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Corn snakes, bearded dragons, hissing cockroaches and royal pythons………..not the cuddliest animals to have on your pet ‘bucket list’, but sentient beings nonetheless, and typically representative of exotic animals caught up within the pet trade in this country. How about the more typically aesthetically pleasing exotics that regularly make it into our homes, such as pygmy hedgehogs, sugar gliders and slow lorises? The latter sparked a good deal of media controversy in recent times when the singer Rihanna was seen posing with one as a photo prop in Phuket, Thailand. These animals are highly endangered in the wild, appearing on Cites Appendix 1, and Rihanna’s thoughtless actions, which resulted in a surge of people wanting to keep lorises as pets, provoked several organisations to speak out against exotic pet glamorisation in the media and support and perpetuation of the trade.

Around the same time as Rihanna’s encounter, a video of a slow loris raising its arms and being ‘tickled’ went viral, with over 5 million shares on YouTube. And yet what so few innocent viewers realised was that the loris automatically raises its arms in this way when suffering extreme stress. The clip people laugh and joke about entitled ‘slow loris loves getting tickled’ is actually documenting misaligned animal abuse (google ‘Tickling is Torture’ to see how you can help with this cause and www.nocturama.org – Little Fireface Project -to help them in wild).

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People who as a result of this media frenzy and exposure may have acquired one as a pet may also wish to know that a loris’s bite is highly poisonous and that when it raises its arms it is actually activating said poison. Breeders and illegal traders are known to remove the glands that contain the poison or the loris’s teeth, obviously a highly invasive procedure which can result in infection and death. See this article for more information: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/jul/06/loris-illegal-animal-trade-indonesia

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The point here is that exposure to exotic animals, through whatever medium, nearly always results in people, and in particular children (the least likely to be able to look after them properly), wanting to have them as a pet, whether because it is cool, cute or just simply different. The Animal Protection Agency, Captive Animal Protection Society (www.captiveanimals.org) and RSPCA are, to name but a few, all outspoken about the exotic pet trade. Of course there are people who keep exotic animals with a vast experience of handling such creatures and are fully aware of their complex needs and environments, but we are not talking about cats, dogs, or Guinea pigs here. As states the Animal Protection Agency (www.apa.org.uk), looking after an exotic is “time-consuming and expensive”, being extremely difficult to try to replicate the animal’s wild environment. “As a result, most reptiles die within a year in captivity. Others are neglected or discarded, causing untold misery, and many abandoned reptiles end up in overcrowded rescue shelters. Meanwhile, the reptile trade is an expanding industry, so traders continue to import reptiles in large numbers while breeders flood the market with curiosity hybrids and albinos.”

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One medium that could fill the role of ‘educator’ but more often than not takes on that of ‘exploiter’ is the mobile zoo. These travelling exhibits, usually of exotic pets but often with a smattering of domestic animals such as pygmy goats, are on the increase and are currently subject to a recommendation for a complete ban by the Welsh government (see page 23 of this pdf doc https://www.ispca.ie/uploads/The_welfare_of_wild_animals_in_travelling_circuses.pdf) . You can book a visit by one of these exotic pet exhibits for your school, wedding, kids party, corporate event and other such like (and it doesn’t usually come cheap), offering experiences such as holding snakes, stroking lizards etc. etc. Birds are usually tethered and other animals are often kept on leads/harnesses, with some even being dressed up in clothing and made to perform tricks, such as a parrot riding around on the back of a tortoise. As quoted from the Welsh Government recommendation document: The 2013 survey by CAPS found that 66% of the (mobile zoo) businesses they identified were not registered with a local authority under the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925 and there appears to be a significant level of public concern about mobile zoos. In 2015, 44 calls to the RSPCA’s Cruelty and Advice Line were about mobile zoos using wild animals, including bird of prey displays: 93% of these calls were from members of the public with concerns for animal welfare (the rest were queries from the businesses themselves).

In the past, events in Harrogate have hosted such exhibits. Owners may claim that their animals are  rescued, which may well be the case, however unless a strong educational message is put out that these animals are not a suitable pet for ‘just anybody’, this kind of exhibit can only perpetuate and exacerbate the already burgeoning and highly lucrative exotic pet trade, particularly when animals are handled. Animals at these events are usually herded around in cat and dog crates or plastic containers. And if they are indeed ‘rescued’, let us not forget that these are still profiting businesses, and not registered charities. Many companies also offer animal assisted therapy, claiming to help overcome social issues, but there is virtually no scientific evidence to indicate this with exotics. Again, we are not talking cats and dogs here, and the amount of stress it most likely causes to the animal being handled, in comparison to any benefit to the people handling them, simply cannot justify its continuation.

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In addition to premature death, abuse through lack of knowledge and an impact on conservation in the wild (did I mention hundreds of animals die during capture and transport),  this trade and its promotion can be harmful in terms of public health: “Most reptiles, including those kept as pets, carry salmonella in their gut without showing any signs of infection”, states an HM Government paper on keeping reptiles as pets, which goes on to describe how such illnesses can be passed onto people and can be fatal in babies and young children. A document by the Emergent Disease Foundation and supported by the Worldwide Veterinary Service opens simply with “ It is not advisable to keep exotic animals as pets”.

Credit: Rocky Mountain Laboratories,NIAID,NIH Color-enhanced scanning electron micrograph showing Salmonella typhimurium (red) invading cultured human cells.

See * for more information on zoonoses in exotic animals.

With examples like that of the slow loris, what I am trying to demonstrate is how misunderstood wild exotic animals as pets can be and how this can lead to their mistreatment. With the exception of a small few, most exotic animals don’t need a licence to be kept and even if they do these are relatively easy to come by from local authorities with little knowledge of these creatures. They can easily be bought by most people with little to no prior knowledge of how to look after them. Most people can’t imagine that there are up to 20,000 primates estimated to be kept as pets in the UK (see www.wildfutures.org).

Mobile zoos teach you how to drape a python around your neck, and rarely such things as that they should never be handled after feeding, that you may have to cut open a mouse’s head and expose its brains to get the snake to feed on it, that they need to be housed at a specific temperature and can burn themselves on heat lamps if the temp. is not stable and that they absolutely need somewhere to be able to hide in their tank.

If the conclusion of this blog and its contents suggest that harm is caused by mobile zoos then please feel free to do your own research and draw your own conclusions. There is no agenda behind what I write other than to protect animals both domestically and in the wild who, voiceless and void of rights, have little to no protection from the often unintentionally ignorant abuse we reap upon them. Thank you for reading.

Credit Salmonella photo: Rocky Mountain Laboratories,NIAID,NIH

*‘A review of captive exotic animal-linked zoonoses’ by Clifford Warwick1 DipMedSci CBiol EurProBiol FRSPH FSB, Phillip C Arena2 BSc(Hons) PhD, Catrina Steedman1 BSc(Hons) AMSB, Mike Jessop3 BVetMed MRCVS

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Mobile Zoos and Exotic Pet Exhibits: Educational Tool or Causing More Harm Than Good?

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