© World Animal Protection
In Britain we have a global reputation as a 'nation of pet lovers', widely recognized for our national obsession that extends beyond the usual cat, dog or hamster. According to industry experts, there were more than 42 million rare and unusual 'exotic' pets kept in UK households in 2014.
However, our excitement for 'exotics' may come at a cost. Experts warn that owning exotic pets - including animals like snakes, parrots and tropical fish - can pose a threat, not just to the welfare and survival of our prized pets but also to our own health.
For starters, the global nature of the exotic pet industry makes it an excellent mechanism for disease transmission. Every year millions of wild animals are traded internationally, many of which can act as symptom less carriers of disease that can be moved between continents within hours.
The exotic pet trade also has a criminal underbelly. Illegal smuggling of wild animals can generate huge profits for organized criminal gangs. False paperwork is generated to 'launder' exotics, ensuring prospective owners remain blissfully unaware that their pet was poached from the wild.
Its legal status aside, the exotic pet trade can also be cruel and unsustainable - causing severe suffering to the wild animals during capture, transport, sale or resulting captivity and leading to severe declines and extinctions for over-exploited wild populations.
I myself, have been to illegal wildlife trade markets where I have witnessed hundreds of threatened wild animals stacked in filthy cages all piled on top of each other. The air around me was so thick with dust particles, comprising skin, feathers and scales, that I could almost taste the pathogens as I took each breath.
Some suggest public awareness campaigns could help to prevent the cruelty, disease, extinction and criminal activity associated with exotic pet ownership. However, until now, it has been unclear whether information about the negative impacts of the trade in exotics could actually influence consumer attitudes.
To help shed light on this issue, researchers at the University of Oxford's Wildlife Conservation Research Unit (WildCRU), in collaboration with World Animal Protection, created a survey website to test whether raising public awareness could influence people's attitudes towards purchasing an exotic pet.
Survey participants who stumbled upon the website when searching for information about exotic pets were asked a series of background questions (e.g. about pets' size, appearance and behavior) on what sort of animal they were looking for - the website then presented them with a species of pet that "matched" their preferences, and gave them information about it.
But the website had a twist. The information shown about a given potential pet varied between participants: some people received information about the pet's diet, but others were shown details of the potential animal welfare, conservation, human health and legal consequences of their possible purchase. Participants were then asked to rate how likely they were to buy that pet.
The survey findings were very interesting indeed. Information about the human health and legal consequences of a potential purchase made the pet far less appealing. In contrast, information about animal welfare had less effect and details of the conservation consequences had no impact on attitudes at all.
It appears that potential pet owners may be motivated to avoid outcomes that might directly harm them, but not their prospective pets. This may be because contracting a disease or breaking the law represents personal risk that people may balance against the enjoyment of owning an exotic pet - whereas the welfare and conservation impacts affect the pets, not the owners, and would have already happened at the point of purchase.
The study showed that information can change people's attitudes to buying exotic pets - but this does not necessarily translate into actual behaviour change. Some people may say that they are less likely to buy an exotic pet but, when faced with the real thing in a shop, may still go on to do so regardless.
However, this study provides a fascinating insight into what type of information may be most likely to deter people from purchasing an exotic species, and suggests that reducing the demand for exotics - and all of the negative consequences that accompany that demand - may indeed be possible.
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