Born Free is increasingly concerned by the number of wild animals being traded and kept as exotic pets, both legally and illegally. The international trade in wild animals as 'exotic pets' is estimated to be worth billions of pounds annually and involves millions of individual animals.
Wild animals, whether they are taken from the wild or born in captivity, have complex needs that cannot be met by private keepers in a domestic environment. There are many animal welfare issues involved and the staggering number of dangerous wild animals kept privately is also a genuine risk to human safety.
Born Free is opposed to the trade in and keeping of wild and exotic animals as pets. We investigate and expose the 'exotic pet' industry, and challenge both the legal and illegal trade in wild animals as well as campaigning for national and international legislation to reduce and, where possible, end the exotic pet trade.
We proudly rescue individual animals that have either been kept as pets or captured from the wild to supply the demand of the pet trade. We provide them with a high standard of lifetime care in sanctuaries or – where possible – return them to life in the wild.
Domestic pets have been selectively bred and have had close contact with humans for thousands of years. Wild or exotic animals are not domesticated; even if they have been raised around humans, this can pose serious risks to both animal and human health and safety.
The exotic pet trade has been described as ‘an important and increasing driver of biodiversity loss.’ We’re in the midst of an extinction crisis with a million or more species threatened with extinction because of human activities, and trade in wild animals, including exotic pets, is a major part of the problem. The collection of live animals for the exotic pet trade has led to serious, and in some cases catastrophic, population and species declines. Rare species are especially targeted as they tend to attract higher prices. As a result, many animals are hunted, snatched from their natural habitats to be treated as property and sold off to the highest bidder. Not only is this practice extremely inhumane, but it’s also incredibly dangerous for the animals and humans that are involved.
Life in captivity is extremely different to life in the wild. The needs of many species kept as exotic pets aren’t well understood by science, let alone traders and keepers. As a consequence, it is really difficult to ensure these animals are adequately provided for. We fear that many exotic pets are commonly deprived of even their basic welfare requirements, including a suitable environment, suitable diet, the ability to exhibit normal behaviours, their social needs which are often complex, and freedom from pain, injury and disease. Not only that, keeping wild animals in captivity causes undue stress and frustration that often turns into Zoochosis. Which put plainly is repetitive, functionless behaviour due to impaired brain function.
Sadly yes, there are no restrictions for keeping most species of wild animal as pets in the UK. However, some species that are considered to be potentially dangerous, require a Dangerous Wild Animal licence from the Local Authority.
The species that require a licence are listed in the ‘Schedule’ of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act.
Many species, including some that any right-minded person would consider to be dangerous, aren’t listed on the Dangerous Wild Animal Schedule and don’t require a licence. They include, Komodo dragons, other large monitors, and large constrictor snakes. They also include numerous species considered dangerous were they to be held in a zoo, such as some deer species and some large birds of prey.
It’s far too easy to obtain a licence. The degree to which checks are carried out vary enormously between Local Authorities. In many cases they are minimal and subjective and may be carried out by people who don’t have detailed knowledge of the needs of, and potential dangers posed by, the species concerned.
While some of the animals are bred in this country, information about wildlife imports from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) recently revealed that over 48 million individual wild animals were legally imported into the UK from 90 countries between 2014-2018.
The licensing process requires the applicant to demonstrate that their animals are properly contained so as to prevent escape and protect the public. But this does little to protect the owner or anyone else visiting the property, and animal welfare provisions within the Act are rudimentary. Furthermore, there is long-standing concern about widespread non-compliance with the Act, especially with respect to venomous reptiles and invertebrates. The demand for wild animals as ‘pets’ can also put pressure on wild populations of threatened species.
The exotic pet trade involves a huge and varied range of species, with vastly differing physical, psychological, social, and environmental requirements. For many species we don’t yet fully understand their needs. It’s difficult to see how private individuals can adequately provide care for most of these animals in captive conditions here in the UK. At the very least, species that can be kept should be restricted to those where it can be shown that their welfare needs can be (and are) satisfied, and where there are no adverse consequences for species conservation, public and animal health and safety, or the wider environment. Some countries, such as Belgium, Luxembourg, and Norway, have introduced ‘positive lists’ of species that can be kept, and this is something the UK authorities might consider.
Domesticated animals such as cats, dogs and horses have been selectively bred over many generations to live alongside humans and are genetically distinct from their wild ancestors. Wild animals have not, and have complex behavioural, environmental, social, nutritional, and other welfare needs. As a result, these animals can suffer from poor health and welfare when kept in captivity, and the fact that they retain many of their natural, wild behaviours while being kept in stressful, unnatural, confined environments, can make them potentially more dangerous.
We don’t have exact figures, but a number of incidents have been reported involving species which currently require a Dangerous Wild Animals licence and some that don’t but clearly should. In 2020, a hybrid Savannah cat escaped in Hampstead, London, while a seven-foot-long Boa constrictor appeared in someone’s back garden and then turned on its rescuer, biting his hand and wrapping itself around his wrist on the Isle of Sheppey. There have been other troubling stories where a woman was bitten in the eye by a python at a Mayfair club and was almost blinded, while a man in Hampshire was killed by his 8ft African rock python. In addition, in 2011, a man died after being bitten by his king cobra. Records held by the RSPCA report that their specially trained exotic animal officers rescued over 4,000 exotic animals in 2018 alone. Due to the nature of the animals, owners may fail to report escapes or attacks for fear of the animal being removed or their licence revoked. It’s important to remember that these incidents are not the fault of the animals, they aren’t meant to be captive; it’s not natural for them.
We are advocating for an end to the private keeping of dangerous wild animals as pets, and regulation of the keeping of all species of wild animals to ensure their welfare needs can be provided for. Clearly this may mean that some animals currently in private hands that would be affected by any restrictions, and that cannot be relocated to suitable sanctuaries, would need to remain with their current owners. However, this should only be allowed on the condition that they wouldn’t be bred from, that regular inspections take place to make sure they are not suffering unduly, and that, after they die, they would not be replaced.
Keeping and breeding animals in captivity fails to address the threats species face in the wild. The prospects of reintroducing captive born individuals into the wild is incredibly low. In some situations, taking animals from the wild to be traded as pets is putting wild populations under increased pressure. Proactively managing and protecting species in their natural habitats is the only way to ensure long-term protection for endangered animals.
As a minimum, we are calling for a comprehensive review of the regulation of the private keeping of wild animals in the UK. New regulations should include full consideration of: • Whether the welfare needs of individual animals can be met • Whether owners have the necessary qualifications and experience • A guarantee that the trade will not compromise conservation of species in the wild • Due consideration of potential environmental concerns (such as the establishment of invasive species through escapes, the deliberate releases of unwanted pets, and the possible spread of zoonotic diseases) • Confirmation that there is minimal risk to the health and safety of animals or people.
If you are concerned about dangerous wild animals being kept in your local area, you should write to your district or county councillors detailing your concerns. You should ask the following:
You can also use our interactive map to see if dangerous animals are being kept in your area.
Learn more about the ways that you can take action on the issue of dangerous wild animal ownership in the UK.