A taste for owning exotic animals can be addictive – the more flamboyant the better. Earlier this month border security agents found 50 live turtles and lizards smuggled in Lego boxes sent from Indonesia. In April customs officials found a parcel marked “2 pair shoes” that turned out to contain venomous vipers, tarantulas and scorpions.
According to the Animals Medicines Australia 2016 survey some two-thirds of Australian households have pets – more than 24 million animals in total. Not surprisingly, dogs and cats are the most popular (38% and 29% of households, respectively), whereas aquarium fish and birds rank somewhere in the middle (both 12%), and reptiles and less common mammals are kept in some households (both less than 5%).
The federal government largely legislates the owning of exotic pets. The law defines “exotic” as “animals that do not occur naturally in the wild in Australia” – which actually includes dogs and cats. However “domesticated mammals”, which also covers cows, sheep and other farm animals, are generally legal to buy and own. Commercial trade in exotic reptiles and amphibians, on the other hand, has been banned since 1999.
Whether an exotic animal is kept legally or not, some will find their way to the Australian wild through escape or release, posing a potential pest risk. There are some simple things governments and pet owners can do to improve the way this risk is handled, to keep animals and humans safe.
We don’t really know how many exotics are in Australia
Most local councils only require dogs (and sometimes cats) to be registered by their owners. Other pets, whether exotic or native, do not need to be registered. Indeed an owner of an exotic animal is not required to report or register the animal in any way. This means there are very little reliable data and it’s difficult to say how many exotic pets are kept in Australia.
We highlight two cases from our own research: birds and reptiles.
Bird-keeping is common in Australia, particularly of parrots and finches. More than half the bird species traded are exotic and mostly originate in South America, Africa and Asia. Rose-ringed Parakeets are one of the most commonly kept exotic pet bird, and the most frequently reported as having escaped. They are seen as a potential threat because they are a serious agricultural pest in its’ native and exotic distribution, and have a very high risk of establishing in Australia.
Reptiles – generally skinks, turtles and dragons – are less popular pets than birds. Nonetheless, judging from the posts on public trading webpages, a variety of native reptile species are kept and traded by hobbyists, also including crocodiles and snakes.
Unfortunately, little is known about native reptile trading in Australia and further research is needed. And while native reptiles can be kept legally, illegal exotic reptiles are a serious problem. In a previous article for The Conversation, we reported that 28 alien reptile species were illegally kept in Victoria between 1999 and 2012. More than a third were highly venomous snakes, posing a real risk to human safety.
Responsibly caring for exotic pets
If you own or want to buy an exotic pet, you must be aware of the regulations that apply to you (you can Google “exotic pet regulations” plus the name of your state or territory). Each jurisdiction keeps official lists of those species that may be kept within their borders, with or without a permit. These lists can be found on local government websites or obtained from their relevant departments.
People should also be able to register all of their pets, including exotic ones. Governments need to promote public awareness of the importance of registration (even if it’s not legally required), and ensure the processes are simple, accessible and affordable.
If you lose your exotic pet, it’s important to alert your state or territory biosecurity agency. Each jurisdiction has its own agency, but examples are the Western Australia Department of Agriculture and Food or Agriculture Victoria. If you want to recover your lost pet the best available option is to report your loss to one of the many missing animal websites.
Governments, when facilitating the registration process, will need to establish best practices to collect and analyse information so that the nature and extent of pet ownership may be better known, monitored and managed.
Ultimately, the burden of safe and responsible pet ownership should be shared. While public awareness is crucial, the key to a sustainable pet trade is mutual partnership between pet owner communities and governments. This is particularly important as pet sales and trade shift further to an online environment.