Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “Ethical Vegan”, explains why vegans do not keep exotic pets, such as tropical fishes, parrots, tortoises, monkeys, or other wild animals

I knew that if I didn’t hurry, they would die.

I cannot remember which year was it — in the mid-’90s — but when I finished a call in a public telephone booth in Manaus, at the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, I knew that time was precious.  I just called Mauricio, a wildlife rehabilitator I knew, to see if he had room for a couple more “clients”. I was hoping he would say yes, so I was pleased he did, but now I had to take them to him as soon as possible because they were getting hypothermic and urgently needed to eat something.

In what turned out to be my first attempt to become an undercover investigator, I had just rescued two baby marmoset monkeys from a couple of Basque tourists who were planning to smuggle them into Europe. When I overheard they had bought two baby monkeys, I befriended them under false pretences, and at the very moment they were going to leave for the airport, I revealed my identity, and I told them that if they did not hand the monkeys to me, I would denounce them to the authorities for illegal wildlife trafficking.  I had learnt that this normally did the trick, and it worked that time too.

However, the two baby marmosets (no bigger than 3 inches) were in very bad shape, not having had milk from their mother for some time and feeling the cold of the absence of her body. The mother and the two twins had been taken from the wild and sold separately to the illegal pet trade, and the two young naïve tourists had bought the babies a few days before when someone offered them as a “bargain” in a market.

Now that they were with me, in a tiny wicker basket, I had to take them to Mauricio fast, so I went to get a taxi. However, I feared that they might not make it, so I took them out of the basket, and placed them among my long hair, so they could get warmer (as they would instinctively grab on it). The taxi driver never had a clue that the passenger he was driving was carrying two tiny monkeys in his hair — which was convenient as I wanted to keep a low profile.

We arrived on time and Mauricio gave them the care they needed to survive. In my honour, he named them Jordi and Georgina. Without a mother to teach them to survive in the wild, sadly, these two monkeys had to spend the rest of their life in captivity, but at least they did it in a sanctuary with other monkeys, in the same area where they were born. However, many victims of the exotic pet trade would not be as lucky, most likely perishing in transit to their destination, or if they survived their travelling ordeal, they would then spend the rest of their lives suffering in a cage in the wrong place with the wrong companions.

I was not vegan yet when I rescued Jordi and Georgina (it took me about four or five years more to make the step), but I already knew that keeping exotic animals as pets was wrong. Ethical vegans know this, and this is why they do not have exotic pets. If you want to know more about why, keep reading.

What Are “Exotics”?

veterinary holding a turtle By Goldfish Studio via Shutterstock (1924445864)

To explain what exotics are, many terms need to be defined as people often confuse them. Technically, the term “exotics” is a shorthand for animals who live in an area where the species they belong to did not evolve to live. The opposite of an exotic animal would be a native animal, also known as an autochthonous animal.  

However, the term overlaps with “wild animals” as most exotics are wild animals — but not all. Wild animals are animals who have not been genetically modified by human-managed artificial selection, and therefore they acquired their genetic makeup by reproducing naturally in the wild. Another different concept is captive animals, who are animals kept in captivity against their will, either with ropes, tethers, or chains, or kept inside enclosures (which could be fenced outside areas, cages, terraria, or tanks). Wild animals could be living in the wild or be kept in captivity, but even if they are tamed and used to humans, they remain wild animals as their genetic makeup has not changed, and is similar to those members of their species still in the wild. Even if they are born in captivity from other captive animals, they remain wild animals as it would take many generations of selective breeding to change their genetic makeup and become “different” (either in size, colour, behaviour, physiology, etc.).

If animals, after many generations of artificial selection (which means humans systematically choosing who should mate with whom based on any human criteria they may choose — such as size, tameness, milk production, hair length, egg production, etc.), end up being genetically different than its wild counterparts in such a significant way that scientists agree that they are no longer the same species or sub-species, these new “human-made” animals are called domesticated animals (and normally they are assigned a different species name or sub-species name). For instance, dogs are from the species Canis familiaris or the sub-species Canis lupus familiaris, and they are domesticated animals from the wild wolf (Canis lupus). Or domestic turkeys are from the sub-species Meleagris gallopavo domesticus, and are domesticated versions of the wild turkey Meleagris gallopavo. Most domesticated animals are also captive animals as they are kept in captivity, but some have escaped and live (and reproduce) as if they were wild, and these are then called feral animals.

So, as far as their genetic makeup is concerned, animals are either wild or domesticated, regardless of whether they are in captivity or live in the wild, and as far as where they “come from” from an evolutionary and ecological point of view, they are either exotic or native. We can have wild animals in the wild where they evolved (and we just refer to them as native wild animals), wild animals in captivity but in the area where they evolve (and we refer to them as native captive wild animals), domesticated animals in the wild (and we call these feral animals), domesticated animals in captivity (and we just call them domesticated animals), wild animals in the wild but in areas where they did not evolve (and we call them as either migratory animals or invasive animals, depending on whether we “judge” this positively or negatively), and wild animals in captivity in areas where they did not evolve (and we call these exotic animals).

In other words, when we hear the term “exotics”, although it technically only means “not been typical from this area”, in practice it means a wild animal from another area that is kept in captivity, either for farming purposes (and we call these farmed exotics, as is the case of ostriches farmed in the USA or Australia), for ornamental purposes (such as aquaria fishes), for performance purposes (such as wild animals in circuses, or in the entertainment/advertisement industry),  or for companionship, status or hobby (and we call these exotic pets). It does not matter whether we are talking about vertebrates or invertebrates, terrestrial or aquatic, or from particular classes (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, or the several classes of fishes) all animals could be classed in any of these categories. 

Therefore, exotic pets are wild animals kept in captivity in an area different from where their species evolved and kept for companionship, hobby, or status purposes (such as parrots kept in a cage in a Swedish home, tropical fish kept in a tank in a Canadian home, monkeys kept in an enclosure in a British home, or snakes kept in a terrarium in an Irish home). The most popular exotic “pets” include birds, reptiles, and fish, with birds being the most traded group. Analysis of CITES trade records suggests that species traded as part of the pet trade industry involve over 500 species of bird (approximately half of which are parrots), almost 500 species of reptile (mostly turtles, lizards and snakes) and over 100 species of mammal (mostly from the orders Carnivora and Primates). 

Another way to identify whether animals are exotic pets is first checking if they are kept captive as “forced” companions (think in a parrot), as status animals (think in a tiger), as collection items (think in a rare lizard), or as ornaments for decoration (think in a tropical fish aquarium), and then checking they do not belong to any of the breeds of domesticated animals (which are domestic dogs, domestic cats, domestic pigeons, domestic turkeys, domestic ducks, domestic Muscovy ducks, domestic geese, domestic chickens, domestic guineafowl, canaries, society finches, domestic horses, donkeys, European cows, Zebus, Gayals, domestic goats, domestic water buffaloes, domestic cammels, domestic sheeps, domestic pigs, domestic yaks, llamas, alpacas,  guinea pigs, domestic rabbits, domestic hedgehogs, domestic ferrets, domestic minks, domestic silver foxes, domestic/lab rats, domestic/lab mice, goldfishes, koi carps, domestic silkmoths, and western honey bees).

The Cruel Exotic Pet Trade

Pramuka bird market in Jakarta, Indonesia By Erni via Shutterstock (143883622)

One of the main reasons vegans do not keep exotic pets is because the pet trade of exotic animals is very cruel. For any animal that survives a few years as a pet, many more would have perished either when violently taken from the wild, from being transported long distances in bad conditions (often hidden in luggage as it is often illegal), or from a life in captivity in the wrong environment with the wrong food and company. Many die in transit, where they get stuffed into makeshift hiding places, poorly fed, or otherwise improperly handled — remember the story of Jordi and Georgina who would have died on the plane to Europe as they were already suffering from hypothermia. 

Each year millions of exotic animals are sold around the world. The exotic pet trade is a multi-billion dollar industry, both legal and illegal, fuelled by the fact the fashion of keeping exotic pets is growing in wealthy countries. It is estimated that the global trade in wildlife is worth between $30.6-42.8 billion annually, of which about $22.8 billion is legal. According to a 2021 study, over 230,000 shipments of live wild-caught and captive-bred vertebrates were traded internationally between 2009 and 2018. The United States is the world’s largest importer of exotic pets, followed by the European Union.

A study in 2013 under the United Nations Environment Programme in West and Central Africa estimated that for every chimpanzee kept as a pet or in a zoo, another ten die in capture or trade conditions.

As looking after exotic animals is more difficult and requires more expertise (and often more money too) many people who get exotic pets on a whim end up abandoning them, which not only may lead to the death of the animals (as they are unlikely to be adapted to the habitat they are released into as that is not the habitat they evolved to survive), and if they do survive, they can become an invasive species negatively affecting local wildlife. AAP Animal Advocacy and Protection reported that, in 2015, three-quarters of the wild animals they rescued had been abandoned. Rescue centres and sanctuaries specialised in wild animals simply cannot keep up with the number of animals being abandoned.

Also, the exotic pet trade undermines valuable conservation efforts in native habitat countries. According to the EcoHealth Alliance, the capture of animals in the wild for the wildlife trade can deplete native populations by up to 70%. One of the “appeals” for people keeping exotic pets is because they give them “status” among their peers as they may be expensive to buy or keep, and the fact that they are unusual suggests that those “owning” these “pets” may be more “important”. All that is, of course, ego-driven, but it also means that the more rare the species, the more appeal they have for this type of “collectors”. In consequence, the exotics trades often focus on endangered species (as they are more profitable) and are often based on illegal trade (as endangered species are protected) disguised as legal trade. For instance, the illegal international trade in Indian Star Tortoises (Geochelone elegans) in India and Thailand is a serious problem. Despite having received protection as a Schedule IV list species of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972 of India for over 40 years, there have been instances when 55,000 individuals poached from just one “trade hub” in India have been documented. As domestic demand persists, these individuals appear to have been primarily sourced to satisfy international demand for pets in other Asian countries (e.g. Thailand and China). 

How the legal trade (from licensed captive-born individuals) is used as a smokescreen for the illegal trade (from wild-born individuals) can be illustrated by the fact that, since 1975, this species of tortoise has been included in Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) that regulates all commercial trade, but an analysis of the CITES trade records relating to Thailand imports (between 2004 and 2013) found large discrepancies indicating potential illegal activity which question the legitimacy of its founding captive animals. The lack of coordination between levels of governance often allows illegal exotic pet trade to pass as legal pet trade. Other examples of the devastating effect of the pet trade on wild species include the Barbary macaque and the Clownfish.

People keeping exotic animals as pets, even if they were legally bought and were captive-bred, legitimises the exotic trade which fuels the illegal trade that decimates wild populations and causes a lot of suffering. As you cannot always tell if an animal was captive-born or wild-born, the legal trade makes the enforcement of wildlife protection much more difficult, and it should be regarded as a smokescreen of illegality. The legal trade also increases the demand for exotics, as when people see others having exotic pets, they often want to have them too, and this is why vegans would also reject keeping any exotic animal as pets even if they come from legal trade and were born in captivity, as it is the concept of “exotic pet” that needs to be abolished.

Wild Animals Don’t Belong to Captivity

pet shop By BearFotos via Shutterstock (1643065075)

The second reason vegans don’t keep exotic pets is because most of them are wild animals (see definition above) and wild animals do not belong in captivity as they are not genetically equipped to tolerate a captive life. It could be argued that domestic animals do not belong to captivity either, but as they have undergone artificial selection to change them, it is conceivable that one of the things breeders may have selected is a little bit more tolerance to human involvement in their lives. However, wild animals, even if they are tamed, are not biologically adapted to captive life, and this is why they suffer a great deal, even in zoos and safari parks

Captivity always has the effect of reducing the space available for the animals to move (which negatively affects the body of the animals), reducing the number of stimuli received (which negatively affects the senses of the animals), and reducing the free choices the animals have (which negatively affects the minds of the animals). Any captivity causes this, but many animals can cope with it if it is just temporary. However, when it is for life, that’s another story, as wild animals are not adapted to such life, and with time, their coping mechanisms begin to weaken.   

Some domestic animals such as dogs and cats often want to live with their human companions, and even if they are free to go they would stay with them (showing that they are no longer captive animals, even if sometimes they need to be kept captive for their own protection when living in cities or places they would not know how to avoid dangers). But if a so-called “pet” needs to be constantly kept in a cage or a terrarium as otherwise would escape, that should already tell you they do not want to be where they are and they are kept captive against their will.   

Exotic animals suffer when kept captive as pets due to the challenges of replicating their natural environments and providing them with the specialised care they require. This can lead to physical and psychological distress, including behavioural abnormalities, chronic illnesses, and shortened lifespans. For instance, a 2019 study demonstrated that snakes need space to stretch their bodies to their full natural length, but when kept as pets are normally housed in small vivaria that don’t allow them to do this.

When kept as pets social animals are often kept in isolation from members of their species (as in the case of many parrots), or solitary animals are kept with others against their will (as in the case of many fishes). The African grey parrots, commonly kept as pets around the world, often pluck out their own feathers due to boredom and a lack of opportunity to socialize with other parrots. 

Also, keeping exotics is not a good thing for humans. Many wild animals carry viruses and bacteria that can spread to humans if they interact with them too closely. Around three out of every four new infectious diseases come from contact between humans and wild animals. Most reptiles carry the Salmonella bacteria that causes Salmonellosis. Additionally, animals that once seemed cuddly when they were young, like tiger cubs or baby monkeys, can quickly turn aggressive once they reach adulthood (which is one of the reasons they are so often abandoned). Dangerous wild animals kept as pets can also escape and harm people (on 30th January 2023, officials sedated and captured a tiger that was found walking through Edenvale, a residential area in Johannesburg, South Africa, as he was kept privately as an “exotic pet” and somehow escaped from captivity).

It may be even illegal to keep some exotic pets. In the US, different states have different laws about owning exotic pets. Some exotic pets are illegal in residential areas but are allowed on large plots of land. Sometimes permits can be given to keep some (a pet ferret is legal in most states, but a lion may be more difficult). If the animals are considered dangerous, in some countries can only be kept as pets with a special license (such as in the UK, where a licence under the Dangerous Animals Act 1976 is required). Australia has rigorous regulations for exotic pet ownership and trade, and their native wildlife cannot be commercially exported (however, 2021 research showed four subspecies of Australia’s shingleback lizard were being illegally extracted from the wild and smuggled out of the country, to be sold across Asia, Europe and North America). In 2017, the UAE banned the keeping of dangerous wild animals as pets. There are campaigns around the world to widen and strengthen legislation to ban the keeping of wild animals as pets, as is the case banning keeping primates as pets in the UK — the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill is still being processed in Parliament) — or the Eurogroup petition to ban the trade of exotic animals in Europe.  

Vegans don’t “own pets” 

Dog at the shelter By andysavchenko via Shutterstock (2170261471)

The final reason that ethical vegans like myself don’t keep exotic animals as pets is that we do not keep pets in general — we may live with rescued domesticated companion animals such as dogs or cats who want to live with us, but we reject the concept of “pet” as such, as well as the concept of “owning animals”.  I have written a full article about this titled Why Vegans Don’t Have Pets, and in it, I write:

“If you have met ethical vegans (as opposed to people who only eat what vegans eat, sometimes called dietary vegans or plant-based people) who have been vegan for quite some time, you may have noticed that they don’t tend to use the word ‘pet’. For us, it’s almost a taboo word — not quite a slur, as those who use it do not intend to ‘insult’ those animals they refer to. It has a similar subtle connotation to other words used to “talk down” on others. It feels that is part of the vocabulary of ‘the oppressors’, supremacist humans who think they are superior to others and used infantilising or demeaning words to describe them…We try not to use words that are demeaning, insulting, condescending, or that generally indicate we believe we are somehow superior to others — and if we still do, this means that our veganisation process has not been completed yet. Many of us believe using the word ‘pet’ to describe someone is one of such words, regardless of whether it has become so widely used that the original meaning may have been lost to most people — but not to us…Sometimes, we may still use the term to aid comprehension (since so many people use it) or in combined words (such as ‘pet food’ or ‘pet shop’), but we tend to avoid it. What do we use instead? Normally, ‘companion animal.’”

Instead of saying we “own” an animal or this is “my” dog, we say that we are their “guardians”, “carers”, or “companions”. We don’t treat the animals we live with as workers, commodities, or fashion accessories, but rather as friends we rescued from a bad situation (as the slogan “Adopt, Don’t Shop! reminds us). We do not buy the dogs and cats we may be living with, but we adopt them from shelters as otherwise they may be killed — and we are against the concept of pedigree breeds and the industry that promotes them. For many vegans, the term “rescuer” would be even better than “carer”, and some might have become fosterers of exotic animals rescued from a “pet” situation or a zoo, but this is often temporary before a more suitable environment is found (such as a specialised sanctuary), and if it is permanent, the unfortunate animals are treated more like “refugees” rather than cute creatures with whom to take selfies or parade in social situations.

We, vegans, try to exclude all forms of animal exploitation, and keeping exotic animals as if they were toys to play with, rare collection items to brag about in hobbyists’ meetings, colourful ornamental decorations to impress visitors, or entertainers to perform tricks, is a form of exploitation. Even keeping them as companions would be exploitation too if they are kept captive against their will and forced into this “companionship” (which is the case of most exotics kept in cages, terraria, vivaria, and aquaria). 

When I rescued Jordi and Georgina, I was in Brazil representing the Monkey Sanctuary from Looe, Cornwall, UK. I worked there as a woolly monkey keeper for five years, but my main role was “rehabilitation co-ordinator”, aiming to return the entire captive colony at the sanctuary to the habitat they belonged to, the Amazon rainforest. They all had been born in captivity in Cornwall for several generations from the first group that was rescued in the 1960s by the guitar teacher Len Williams. Rescue from what? From their lives as pets (they were popular pets at the time, but none had been born in captivity, so they all had been taken from the wild). Len and the community he created knew that it was wrong to keep them as pets, and he was trying to give them something better. He was trying to remove their “pet” label and give them the chance to live in a much more equal status with humans and other monkeys. However, over the years, the keepers at the sanctuary realised that it was not good enough for them. They were in “the wrong” place. They were still “exotics” in the wrong habitat, the wrong latitude, and the wrong continent. That’s why the keepers’ dream was to return them to the Amazon, and finding the right location for it is what I was doing in Brazil when I rescued the marmosets.  

Wild animals belong to the wild, and exotic animals belong to the habitat their species evolved into. Wild animal protectors know this, wildlife rehabilitators know this, and vegans definitively know this.

Vegans don’t keep exotic pets.

“Originally from Catalonia, but resident in the UK for several decades, Jordi is a vegan zoologist and author, who has been involved in different aspects of animal protection for many years. In addition to scientific research, he has worked mostly as an undercover investigator, animal welfare consultant, and animal protection campaigner. He has been an ethical vegan since 2002, and in 2020 he secured the legal protection of all ethical vegans in Great Britain from discrimination in a landmark employment tribunal case that was discussed all over the world. He is also the author of the book, ‘Ethical Vegan: a personal and political journey to change the world’.