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Keeping these exotic pets is 'cruel' and 'dangerous,' Canadian animal advocates say

A sugar glider looks up while another steals its food at the Singapore Zoo in Singapore on Aug. 17, 2012. (Wong Maye-E / AP Photo) A sugar glider looks up while another steals its food at the Singapore Zoo in Singapore on Aug. 17, 2012. (Wong Maye-E / AP Photo)
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Canadian pet owners are finding companionship beyond dogs and cats. Tigers, alligators, scorpions and tarantulas are among some of the exotic pets they are keeping in private homes in Canada, which pose risks to public safety and animal welfare, advocates say as they push for stronger and consistent regulations across the country.

"There is a misguided notion that wild animals can be tamed as pets," Kelly Butler, wildlife campaign manager with Humane Society International Canada in Montreal, said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. "It's very cruel to the animal. It's dangerous to the owner. ... So this leads to dangers for both animals and the people, because the keeping of exotic pets is inconsistently regulated and largely unmonitored across the country."

Advocates define exotic pets as animals that live in captivity outside their countries of origin.

Butler says her organization works with many partner shelters that see exotic species of all sizes surrendered to their facilities or rehomed in sanctuaries. "They ultimately do have complex biological needs, which make them incredibly difficult to keep as pets."

CTVNews.ca spoke with Butler and other advocates about the types of exotic animals that people keep as pets, and concerns around the safety of both the animals and humans.

A male tiger walks inside his enclosure at the Toronto Zoo on March 17, 2022. (Nathan Denette / The Canadian Press)

Popular exotic pets

Anna-Lee Fitzsimmons, director of public relations with Calgary Humane Society, says the shelter has taken in a growing number of exotic species over the past four years. In her city, she has seen exotic pets including sugar gliders, bearded dragons, piranhas, Chinese water dragons, waterfowl, turtles, iguanas, parrots and many pot-bellied pigs.

The pet trade is one of the main reasons people import hundreds of thousands of wild animals every year in Canada, said Michèle Hamers, wildlife campaign manager for World Animal Protection in Toronto. "We know we have some major breeders that breed these animals that export them. We have wholesalers. So it's a massive, massive industry that is growing and it's completely unregulated."

Canadians own all sorts of exotic pets, Butler said, including large venomous snakes, lizards, alligators, crocodiles, tigers, lions, scorpions and tarantulas. Venomous snakes and wild cats are among the animals that cause the greatest concern, namely for safety, she said.

Most provinces have prohibited the private ownership of large animals such as lions and tigers, but not Manitoba and Ontario, Hamers said.

However, Hamers said she has seen people shift from owning big exotic animals to smaller ones like servals or African wildcats, which has become a problem in British Columbia, New Brunswick and Quebec.

Butler is calling for a better framework that uses a "positive list" of exotic pets people can keep because of the large number of species and hybrids that exist. "The current way it sits is that anything that's not explicitly banned is legal de facto, which is why we have so many different species unsuited to captivity being kept as exotic pets across Canada."

Instead of banning exotic animals, potential owners should meet criteria in order to keep a certain animal as a pet, Hamers proposes.

Bearded dragon lizards are shown at the SPCA in Largo, Fla., on Jan. 7, 2013. (Jim Damaske / The Tampa Bay Times)

'Patchwork of regulations'

Due to a lack of regulation, the number of exotic pets is difficult to estimate in Canada, Butler said.

Regulations vary from province to province and from municipality to municipality.

"You have municipalities which have prohibitions on certain exotic animals and some that have none," Toronto Zoo CEO Dolf DeJong said in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. "So that means often smaller municipalities are placed in an incredibly challenging position to address significant issues without the tools, resources or experience to deal with it."

Butler said this patchwork of regulations, and the lack of a federal standard, effectively creates "legal holes where people can have pretty much any wild animal other than a few that are explicitly outlawed as an exotic pet."

Federally, Bill S-15 seeks to ban the new ownership of elephants and great apes, including chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas and orangutans, in Canada, except in cases involving conservation, the animal's welfare and scientific research. The bill cited concerns these animals could suffer health and behavioural problems from living in "unsuitable conditions."

The government also announced in a news release in November 2023 that it will "engage with provinces, territories, and stakeholders to discuss the potential value of a national approach to protecting animal welfare and public safety for captive wildlife."

Alongside other animal protection organizations, Humane Society International Canada is advocating to add non-native big cats, such as lions and tigers, to the legislation in order to outlaw the private ownership of these species, Butler said. "We're also advocating for this legislation to include a framework to add other species in the future, which would also help to further reduce the number of exotic pets suffering in captivity in Canada."

A young red-lored Amazon parrot preens at an enclosure in Loxahatchee, Fla., on May 19, 2023. (Rebecca Blackwell / AP Photo)

Fewer protections: advocate

Due to their more complex needs, at least compared to cats and dogs, exotic animals aren't suitable as pets and it can be difficult to tell if they are being neglected, Butler said.

"All of these exotic animals are more likely to suffer from poor welfare," she said. "And they also usually have less protections than cats and dogs because their neglect may not necessarily be covered by the provincial laws that protect companion animals."

Hamers said most provinces have created regulations to determine which animals can or cannot be kept as pets. She said her organization is pushing for Ontario to require licensing from roadside zoos, which she said lack the expertise and conditions to properly care for the animals.

The internet has also allowed the industry to grow, she said, adding that she has noticed many exotic animals for sale on classifieds site Kijiji.

"It's so easy to acquire an animal," she explained in a video interview with CTVNews.ca. "And there is very limited scrutiny at the borders to prevent animals that might be illegal from coming in. So it's a mess (and) it needs to be addressed."

When asked about concerns that Ontario doesn't have strong legislation surrounding exotic pets, Brent Ross, spokesperson for Ontario's Ministry of the Solicitor General, said municipalities are responsible for the bylaws related to owning exotic animals in their jurisdictions.

"Ontario is a leader in the protection of animals with the strongest penalties and first enforcement system of its kind in the entire country," Ross wrote in an email to CTVNews.ca. "The PAWS Act outlines standards of care that help ensure that animals in the province are protected and treated in a humane manner."

Another concern in Canada is what Butler calls the illegal wildlife trade involving breeders and alleged smugglers.

Since 1975, Canada has followed the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, an agreement between countries to protect animals and plants using a permit system, Environment and Climate Change Canada spokesperson Brandon Clim said in an email to CTVNews.ca. Through its own legislation following the convention, Canada prohibited the import and export of protected animals and plants, except where a permit allows it.

"The Government of Canada is committed to safeguarding public health and the health of our pets and animals by preventing the introduction of serious diseases into Canada," a spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in an email to CTVNews.ca, noting it has import requirements for certain animals based on federal regulations.

Tonya Martin, vice-president of advocacy and regulatory affairs with the Ottawa-based Pets Canada trade association, said the country's pet businesses make "responsible pet ownership" – including sourcing from reputable breeders and educating pet owners about their pets' needs – a priority. Pet stores follow national laws and international agreements that regulate the import and export of these exotic species, also known as specialty pets, she added.

About 90 per cent of specialty pets originate from captive breeding programs designed to ensure they are "well-cared for from birth," Martin said in an email to CTVNews.ca. "This ensures not only the welfare of the animals, who can live in environments that mimic their natural habitats and allow for natural behaviours, but also the safety and preparedness of the owners."

Sugar gliders are among popular exotic pets in Canada. (Indra Purwibowo / Pexels.com)

Advice for exotic pet owners

Fitzsimmons encourages those considering owning an exotic pet to first check with their local humane society to see if one is available for adoption. Those who plan to buy an exotic pet should do so through a reputable breeder who works with specialized veterinarians, she said. Also ask for references from other customers and visit the breeding facility to check if the animals are being kept in humane settings.

"Before they bring an exotic pet into their home, they need to ask themselves, will this animal thrive in my care? And am I prepared to keep this animal in captivity and recreate and simulate the environment … it needs to thrive?" she said. "And it comes down to practising empathy. How does this animal feel living in captivity?"

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