The UK’s “piecemeal” laws governing the keeping of exotic pets need a radical overhaul, campaigners say, following research revealing the wild animal trade is driving devastating biodiversity loss.
The Born Free Foundation and the RSPCA want a system where the public choose a pet from a list of permitted animals, rather than dangerous or threatened species being banned on a case-by-case basis.
They said the current approach is piecemeal and leaves lawmakers forever playing catch-up as new species are discovered and quickly exploited by animal traders.
It found around 1.8 million reptiles, amphibians and invertebrates are kept in UK homes.
An estimated 1.3 million indoor birds are also kept as pets, and around 100 million ornamental fish – with an estimated 90% of saltwater species taken directly from the wild.
The two charities warn that, due to a lack of knowledge or resources, owners are often depriving their pets of at least one of their basic requirements, including space, appropriate food or warmth.
At the moment, almost anyone can buy and keep most exotic animals as a pet, they said.
In 2020, 6,119 incidents involving 22,865 exotic animals were reported to the RSPCA, with the majority driven by a lack of understanding of how to care to for them, the charity said.
Species can become particularly fashionable after featuring in television or films, with an upsurge in demand for terrapins seen following the release of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the report found.
Finding Nemo, which featured a clown fish, led to a spike in demand of 40%, with wild populations declining up to 75% in some areas, and local extinctions in parts of south and south-east Asia.
The vogue for newly discovered reptiles is so great among collectors that some ecologists will no longer include location details in their published research in a bid to protect them.
The report found data indicating that reptile species traded as pets are five times more likely to be threatened with extinction than those that are not, and mammal species are three times more likely.
Will Travers OBE, co-founder and executive president of the Born Free Foundation, said: “Current legislation relating to the trade in and keeping of exotic pets is reactionary and unable to keep up with or predict where demand will be focused in the future.
“This not only places government and policymakers on the back foot, but also results in countless species being imported into the exotic pet trade before legislation can take effect, with potentially disastrous consequences for conservation and animal welfare.”
The craze for exotic pets brings a heightened risk of new zoonotic diseases jumping to humans, and with it the threat of a pandemic on the same scale as Covid-19 – which is thought to have originated in bats.
Chris Sherwood, chief executive of the RSPCA, said: “(Exotic pets) have the same complex needs as their wild brothers and sisters, but it can be extremely difficult to fulfil those requirements in a domestic environment and that leads to suffering.”
He continued: “There needs to be better regulation of the keeping and trade in exotic pets, and we are proposing that the Government gives consideration to a positive list system as a possible way forward.”
As well as the introduction of a “positive” list of exotic pets for the public to choose from, the Born Free Foundation and the RSPCA want the new Animal Welfare Bill to close a loophole that would allow primates to be traded between licence-holders.
A Defra spokesman said: “Anyone wishing to keep an animal covered by the Dangerous Wild Animals Act must apply for a licence from their local authority.
“Owners will be carefully vetted and, if granted, the licence sets out strict conditions under which pets must be kept. We review this legislation regularly to ensure it is effective in keeping both people and animals safe.
“In addition to this, we are currently legislating to ban the keeping of primates as pets and have recently increased the maximum prison sentence for animal cruelty to five years.”