Recent tragic events in Zanesville Ohio, where dozens of exotic animals including big cats, bears and wolves were released from a private facility and who the authorities were subsequently forced to shoot, have focused the spotlight on the issue of dangerous wild animals kept as pets.
Most right-minded people have roundly condemned the fact that dangerous exotic animals are bred, traded and kept by private individuals in many parts of the United States with few if any controls in place to regulate the trade.
Clearly the individual who released these animals before committing suicide should never have been allowed to acquire and keep these unfortunate creatures in the first place.
The ownership of native and non-native wildlife by people with little or no idea of how to provide them with a proper habitat and humane care results in an unacceptable level of danger to the public, and serious concerns for the welfare of the animals themselves, the majority of whom, in this case, ultimately paid with their lives.
However, this problem is not confined to a few American states.
In the UK and elsewhere in the European Union, the ever-increasing desire to own exotic wild animals has resulted in the development of a huge and largely unregulated trade.
Dealers often provide little or no information to the public on the needs of the animals caught up in this trade, leading to welfare issues and frequent neglect or abandonment of animals that become aggressive and unpredictable to handle and expensive to care for as they grow.
Capturing animals from the wild and transporting them often over long distances to the exotic pet trade, results in the death of large numbers of animals. The conservation status of many species is also being affected.
The escape or deliberate release of exotic animals threatens native species and ecosystems, as well as increasing concerns for public health and safety. Controlling invasive alien species costs the EU billions of euros each year.
As with so many animal protection issues, current regulations governing the trade are wholly inadequate. Some EU member states prohibit or restrict the keeping of certain animals considered too dangerous for private ownership, but the rules are inconsistent between member states and are often poorly enforced. Meanwhile, international agreements such as the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) apply only to certain species.
The situation is no better in the UK where the keeping of animals falls under a confusing number of different pieces of legislation and even then, many species in the exotic pet trade slip through the net.
The Dangerous Wild Animals Act is a case in point, singularly failing in its primary function to protect the public from animals considered to be dangerous.
In theory, it requires owners of species listed under the act to submit to an inspection and registration system. However, it is local authorities who are charged with enforcing the act and as they are typically insufficiently resourced or lack the technical competence to dispatch their duties properly, many simply ignore their role altogether and non-compliance levels are believed to be worryingly high.
The lack of consistent legislation or licensing requirements makes the collection of accurate data almost impossible, and as a consequence the numbers and variety of animals being kept and traded are not well understood.
In the UK, it is estimated that at around 12 million, the number of exotic terrestrial animals kept as pets outnumbers cats or dogs.
Of around 300,000 reptiles known to have been imported into the UK in 2009, the vast majority came from outside the EU. The incidence of venomous snake bites is rising fast, thanks mainly to the increased keeping of exotic venomous species. Up to 7,500 primates are also thought to be in the hands of private individuals in the UK.
At its congress in May 2010, the British Veterinary Association identified the lack of understanding of the care needs for exotic pets, the abandonment of fashionable pet animals, and the disease risks associated with importing exotics into the UK, as being among the most important animal welfare issues facing the British government. But we see little action being taken at a national level.
Wild and exotic animals are not pets. Rather they are an animal welfare disaster and a potential risk to their keepers, the wider public, and the ecosystem into which they are all too frequently abandoned.
If we are to avoid an Ohio-type incident occurring here, it is high time the appalling commerce in wild animals for the pet trade was brought under serious control and preferably banned altogether.
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