Through exotic pet expos, the animals themselves become commodities. They are displayed like goods at a store, to be handled and touched. Animal welfare is often substandard, leading to injury and death of animals for sale. In early 2022, an auction house in Tennessee was issued 15 citations by the USDA after failing to provide proper veterinary care to a zebra that had been injured on the property. Also in the report were citations for improper handling of a bison, insufficient barriers between the public and a camel, poor sanitation including trash inside animal enclosures. See Fox 17, Middle Tennessee Exotic Animal Auction Cited by Feds for Improper Vet Care, Sanitation (April 19, 2022), available at https://fox17.com/news/local/middle-tennessee-exotic-animal-auction-cited-by-feds-for-improper-vet-care-sanitation.

In a capitalist system, animal welfare will always fall second to profits. In the mid-1990s, the Fish and Wildlife service drafted regulations to define principles for humane transport of reptiles and amphibians. The pet industry pushed back at these regulations because they would lead to an increase in the cost of shipping animals. Due to a letter-writing campaign and public pushback, the Fish and Wildlife service ultimately dropped the effort. The International Air Transport Association adopted similar guidelines in 1997 to the proposed regulations but they lack the power of federal regulations. See National Geographic, Rachel Nuwer, Many exotic pets suffer or die in transit, and beyond - and the U.S. government is failing to act (March 22, 2021), available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/exotic-pets-suffer-wildlife-trade.

III. Case Studies

The exotic pet trade is a massive industry, affecting thousands of species. It is sometimes difficult to grasp the true scale of the exotic pet trade. Some species have become poster children for the exotic pet trade. This section highlights those species and the detrimental effect both legal and illegal trade has had on them.

A. Avian

The hyacinth macaw is the largest species of flying parrot in the world. However, the hyacinth macaw nearly faced extinction because of the pet trade. An estimated 10,000 individuals were illegally captured and sold as pets in the 1980s. These birds are highly valuable, with adult birds selling for at least $10,000. See National Geographic, Denise Hruby, This Amazon bird’s eggs are black-market gold. Here’s Why (June 5, 2019), available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/hyacinth-macaw-egg-laundering-for-pet-trade.

In addition to threats from the pet trade, the hyacinth macaw is also threatened by agriculture. The birds prefer to nest in the manduvi tree, which are fragile and vulnerable to heavy winds and cattle stepping on young trees. See WCS Brazil, Hyacinth Macaw (last accessed July 11, 2022), available at https://brasil.wcs.org/en-us/Wildlife/Hyacinth-Macaw.aspx.

The macaw’s population began to recover in the 1990s, thanks to the efforts of the Hyacinth Macaw Project. It is estimated that around 6,500 remain in the wild, with 5,000 living in Pantanal, Brazil. However, the species is still suffering in other regions of Brazil, such as the Cerrado Savanna and the Eastern Amazon. See WWF, The Hyacinth Macaw makes a comeback (April 21, 2004), available at https://wwf.panda.org/wwf_news/?12641/The-hyacinth-macaw-makes-a-comeback.

The hyacinth macaw is protected both by the Endangered Species Act and CITES. Trade of wild hyacinth macaws is strictly prohibited and only captive bred macaws are allowed to be traded. However, hyacinth macaws are notoriously difficult to breed in captivity.

In order to meet demand and not get caught by law enforcement agencies, poachers will take hyacinth macaw eggs from a nest. The eggs will be strapped to someone’s body and flown to Europe or the United States and taken to an established, legitimate aviary. The chicks are hand raised and given metal bands, evidence that the bird is captive-bred. The only way to tell the difference between the poached birds and truly captive-bred ones are DNA tests to determine parentage. Egg laundering makes it seem that illegally obtained birds are offspring of captive-held birds. For more information on egg laundering see National Geographic, Denise Hruby, This Amazon bird’s eggs are black-market gold. Here’s Why (June 5, 2019), available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/hyacinth-macaw-egg-laundering-for-pet-trade.

After being traded, macaws are faced with more negative effects. Hyacinth macaws require specialized diets and large housing areas that are both spacious and secure enough that the intelligent bird will not break out. They are social creatures and without proper stimulation will begin to self-mutilate and scream excessively. See TF Oren, Hyacinth Macaw: Big Birds Facing Trouble in Paradise (March 14, 2022), available at https://www.wideopenpets.com/everything-need-know-hyacinth-macaw/.

B. Reptiles

Ball pythons are native to west and central Africa. They reach a maximum length of 182 cm, making them a relatively small snake. The snakes are popular in the pet trade, often touted as a good beginner snake for owners due to their size and docility and the misconception that they do not require specialized care. They are the most traded, CITES listed, live animal traded from Africa. See Harrington LA, Green J, Muinde P, Macdonald DW, Auliya M, D'Cruze N, Snakes and ladders: A review of ball python production in West Africa for the global pet market, Nature Conservation 41: 1-24 (2020), https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.41.51270.

It is difficult to estimate how many ball pythons exist as pets, but between 1997 to 2018, more than 3.6 million ball pythons were legally exported from West Africa. Togo is the leading producer of ball pythons and has annual caps on exports: 1,500 wild ball pythons and 62,500 ranched ones. Python ranches are facilities where wild collected eggs and egg-carrying females are housed in a facility The pythons are ranched, meaning rural hunters bring wild collected eggs and egg-carrying females to facilities. The eggs are hatched and the young ball pythons are raised until they are old enough to be exported. See National Geographic, Rachael Bale, Ball Python Exports Raise Concerns as Demand Grows (March 31, 2020), available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/ball-pythons-west-africa-exports?loggedin=true.

In theory, a portion of ball pythons that are ranched are returned to the wild to bolster wild populations. However, a recent genetic assessment of wild and farmed ball pythons indicates that rerelease isn’t happening as often as advertised. A lack of an effective monitoring process for python ranches makes it difficult to assess the true number of snakes being released into appropriate habitats. See Auliya M, Hofmann S, Segniagbeto GH, Assou D, Ronfot D, Astrin JJ, Forat S, Koffivi K. Ketoh G, D’Cruze N, The first genetic assessment of wild and farmed ball pythons (Reptilia, Serpentes, Pythonidae) in southern Togo, Nature Conservation 38: 37-59 (2020), https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.38.49478.

It is estimated that up to five percent of reptiles die during intercontinental transit. The shipping process itself is stressful on the animals. Stressed animals are more susceptible to disease and passing that disease onto humans. A 2017 outbreak of salmonella in the United States was traced back to ball pythons. See Krishnasamy V, Stevenson L, Koski L, et al. Notes from the Field: Investigation of an Outbreak of Salmonella Paratyphi B Variant L(+) tartrate + (Java) Associated with Ball Python Exposure — United States, 2017, MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2018;67:562–563. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15585/mmwr.mm6719a7.

Ball pythons are also popular due to the development of novel color and patterns (morphs) through selective breeding. Due to selective breeding, certain genetic disorders have developed in certain morphs. For instance, wobble head syndrome, a central nervous system disorder characterized by side to side head tremors and incoordination is common in spider morph ball pythons. D’Cruze N, Paterson S, Green J, Megson D, Warwick C, Coulthard E, Norrey J, Auliya M, Carder G. Dropping the Ball? The Welfare of Ball Pythons Traded in the EU and North America, Animals 10(3):413 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.3390/ani10030413.

For more information on reptile-specific trade, see International Trade in Wild Caught Reptiles Topic Area (2005).

C. Mammals

Slow lorises are a group of primates within the genus Nycticebus, native across various regions of Southeast Asia. They are nocturnal primates with large, captivating eyes. The slow loris is unique among primates due to their toxic bite.

However, the primate is threatened both by deforestation and illegal wildlife trade. Slow lorises are captured both for their perceived medicinal value and for the pet trade. They are kept in private homes and used as photo props in tourist settings.

The slow loris gained popularity after two videos of captive individuals went viral. The first occurred in 2009 and featured a pygmy slow loris being ‘tickled’ by its owner. The slow loris displayed defensive body language, with her arms up to access the venom glands inside of her elbow. In 2014, a second video of a different slow loris went viral because it was eating a rice ball. In both videos, the individuals were severely obese and uncomfortable due to the brightly lit rooms they being kept in. Videos like these two drive demand for slow lorises as pets. See International Animal Rescue, The Horrible Truth (last accessed July 11, 2022), available at https://www.internationalanimalrescue.org/truth-behind-slow-loris-pet-trade.

A group of researchers conducted a study based in Marmaris, Turkey on the exploitation of slow lorises on social media. For 10 lira (roughly USD 2.75) tourists could have their photograph taken with a slow loris at a bar. The animals were dressed in human clothing and exposed to bright lights and flash photography, a highly stressful environment for a nocturnal species. The slow lorises were kept in small cages with unsuitable foods including “cherries, grapes and even a wedge of orange taken from a cocktail. Feeding by the vendor or tourists occurred only when tourists paid to play with the animals.” See Oryx, Instagram-fuelled illegal slow loris trade uncovered in Marmaris, Turkey (July 2017) available at https://www.proquest.com/openview/571f298963677279e0ea46ebc6cdd0bc/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=37514.

In order to make slow lorises suitable for this kind of exploitation, their teeth are clipped to prevent them from inflicting their venomous bite. It is estimated that slow lorises have a mortality rate of 30-90% once in the pet trade, during transport. See International Animal Rescue, The Horrible Truth (last accessed July 11, 2022), available at https://www.internationalanimalrescue.org/truth-behind-slow-loris-pet-trade.

The slow loris is listed on Appendix I of CITES, which precludes it from all international trade in the species, their parts, or their derivatives. Most countries where the slow loris is found do have protections in place for them. Despite these protections, slow lorises are still poached from the wild. While Myanmar protects the Bengal slow loris, a native subspecies, thousands of individuals are traded. Enforcement of these regulations is difficult in small border markets like the one in Mong La. In the markets, the animals are killed and individual body parts are sold as medicine. See Traffic, Brisk Trade threatens Slow Lorises (January 8, 2015), available at https://www.traffic.org/news/brisk-trade-threatens-slow-lorises/.

IV. Laws

A. International regulation 

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is a major international treaty that controls the movement of wild plants and animals. The treaty creates three categories into which species of concern or risk of extinction may be placed: Appendix I, Appendix II, and Appendix III.

Appendix I species are those threatened with extinction and effectively ends the commercial international trade in that species. This includes giant pandas, gorillas, Asian elephants, and all tigers.

Appendix II includes species that are not currently threatened with extinction but may be threatened if trade is not strictly regulated. These animals include hippopotamus, Southern elephant seals, and African penguins. This Appendix contains the largest number of listings, CITES is less restrictive with these species. They can be traded for commercial reasons if not detrimental to the species in the wild. A central limitation of the CITES doctrine is that it is required to be enforced by domestic laws. For more information, see the Overview of Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species.

CITES regulates approximately 30,000 plant and 5,800 animal species. However, the treaty is limited in scope to international trade and species affected by international trade. Therefore, CITES has no application to domestic markets or the pet trade on an intra-state basis. CITES is also limited by its appendix listing system; if a species is not listed, it is not offered protection by the Convention. See the Overview of CITES and UNODC, CITES and the international trade in endangered species (last accessed July 11, 2022), available at https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/wildlife-crime/module-2/key-issues/cites-and-the-international-trade-in-endangered-species.html.

B. National regulation

1. The Lacey Act

The Lacey Act of 1900 prohibited the transportation of illegally captured or prohibited species of wildlife across state lines. Enacted with Congress’ Commerce Clause power, this act seeks to eliminate poaching and the black market trade of invasive, dangerous, and non-native species of plants and animals across the country.  A violation of the Lacey Act could lead to five years in federal prison and civil fines up to $500,000. 16 U.S.C.  § 3373(d).

The Lacey Act was amended in 2007 by the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA) to also cover certain big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars and hybrids of these species. 16 U.S.C. § 3371. The Lacey Act and the CWSA make it difficult to transport and import wildlife.  At minimum, it encourages exotic pet hobbyists to legally acquire the animals for fear of federal prison.

The Lacey Act takes a blacklist approach, where species designated as injurious are barred from import. In order for a species to be added to the blacklist, the Department of the Interior must undergo informal rule making under the Administrative Procedure Act. This process is slow and only addresses species already in the United States and acting as an invasive species. See Michelle R. Amidzich, Stop Pur-Petuating the Norm: Amending the Lacey Act to Include A "Dangerous or Potentially Dangerous Wildlife" Definition for Exotic Pet Protection, 23 Vt. J. Envtl. L. 56, 60 (2021) available at https://irp.cdn-website.com/ee52edf5/files/uploaded/VJEL_Vol.%2023_Issue%201_FULL.pdf.

The Lacey Act regulates trade between states as well as foreign commerce wildlife trades. Importers must verify information about the animal before it can be imported into the country. Id.

2. The Animal Welfare Act

The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) was first enacted in 1966 and has been amended multiple times. The AWA regulates possession of warm-blooded animals for exhibition and breeding purposes by establishing standards of care. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for enforcing and inspecting petting zoos, circuses, aquariums, and zoos.  7 U.S.C. § 2131.  The AWA does little to nothing to regulate private possession of exotic animals as pets because it speaks only to commercial establishments.  Moreover, many private owners of exotic animals use loopholes or pose as animal “exhibitors” and do not have to meet the standards of the AWA. 

In 2020, a new rule was published in the Federal Register that amended the licensing requirements in the AWA. The new rule was passed in order to promote compliance, reduce licensing fees, and strengthen safeguards that prevent individuals and businesses with a history of noncompliance from obtaining a license or working with regulated animals. See Animal Welfare; Amendments to Licensing Provisions and to Requirements for Dogs, 85 FR 28772 (2020).

3. The Endangered Species Act

The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1972, prohibits “taking” or selling threatened or endangered species. 16 U.S.C. § 1538; see also Overview of the U.S. Endangered Species Act.  The United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists species that are either threatened or endangered in whole or part of their range or habitat. While it does little to regulate exotic animal pet ownership, the ESA prevents the release of exotic animals in the wild because owners would be liable should the exotic animal cause destruction of a threatened or endangered species. Private owners of exotic animals regularly circumvent this law by obtaining animals from captive bred programs. The ESA is rarely enforced against private exotic animal owners or sellers.

The ESA does authorize permits for scientific research, enhancement of propagation or survival, and taking that is incidental to an otherwise lawful activity. Therefore, The ESA does not issue captive-bred wildlife permits to keep or breed endangered pets. This would not be consistent with the purpose of the Endangered Species Act, which aims to conserve species and recover wild populations. See U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Endangered Species Permits: Frequently Asked Questions (last accessed July 11, 2022), available at https://www.fws.gov/node/267045#:~:text=Captive%2Dbred%20wildlife%20permits%20are,and%20recovery%20of%20wild%20populations.

C. State laws

The breeding of exotic pets can be regulated at the state level as well.  States vary in their approach to the possession of exotic pets. For more on restriction for the ownership of exotic pets, see Detailed Discussion of Exotic Pet Laws.

Certain states regulate this commercial activity and typically only require a permit with a small fee. Oklahoma, for example, requires that a person obtains a commercial wildlife breeder’s license, costing $48. The Director of the Game and Fish agency in Oklahoma issues the permits. The permits may be issued to any person “whom the Director believes to be acting in good faith, and whom the Director believes does not intend to use the license for the purpose of violating any of the laws of the State of Oklahoma, and who proves that the brood stock to be used will be obtained in a lawful manner.” 29 Okl. St. Ann. § 4-107, 4-107.1.

Other states that require breeding permits include Maryland (MD Code, Health - General, § 24-102), Indiana (Ind. Code § 14-22-26-1), Arkansas (Ark. Admin. Code 002.00.1-09.07), and Missouri (Mo. Code Regs. tit. 3 § 10-9.350). Beyond these, there are few states that address or otherwise discuss breeding of exotic animals.

V. Policy Solutions

Wildlife trade, whether illegal or legal, can be combated through similar strategies. Like many things, a reduction in demand will solve the problem. This section offers policy solutions to help curb demand.

A. Informational campaigns

A recent study found that when informing prospective exotic pet purchasers about the risk of zoonotic diseases or the potentially illegality of buying exotic pets, demand was reduced by up to 40%. The study found that ethical statements about species decline and animal welfare are unlikely to significantly influence consumers. By presenting personal risk through zoonotic disease and illegality, information campaigns can be far more effective. See Moorhouse, T.P., Balaskas, M., D'Cruze, N.C. and Macdonald, D.W. (2017), Information Could Reduce Consumer Demand for Exotic Pets (2016) CONSERVATION LETTERS, 10: 337-345, available at https://doi.org/10.1111/conl.12270.

Some social media accounts work hard to show viewers the reality of exotic pet ownership, beyond cute videos. This includes videos of destroyed furniture, cleanups from wild animals that cannot be truly potty trained, bites, extra veterinary and food expenses. Responsible messaging could potentially help combat the onslaught of videos and posts that romanticize exotic pet ownership. See National Public Radio, Dalia Faheid, The Newest TikTok Stars are Exotic Pets, But Experts Say That’s a Problem (July 4, 2021), available at https://www.npr.org/2021/07/04/1012502556/tiktok-exotic-pets-videos-responsibility-of-ownership.

B. Moderation on social media

As mentioned above, the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online partnered with the biggest social media sites to help stop virtual trafficking. Under TikTok’s community guidelines, content that depicts or promotes the poaching or illegal trade of wildlife is prohibited. The app also features a dedicated reporting category for wildlife trafficking. In addition to content removals, the site redirects searches that violate policies. For example, a search of the hashtag #petalion on TikTok brings up a warning message about the harmful effect of illegal wildlife trade. See World Wildlife Fund, Helping to Protect wildlife on TikTok and Beyond (April 15, 2022) available at https://www.worldwildlife.org/blogs/sustainability-works/posts/helping-to-protect-wildlife-on-tiktok-and-beyond.

C. State law reforms

While many states address the possession of dangerous exotic animals, the welfare of  exotic pets is rarely addressed. This is especially problematic in states where there are lax laws surrounding exotic pets. In Texas, hunting ranches filled with exotic game thrive. These ranches are privately run and need minimal permits to operate. These animals are bred in the United States, raising questions about the need for stricter breeding regulation for exotic animals. See CBS News, “Bred simply to be shot”: Inside America’s exotic hunting industry (June 9, 2019), available at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/exotic-hunting-business-trophy-hunting-cbsn-originals/.

To address this issue, states could require stricter licensing and permit schemes, intended to only allow facilities focused on conservation efforts to breed exotic animals. Further, states could impose higher standards of animal welfare for those wishing to own exotic pets.


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