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Keeping dangerous pets
  1. Josh Loeb

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At the last election, the three main political parties all included pledges to ban pet primates as part of their manifestos.

Since then, Defra has concluded its consultation into the welfare of pet primates and looks set to start the process of introducing a prohibition on keeping all primates (including marmoset monkeys, for which, amazingly, people do not need to obtain a licence to keep at home).

If written into law, such a ban would set a precedent. For the first time the UK would be banning a species or group of species from being kept as pets primarily because of welfare concerns. There are currently some legal restrictions on keeping certain species in private households – however, existing laws are based primarily on public safety or conservation reasons, not welfare grounds.

Moves towards this position, however, would surely prompt a question: which – if any – other wild animals should people be banned from owning?

You could reasonably argue that venomous snakes are prime candidates for being next in line.

Why? Because there are very few vets who will deal with them. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask whether the welfare needs of such snakes can ever truly be met in captivity, outside of zoos, given the risks involved in going anywhere near them.

And yet, as Vet Record reveals this week (see p 337), several extremely venomous species of snakes are being stocked at some bricks and mortar pet shops on English high streets. Species found advertised for sale recently include the king cobra and the gaboon viper.

Perhaps that should come as no surprise. In 2018, a survey conducted by wildlife charity Born Free revealed that there are nearly 5000 privately owned dangerous wild animals being kept legally in Great Britain. Not only did this include 650 venomous snakes, there were at least 240 primates and 250 dangerous wild cats.

The scale of the ownership of dangerous wild animals, as identified by the Born Free study, may be just the tip of the iceberg too, since evidence suggests that the regulatory framework surrounding dangerous wild animals – the Dangerous Wild Animals Act – is not being applied or enforced adequately and that levels of non-compliance are high.

To the charge that it is wrong to keep dangerous wild animals, some would no doubt counter that all risk is relative. After all, domestic dogs can be dangerous – each year thousands of people are bitten by dogs, with the culprits including not only those breeds that are legally classed as ‘dangerous’.

But at least vets are relatively well trained and equipped for handling dogs. The same cannot normally be said in relation to king cobras.

This could be something of an easy win for any government

Also, the consensus between the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats over primate welfare indicates an unusually high level of cross-party agreement on the principle that some types of wild animals are simply unsuitable to be pets. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, this is important – it suggests that there would be far less opposition to banning the keeping of venomous snakes, say, than there would be to banning the keeping of dogs. In other words, this could be something of an easy win for any government.

Finally, recent newsworthy events in the ‘wet market’ in Wuhan have raised the question of the public health risks associated with the exotic animal trade and have led to renewed speculation about what sorts of zoonotic diseases might be being transported around off the back of this trade. If we want fewer exotic diseases to be imported into the UK going forward, perhaps we should rethink the keeping of exotic pets.

Ultimately, the pet trade, like all trades, maintains a ‘social licence’ to operate. But perhaps the limits of what society is prepared to tolerate in this regard are narrowing.

When the current Covid-19 crises pass and when, hopefully, the government gains more headspace, the issue of dangerous and exotic wild animals being stocked as pets is surely an issue that merits greater political attention.

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