Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.
It’s time that people start discussing the topic of ‘exotic pets’ without the typical misconceptions gleaned from various films, rescue ‘sanctuaries’, and the general attitude that gains momentum through misinformation and baseless fear. With more attention being brought upon the subject by TV shows such as Animal Planet’s Fatal Attractions and the new Discovery Channel show Wild Animal Repo (all of which contain the expected sensationalistic tactics), the public continues to remain confused why anyone would ever want to indulge in such a 'dangerous' lifestyle.
But what is an exotic pet?
I can’t begin to discuss this topic without defining exactly what people consider to be ‘exotic.’ Veterinarians will often say they see ‘exotic’ animals, and by that, they typically mean small mammals commonly referred to as ‘pocket pets,’ such as hamsters, ferrets, hedgehogs, sugar gliders, gerbils, and rabbits.
1. of foreign origin or character; not native; introduced from abroad, but not fully naturalized or acclimatized: exotic foods; exotic plants.
2. strikingly unusual or strange in effect or appearance: an exotic hairstyle.
3. of a uniquely new or experimental nature: exotic weapons.
In the context of this article, an exotic pet pertains to animals that are both uncommonly kept and exist somewhat in their natural state in the wild. Pet parrots are undomesticated and are 100% wild animals just as is a pet wallaby or raccoon. The major difference with parrots is that they are extremely common as pets, which is a large contribution to their capture and resulting endangerment in the wild. Most pet parrots are also demanding and high maintenance to keep as pets. A common sight is that of a large parrot with significant feather loss as the birds are unfortunately prone to self-destruction if they are not properly mentally stimulated and socialized. Parrots, however, are common as pets, and their owners are less often seen as narcissistic, selfish and cruel except by the most intensively focused special interest groups. Parrots are by most definitions, exotic pets.
Some common pets are considered ‘semi-domesticated,’ such as ferrets, Mustela putorius furo, domesticated hedgehogs (a hybrid of 2 species), and hamsters, Mesocricetus auratus. The term ‘domestication’ fluctuates from referring to genetically ‘tame’ animals, that have more amicable characteristics from the start, to animals with behavioral characteristics or an appearance that is modified significantly by humans. This creates a lot of disarray in defining and understand the term.
One definition: Domestication refers to the process whereby a population of animals or plants becomes accustomed to human provision and control. Humans have brought these populations under their care for a wide range of reasons: to produce food or valuable commodities (such as wool, cotton, or silk), for help with various types of work (such as transportation or protection), for protection of themselves and livestock, and to enjoy as pets or ornamental plants.
According to evolutionary biologist Jared Diamond, animal species must meet six criteria in order to be considered for domestication:
|Common Name||Species||Years Domesticated||Behavior Significantly Different in Captivity Vs. Wild?|
Canis lupus familiaris
Felis catus or Felis silvestris catus
Carassius auratus auratus
At least 1,000 years
Aprx. 80 years
Equus ferus caballus
9,000 years (4000-3500 BCE)
Gallus gallus domesticus
At least 3,000
At least 3,000
Columba livia domestica
Mustela putorius furo
At least 2,500 years
So can bees, rodents, and fish be selectively-bred to love humans and not run away if they are 'set free'? Of course not. Animals that can be considered 'domesticated' obviously vary in their personalities, extent to which they can live with humans, and the environments they must be maintained in. Domestication relies on a genetic propensity or predisposition on the particular species to meet the different criteria of human use.
Animals considered semi-domesticatedmay retain many wild characteristics that have to do with the genetic blueprint of such animals, no matter the level or length of selective breeding. However, these animals tend to be lower maintenance when it comes to their proper care, and many exotic animals have easier care than others as well.
My response would be: partially, given that these species have inherent differences. I consider ball pythons to be domesticated in a sense; they are very tame snake and breed readily in captivity. Many color varieties of ball pythons exist. Wild-caught ball pythons adapt to captivity with more difficultly than captive-bred ball pythons.
Reptiles, arthropods, and fish have simpler mental functioning, and most aren’t considered domesticated on any level; however, there are ‘breeds’ of fish, selectively bred honey bees, and color ‘morphs’ of some reptiles that have resulting behavior modifications. There are obvious differences between captive-bred ball pythons and wild ones; this may be due to the conditions they were exposed to during their 'critical period,' and have less to do with genetics.
Dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) and cats (Felis catus) are an obvious example of domestication; many of these animals willingly live with humans and adapt to the human lifestyle with ease. However, in the case of dogs, some adapt less than others. Some dog breeds need excessive exercise or forms of mental stimulation and are typically unsuitable for the conventional indoor dog lifestyle, based on what activities they were bred for. Examples of such breeds include border collies, the Karelian Bear Dog, and the Alaskan malamute. Any dog is capable of falling into the hands of the wrong owner. I tend to think the same for all animals.
For those that state it is wrong to keep animals that aren't domesticated, I wonder what their thoughts would be if their neighbor decided to adopt a domesticated silver fox.
In 1959, scientists in Soviet Russia wanted to explore if foxes could be domesticated in the same sense that dogs are. Characteristics that dogs have as a result of their domestication are also morphological and physiological, and include floppy ears, coming into heat twice a year instead of annually, whining and barking, and retention of many other neonatal traits. Dmitri Belyaev conducted the experiment, selecting silver foxes for their low flight distance from humans. He also selected for tameness and lower aggression.
Believed to be due to adrenaline changes as a result of his artificial selective pressure, Belyaev's resulting 'domesticated' foxes are inherently different from 'wild' foxes, such as spotted fur and a milder temperament. The foxes were essentially 'dog-like,' making 'better pets.' I have little doubt however, that such animals would ever be considered 'domesticated' and would be an exception to the prominent fox bans around the United States.
It comes as no surprise that human beings have difficulty seeing through another person’s eyes if they are engaging in an activity that is socially ‘weird.’ The desire to keep non-domesticated animals is no exception.
While a domesticated species may suit most people who want pets, many others invite the challenge of keeping an animal species with a less severe predisposition to a modern human household. For some exotic pet keepers, this might be keeping a non-domesticated cat, which involves dealing with spraying and the need to maintain outdoor enclosures for them.
Perhaps the biggest concern over exotic pets and the exotic pet trade is the subject of animal welfare and public safety. One thing people tend to do is lump animals into the same category. Exotic pets range from garter snakes to Amur tigers. Some exotics that we associate as ‘wildlife’ are virtually harmless, such as fennec foxes, and while they are different from dogs and are not 'domesticated,' they do fine in captivity with relatively simple accommodations. If anything, the commitment that people have to believing that all domesticated animals are 'easy' pets and are the only animals that should be kept as pets is indirectly contributing to the mistreatment and understated issues that exist with the keeping of them.
I stand by my belief, which is validated by personal observations and behavioral studies, that most ‘wild’ animals do typically require more advanced care, like parrots or even some domesticated dogs. But they can be, and many are, content in captivity when their needs are met. Responsible ownership is key. This should be the inherent goal of any legislation, not just simply banning the animals. I think it is a wild misconception that the existence of domesticated animals means that the well-being of non-domesticated animals can't be provided for. In addition, exotic animals raised in captivity are often very different from their wild-born counterparts. Most so-called exotic pets however, should not be purchased with the expectation of domesticated behavior or 'companionship' beyond friendly interactive encounters.
In comparison, the ‘easy’ pets, the dogs, hamsters, and even goldfish, aren’t given much thought and are more prone to fall into the hands of bad owners. There are fish kept in tanks too small (check out the common beta bowl practice), dogs left in backyards that are not provided with adequate mental stimulation (canine behavioral problems are certainly not new), and parrots (technically exotic pets) that can easily live to be 100 that are purchased on a whim and are kept on typical seed diets that will ultimately shorten that lifespan to about 50 years of bad health and inadequate socialization. Factory farms are probably one of the more prominent animal cruelty operations in this country that many people don't put at the forefront of their minds, believing that these animals are 'supposed' to be farmed for food. The result is that people ignore how the trade is conducted, and this is a result of the domestication delusion. The populations of these domesticated animals in captivity are also prolific, further contributing to their excessive abuse.
I can go on about the many problems existing with commonly kept pets. It is an ongoing issue while only the so-called 'wild' pets are in the spotlight. Of course, there are also many problems facing captive non-domesticated/exotic/wild animals. If people would view things on a species by species basis, they could perhaps take the opportunity to learn about these animals and understand what kind of care should be promoted for them. Keeping captive wildlife in zoos and private ownership should be a reciprocal relationship and have vast educational value.
Of all the bizarre hobbies, practices, and behaviors of human beings, I don’t understand why the desire to interact with and raise a unique animal is such a confusing concept for people to understand or identify with. Exotic pet owners often become a target of ridicule in the current mainstream media.
There is nothing like a good freak show, and television shows spare no resource when exploiting people who are unique pet keepers. When exotic pet ownership is discussed, even their mental health is often questioned.
If there's one thing I hope that both sides of the spectrum can agree on, it's that ethical pet keeping should involve keeping animals in situations in which they can be properly provided for, no matter what species. I wish people could consider that exotic animals differ from one and other as much as pet owners do.
© 2011 Melissa A Smith
K be on June 01, 2017:
What about southern flying squirrels? I really want to get one when i move to washington.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 20, 2014:
Brandon on January 20, 2014:
I enjoyed reading this hub. I wish more people would take the time to understand why people care for exotic pets as well as realizing the real threat to companion animals. The fact is that people who will treat animals well and have the time, resources, and the commitment to care for any animal properly should be free to own an "exotic" pet if they so choose. Unfortunately there are people who neglect or abuse their animals, which as a society we need to stand up against. The solution is not to ban exotic pets, but rather to encourage responsible and humane pet ownership while punishing the cruel and abusive people. Sadly the majority seem content to rob people like us of the ability to care for animals that are not considered normal.
Something that I wish people would understand is that it is possible for an animal to have a better life in captivity than in the wild. For one thing animals do not as a rule receive medical care in the wild. In captivity however a responsible owner will recognize that something is amiss and take the animal into a vet that can potentially save the animal's life (not to mention alleviate suffering and treat otherwise crippling disorders). Dietary concerns are mentioned as a reason why "wild" animals cannot lead a content captive existence. While it's true that feeding a wild animal takes a special diet that isn't readily available like cat/dog food, humans are still able to come up with suitable food for the animal. In some cases we can actually supply an animal with a healthier diet than what it would choose in a wild. We also shield our pets from possible threats (predators, human caused habitat destruction, famine, etc). Adding this all up it's possible for a well care animal to live a decent life with adequate food and medical care that can keep the animal living for quite a long time.
As an example consider the sugar glider. It has an average life expectancy in the wild of at most 6 years. In captivity with good care, a proper and diverse diet, and plenty of social interaction/mental stimulation a glider can live between 8 and 15 years! So the glider (if cared for properly) will have a good healthy diet, a safe/warm place to live, social interaction, toys, routine vet check ups, and of course protection from predators. The creature will be protected, have all basic needs provided for, treatment of common ailments that would kill their wild counterparts (or at least make life harder), companionship, and a longer lifespan. Considering the above quality of life improvements and the apparent happiness of gliders in captivity i'd say the little guys are content in the proper home!
Thanks again for righting this thoughtful hub. Defending exotic pet ownership is a tough challenge, but I'm glad to know that there are people out there who help educate people on this issue.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on April 16, 2013:
Thanks for reading and commenting Henry.
Henry Chigbo from Enugu, Nigeria on April 16, 2013:
this hub is wonderful and with intelligent topics. the zoological students of University of Nigeria will draw inspiration from this hub.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 11, 2012:
Thank you Everyday Miracles. Thanks for bringing this hub to my attention, there was some annoying grammatical errors in it n_n as I'm sure all of mine contain. I'll have a look at yours when its done.
Becki Rizzuti from Indiana, USA on December 11, 2012:
This is just a brilliant hub. Thank you so much for sharing it! I'm going to be tweeting it and probably linking it in to my own exotic pets hub once I've had a moment to edit it for its content. Thank you!
Angela Brummer from Lincoln, Nebraska on June 21, 2012:
I love that little Hedgehog it is adorable. Great hub!
Howard on March 19, 2012:
i love this site plain and simple.It states true facts that prove exotic and wild animals are good pets and common animals are the ones in danger.
Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 24, 2012:
My writing didn't "read all that well" or do you just not agree with my stance on keeping exotic pets? First of all this was not the end of my conflicts with this subject, as you can see this was just a 'part' and was focusing on the definition of 'exotic' and dispensing some proper education on it.
If you truly do believe that people don't find it freakish to own tigers, anacondas, and alligators, we will have to agree to disagree, strongly. The first thing that seems to come to the minds of many is, "why don't they just get a DOG?". They are projecting their personal sentiments on to people and infringing on their pursuit of happiness. Keeping unique pets is something that is very special to me.
If you allow yourself to become a victim of the mass media and to believe that these animals are all kept in miserable conditions, that is the problem. Why is it completely OK for some people to abuse dogs and cats and no one bats an eyebrow at their ownership? Is it because they are 'easy' pets, easier to keep happy (and FAR less expensive) than a tiger? Well no one said that everyone should own any pet, period.
Leslie on February 24, 2012:
I appreciate the jist of what you're trying to express, but I don't feel like the article read all that well. I was not expecting it to end when it did.
I don't think that people generally find it "freakish" to own large dangerous animals, or small strange pets, I think they're usually shocked at the conditions they are often kept in. Let's not forget that even the animal given the biggest cage on a personal property, such as a tiger, will still be innately wild, and will always be at risk of attacking its owner. I think it's that knowledge that makes people scratch their heads when they see shows such as "when animals attack".
Shaddie from Washington state on January 22, 2012:
I don't understand why your Hubs aren't more popular, they are intelligent and poignant and strike true to the matters of exotic animal ownership. I think perhaps people are just stubborn and refuse to learn.
Exotic pets are taking the place of cats and dogs in our homes and in our hearts. Owning an animal is definitely no longer what it used to be. Snakes, tarantulas or sugar gliders are occupying nowadays large boxes inside pet shops as they become more and more popular. So why would anyone want to adopt say, a piranha? Many people want to own a quirky pet in order to show it off to their buddies, to different or because it is trendy. Whatever the reason, it sure isn’t for the love and affection the piranha offers to his master! Here is a list of 10 of the most popular exotic pets on the market :
It made national news when Charla Nash was viciously attacked by a 200-pound pet chimpanzee named Travis in February 2009, leaving her with life-long scars. Chimpanzees have been known to be peaceful creatures, but like any other animal that comes from the wild, they can act on their natural instincts without warning, with devastating consequences.
In Pasco County, Florida, a pet monkey was spotted jumping out of his owner’s car at a gas station and escaping into nearby woods. In Topeka, Kansas, a zebra was spotted along an interstate.
These incidents are becoming more frequent and have sparked debates, raising the ethical question of whether exotic animals should have a place in modern society outside of zoos. Because of this, a number of states are beginning to pass legislation making it illegal to own exotic animals as pets.
Obviously, zebras and chimps are not the ideal choice for people who just want a small, unusual household pet. You might want to consider exotic pets that are more common, yet unique and non-threatening. Here are a few options that are just as cool but much safer.
Kinkajous originate from the rainforest and are listed as “lower risk” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These cute little critters are naturally very affectionate and friendly, which make them particularly popular among exotic pet aficionados.
Kinkajous do have sharp teeth that are designed to eat meat, but they also enjoy eating plenty of other common, everyday foods such as eggs, bananas, marshmallows and cereal. We should mention that kinkajous are nocturnal and tend to make a lot of noise after the sun sets. If you like your peace and quiet at night, you may want to think twice about owning this cutie.
These creatures are listed as non-threatening by the IUCN. Sugar gliders are marsupials, and like most marsupials, they originate from Australia. These little critters only weigh around five ounces, but despite their small size, they are sociable and love interacting with humans. These exotic animals are nocturnal and want most of their owner’s attention at night.
Nutritionists don’t agree on the types of foods that sugar gliders should be fed, though they all agree that their diets should be high in protein and include a healthy dose of insects. In addition, sugar gliders suck their nutrients from their food, which means they make a mess when they spit out what they don’t eat. If you don’t like insects or a mess, this isn’t the right fit for you.
The Bengal cat is not related to the Bengal tiger in any way. Rather, they are hybrid felines that are the result of cross-breeding between a domestic house cats and exotic cats. Regardless of the cats’ large size, most owners of Bengal cats have very few problems with them other than those typically associated with owning a cat, such as the tendency to claw and tear at furniture. While this is the closest you might get to owning an exotic tiger, they can run you a pretty penny.
Hedgehogs are generally low-maintenance and can be very gentle and social animals. Most hedgehogs eat insects, but you can buy hedgehog mixes at local pet stores that are specially formulated for them, then supplement their diet with insects, like crickets, as treats. They need to be handled often while they’re young to adjust to humans.
Safety should always be a priority when you are looking to buy an exotic pet — as in your safety first.
Living conditions and accommodations for these animals are important. As with any animal, you have to remember to properly feed them and make sure your local vet clinic will treat these kinds of animals, especially in case of an emergency.
State laws vary when it comes to exotic animals. In some states, you cannot purchase certain animals. Always check you state laws on exotic animals.