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The Big Picture
Should Europe take action to control exotic pet ownership?


Is it time to identify which mammals make suitable pets? Josh Loeb and Alexia Yiannouli report

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If you know where to look, a veritable menagerie can be ordered with shocking ease and speed

Search the internet and within minutes one can find foxes, monkeys and even tiger cubs being offered openly for sale to customers in Europe.

If you know where to look and have enough money at your disposal, a veritable menagerie can be ordered with shocking ease and speed.

Furthermore, such animals can often be kept perfectly legally as pets in EU member states.

But the situation has exercised Animal Advocacy Protection (AAP), a Dutch foundation that rescues exotic mammals from poor conditions in captivity.

It says the exotic pet trade is ‘booming and largely uncontrolled’ and is calling for an EU-wide ‘positive list’ system to be established, to identify all mammals that are judged as suitable pets. Such a list already exists in the Netherlands for example, where the positive list includes cats, dogs and rabbits.

Rolling out such a system throughout Europe would effectively disbar all but the most expert owners from keeping exotic mammals, such as lions, tigers or gorillas.

This week the AAP has published a report, ‘The Big Cat In The Room: The Problems With European Rules On Exotic Pets’, which sheds light on what the organisation calls an ‘alarming lack of EU regulation covering the private ownership of the vast majority of all 5488 known mammal species’.

Current legislation around which mammal species can be kept as pets is patchy. Some countries in Europe (eg, the Netherlands) heavily restrict what can be kept legally, while others (eg, Greece) are more lenient (see map for the percentage of known mammal species allowed as pets in the EU).

In the UK, more than 4825 licenses for the private keeping of ‘dangerous wild animals’ – which can include lions, tigers and bears – have been issued.

Some types of primates and wild cat can still be kept as pets – even without a dangerous wild animal licence, in some cases. And bottlenose dolphins could, technically speaking, be kept legally as pets in a lagoon in someone’s back garden.

AAP head of policy Raquel García-van der Walle said: ‘The current patchwork of national legislation which attempts to regulate exotic pet keeping is not fit for purpose and actually endangers animal welfare, native biodiversity and human health and safety.’

She added: ‘We believe a positive list [a list of mammal species permitted to be kept as pets] is the most holistic, effective, concise, transparent, enforceable and economically feasible way to regulate this issue at the EU level.’

Since different EU member states have different rules on what can be kept as a pet, yet the EU’s single market allows goods (in this case pets) to be traded freely, controlling who and how exotic pets are owned is challenging.

But the introduction of a Europe-wide positive list system could help maintain consistency, say experts.

Biologist Clifford Warwick, a critic of the exotic pet trade, said: ‘It’s the only way, other than banning the pet trade, to get in front of this problem.’

Belgium became the first EU country to introduce a positive list in 2001. It comprises 42 mammalian species.

A positive list is considered preferable to a negative one (non-suitable pet species) because the latter would require constant updating. •

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