Malaysia: Demand for exotic pets worrying

New Straits Times 9 Apr 12;

VICTIMS: Animals get sick or die as owners don't know how to care for them

Every time one passes a pet shop, the song How much is that doggie in the window made popular by Doris Day in the 1930s, and subsequently sung by Patti Page, comes to mind.

However, these days, a pet dog or cat is not as "cool" as a snake, spider or skunk.

Owning exotic pets, especially wild animal species, is a growing fad among Malaysians.

The rising number of pet shops offering a wide array of animal species from around the globe as "human companions" is testament to the demand in the exotic pet industry.

It is a lucrative market. Customers are willing to pay hundreds if not thousands of ringgit to possess albino Burmese pythons, marmoset monkeys or sugar gliders.

But some of the "pets" are not tame by definition and some are downright dangerous.

Which begs the question: Do pet owners really know what they are getting into when buying exotic animals?

Sahabat Alam Malaysia president S.M. Mohamed Idris said keeping exotic pets is more work than anyone can handle.

He said many realised too late the amount of money, time and effort required to provide basic care for such animals.

"Often, owners are not capacitated to give proper care. For example, boa constrictors will quickly outgrow its aquarium tank from younger years and reach gargantuan size.

"Urban dwellers cannot readily provide and match their pet's growth, appetite or habitual needs better than in the wild," he said.

Factors to consider include temperature control, ventilation, humidity, necessary tank or cage furnishings, roaming space, types of foods, susceptible illnesses and more.

"These cannot be taken for granted to ensure the animal's welfare.

"Owners are quickly overwhelmed by the responsibility and those who fail to provide adequate diet or suitable housing conditions soon end up with a sick or dead animal on their hands."

He warned that the attitude of purchasing exotic pets to show off usually resulted in the animals becoming victims of abuse.

"Once the fascination wears off, the care dwindles, frustrating both human and pet.

"These animals often suffer terribly and rarely survive as long as their natural lifespan in the wild."

He said no matter how experienced or dedicated, exotic pet owners were exposing themselves to a series of threats.

"Having a predatory or venomous animal in your household can quickly lose its appeal, especially if there are young children about.

He said smaller animals, like the sugar glider or chinchilla may look adorable and docile, but they can and often do bite.

"Wild animals have untold nature and behaviour. Even if harvested in captivity, their genetic predisposition is still wild.

"They are not suitably kept as companions at home compared with domesticated animals."

Then, there is the risk of contracting and spreading unknown diseases.

"Diseases may be transmitted from vertebrate animals to humans, or vice versa."

He said there was also the problem of unwanted pets being dumped into the surroundings.

"Our ecosystem can go haywire from a foreign species suddenly proliferating, wiping out local wildlife."

He gave the example of the Red-eared Slider, a common turtle species found in our pet stores that is native to the freshwater wetlands of America and Mexico.

"Released into our environment, we can expect trouble for some of our local fish and prawn species."

TRAFFIC Southeast Asia senior communications officer Elizabeth John shared the apprehension.

She said in America's Florida Everglades, giant constrictors introduced into the environment as abandoned pets, took over and were eating up the population of smaller, native animals.

"This problem is a growing concern for many countries around the world. We could be facing a similar problem in future if left unchecked.

"Our animal biodiversity, waterways and agriculture would be in jeopardy."

She pointed out that keeping exotic pets also frequently posed a danger to wildlife conservation.

"Many species, often in huge numbers, are harvested illegally for the pet trade. In many cases this is the sole reason for their decline and extinction."

She cited a case in December last year where Wildlife and National Parks Department (Perhilitan) recovered over 600 Indian Star Tortoises, found stuffed into two luggages, at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

"The Indian Star Tortoise is a protected species found only in India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Yet, this species is frequently seen in our pet stores.

"On the home front, a popular song bird, the Straw-Headed Bulbul, is in decline for being heavily harvested for the pet trade. The birds are already extinct in Thailand and its population is rapidly declining elsewhere.

"Illegal capture for the pet trade is driving a worrisome decline."

Buying and keeping a protected species without a permit from the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) is to fall foul from the law.

Perak Perhilitan director Nawayai Yasak said recent amendments to the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 had extended protection to more species, including arachnids, amphibians and gastropods, which are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking.

"Exotic animal owners should check if their pet is a species not previously listed, but considered protected now.

"Those found keeping a protected species without permit are liable to be fined RM10,000 or jailed not more than a year or both."

The list of protected animals is on the Perhilitan website.

The public is advised to:

Do homework and find out if the species is threatened.

When in doubt, don't buy.

Call Perhilitan on its Care-line at 1-300-80-1010 to check. The toll-free line is operational daily including public holidays, between 8am and noon, even on public holidays.