Educational Series: The Cruel, Destructive Exotic Pet Trade Must End


By Nick Engelfried
Few things are cuter than a loris. These small primates with big, round eyes and bodies covered in fuzzy fur look as if they were born to be cuddled–and as a result, pet lorises have become internet sensations and popular novelty pets. However, the trade in these adorable animals comes with a dark side. It’s no exaggeration to say humankind’s infatuation with some loris species could doom them to extinction. As such, lorises are just one among many animal victims of the exotic pet trade.

The term “exotic pet” can be used to describe any animal kept in captivity for human entertainment or companionship that is not fully domesticated. Often, the phrase refers to animals that are clearly unsuited to life in captivity such as primates, big cats, and marsupials, or that are captured for sale from the wild. While there are many reasons to be concerned about the ethics of keeping such animals, one of the most important is that the trade in exotic creatures is contributing to the endangerment and potential extinction of entire species. Especially for animals that aren’t easily bred in captivity, the exotic pet trade represents an existential threat.

Lorises are a classic example of an animal whose survival is being put on the line by exotic pet breeders and buyers. The little primates are very difficult to breed in captivity, meaning almost every loris on the market has been taken straight from its rainforest habitat in Southeast Asia. The removal of animals from the wild is one of the most important reasons various loris species are now considered endangered or vulnerable to extinction–and each time a pet collector pays for one, an incentive is created for unscrupulous suppliers to take another from the wild.

Unfortunately for a captured loris, its ordeal does not end after being snatched from its habitat. The animal will have its teeth cut with clippers or pliers, a highly painful operation performed without anesthetic. Lorises that survive this step without succumbing to infection are transported over long distances in overcrowded crates, where many more die before reaching their final destination. After eventually being purchased as pets, the survivors live out the rest of their lives in highly unnatural environments, prevented from exercising natural behaviors and often fed diets that lead to obesity and sickness.

The fact is, most people who purchase a pet loris are probably unaware that they are harming both the individual primate and the species as a whole. In some cases, this may be because of misleading advertising; sellers sometimes claim their lorises are bred in captivity despite this almost never being the case. It is therefore imperative that more people come to understand the harm the exotic pet trade does to species like lorises–and that we act to crack down on this multi billion dollar business before it is too late.

The largely illegal, global trade in exotic animals is worth up to $20 billion per year, creating a huge incentive for poachers and collectors to take animals out of their environment. Even when it comes to species that can be feasibly bred in captivity, it may be difficult to tell whether an individual on the market was actually taken from the wild. For instance, sugar gliders–small marsupials with the ability to glide like a flying squirrel–are often taken from their habitat and sold alongside those that are captive bred.

There is also the pressing question of whether creatures like lorises, sugar gliders, and big cats can be kept humanely as pets at all, even if they were bred in captivity. All these animals roam vast areas every day in their natural habitat, have complex dietary and social needs, and are likely to suffer serious physical or mental ramifications from life in a cage.

Despite all this, the allure of “owning” an exotic pet means thousands of mammals, birds, and reptiles that are ill-suited to captivity continue to be taken from the wild or bred in facilities whose main goal is to mass-produce animals for sale, often under inhumane conditions. There can hardly be a better example of a species that clearly belongs in the wild but continues to suffer in the pet trade than the world’s largest big cat: the tiger.

The trade in live tigers–which has unfortunately been popularized by the reality TV show Tiger King–is a big niche business in the United States, where an estimated 5,000 of the big cats are now kept. This is more tigers than currently survive in the wild, and most are housed in private collections or roadside zoos that make no legitimate contribution to conservation. Living conditions in such places are often cramped, unsanitary, and unsafe for both tigers and people. However, while tigers are perhaps an extreme example, countless other animals experience similarly miserable lives in captivity–often because the people purchasing them do not realize the danger or responsibilities involved in caring for them.

Misleading advertising and social media accounts that show captive animals only at their most docile have led many people to buy exotic pets without realizing what they are getting into. Those who eventually come to see how unsuited their charges are to life in captivity may feel the urge to release them into the wild–but unfortunately, this is a terrible solution to a problem that never should have been created in the first place. Many exotic animals would simply die if released in an environment they are not suited for. Those that do survive too often multiply and overrun native ecosystems.

Invasive species–animals and plants released into a habitat where they wreak havoc on the native inhabitants–are a threat to biodiversity almost everywhere, and the exotic pet trade is a major contributor to the crisis. Perhaps the best case study in the United States is Florida, where the warm, wet climate is hospitable to many tropical animals kept as pets. The state’s forests and wetlands have been overrun with nonnative iguanas, pythons, basilisk lizards, and even monkeys, with native species suffering as a result. Just picture what would happen when a native rabbit, raccoon, or small deer comes face to face with a giant Burmese python–a now common invasive species that originated in Florida as an exotic pet. The results won’t be pleasant for the unsuspecting mammal.

To summarize: the exotic pet trade is devastating to wildlife on many levels. Populations of species like lorises and sugar gliders suffer when individual animals are snatched from their habitat. They then spend their lives under unnatural, often cruel conditions–as do other primates, marsupials, birds, reptiles, and even big cats that are coveted by private collectors. Tragically, releasing an animal back into the wild will not solve the problem unless it can somehow be transported back to its native habitat. Released exotic pets become invasive species that outcompete or literally consume native animals and plants.

So, what is to be done? Public education is an essential part of what it will take to stop the exotic pet trade; people need to understand the harm they are doing when they buy an animal ill-suited for captivity or that may have been taken from the wild. Government action is also needed, and some states are taking steps in the right direction. For example, Florida’s Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission passed a regulation in 2021 to ban the sale and ownership of 16 exotic reptiles.

While the exotic animal trade will not be ended overnight, a growing public awareness of its devastating effects on wildlife offers hope that this massive industry can eventually be eliminated. After all, as adorable as animals like the loris might be, they belong in one place: their natural habitat.

Photo credit: Sayantan Das (University of Mysore)

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To what part of the world are lorises native?
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Nick Engelfried Writes About Animals, the Environment, and Conservation for the ForceChange network

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