Author Archives: ssteele1

Rethinking Exotic Pet Ownership


Imagine you’re a snake lover, and while online shopping you come across this advertisement, what is the first thing you think? Do you respond as a buyer?


After awhile on the same sight, you come across the sale of this eccentric species. Do your opinions change as a conservationist?


Personally, I don’t agree with the sale of big cats for private ownership. I would be willing to bet most of my conservation-concerned peers don’t either. However, the sale of a python doesn’t particularly baffle me. But I ask myself, what is the difference? Exotic trade animals aren’t limited to oversized mammals such as tigers and monkeys. Exotic animals include “normal” pets such as rabbits, birds, and snakes. Although as a result of careless private ownership, the Burmese python (shown for sale in image 1) is threatening native species in the Everglades [1].  This is only a single example of a conservation issue created by an animal that some would consider a standard pet. While most pet owners do not own 7-foot snakes, I don’t presume there are many people that would be outraged at by the knowledge of a friend having one – it is legal after all. There are only 21 states that have complete bans on exotic pets; The other 29 states have partial bans, license permitting, or no regulation at all for these animals [2]. The complete bans are variable by state, so each state has different standards on the animals they consider exotic. This indicates that there is no national or international agreement on what is considered an exotic animal.

The tiger in image 2 is advertised as a 3-year-old Bengal who has been with the family since he was a cub. A tiger, of any sub-species, is considered an adult at two years of age. According to Mazak [3], an adult male Bengal is roughly 8-10ft in length and weighs roughly 400-600lbs. While my point of view may differ from yours, the tiger in the picture definitely does not look like 400 pounds. My point is, the general online shopper would not know the difference between a 6-month and 3-year old tiger, and the difference could mean a drastic change in safety when handling an animal of this size. So do we limit the ownership of exotic species to size and safety? Or do we evaluate other areas of potential concern before making distinctions about private exotic ownership?

There is and may always be a debate on defining the behavior of animals. While some animals are more prone to domestication (i.e. dogs, cats, livestock), it appears that others are not. We can possibly attribute this to size, but what about each species’ instinctual behaviors? Instinctual behavior, also known as innate behavior, has been studied since the 1950’s and caused many fueled arguments. Konrad Lorenz, a famous ethologist well known for studying imprinting, wrote an elaborate paper on innate behavior. Simply put, he concluded innate behavior is spontaneous, reflexive, and spring-loaded [4]. This means that some behaviors do not occur predictably, and are reflexive to certain stimuli. Therefore, animals can react in multiple ways to the same stimuli, and the reaction can build (or wind on a spring), until the correct stimulus is presented and a behavior is emitted. This behavior can differ in intensity as indicated by the spring-loaded potential analogy. Relating this back to exotic pets, we can say that it is near impossible to predict the behavior of animals in homes. The effect of house-hold stimuli has not been studied on exotic species and there is little research on what makes an animal “snap” and become aggressive towards owners. Because animals can react differently to similar stimuli, what once made an animal affectionate could make an animal become dangerous. This un-predictable behavior causes the release of exotic pets into un-natural environments. This causes massive conservation concern as these “pets” predate on the native species that are un-adapted to the threat, become dangerous to nearby neighborhoods, and/or become nuisances to the surrounding area.  These contingencies focus on the human impact and safety of un-predictable behavior but the ethics of captivity should also be considered. Is it ethical to limit an animal’s instinctual behavior because we require it to have manners?

While I couldn’t find any primary research on the effects of the exotic animal trade on conservation, I also did not find any writing (primary or others) supporting exotic animal ownership. Two papers express their concern about the injuries resulting from exotic pets, both in the U.S. and Europe [5, 6]. Two others discuss the ethical concern associated with keeping exotic animals captive and exploiting them as products [1, 7]. These ideas are highlighted by an article from National Geographic  [8] discussing greed and human irresponsibility with these animals. A consensus among writers warns against the private ownership of such animals. As a society, it is our burden to decide which animals we are inclined to protect, whether it is the exotic pets in the trade or the native species that could be impacted by the irresponsible release of exotic pets. The effects of releasing exotic animals into unnatural environments are largely unknown, and it is unlikely someone predicted the Burmese python having such an enormous effect in the Everglade ecosystem. Therefore we should tread on the side of caution when determining when it is appropriate to obtain exotic animals and consider safety, ethical values, and conservational impacts.



[1] Hess, L. 2011. Exotic Animals: Appropriately Owned Pets or Inappropriately Kept Problems? Journal of Aviane Medicine and Surgery.  Vol 25, Issue 1, pp 50-56.

[2] 2010. Big Cats Kept as Pets Across U.S., Despite Risk. National Geographic. URL:

[3] Mazak, V. 1981. Panthera tigris. American Society of Mammalogists. No. 152, pp 1-8

[4] Lorenz, K. 1950. The comparative method in studying innate behavior patterns. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology 4 (Physiological Mechanisms in Animal Behavior). Pp 221-254.

[5] Lazarus, H.M., Price, R.S., Sorensen, J. 2001. Dangers of Large Exotic Pets from Foreign Lands. Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care. Vol 51, Issue 5, pp 1014-1015.

[6] Schaper, A., Desel, H., Ebbecke, M., De Haro, L., Deters, M., Hentschel, H., Hermanns-Clausen, M., Langer, C. 2009. Bites and stings by exotic pets in Europe: An 11 year analysis of 404 cases from Northeastern Germany and Southeastern France. Clinical Toxicology. Vol 47, No. 1, pp 39-43.

[7] Warchol, G. L. 2007. Transnational Illegal Wildlife Trade. Criminal Justice Studies: a Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society. Vol 17, Issue 1, pp. 57-73.

[8] 2015. Big Cat Bans Enacted. Big Cat Rescue. URL: