Let’s say you’re in the market for an exotic pet. Maybe a parrot to chat with or a monkey to ride on your shoulder.
Now pause and ask yourself: Would you be less likely to buy that animal if you knew it’s endangered? What if you knew that it’s likely to become sick or hurt while on its way to you?
Those were some of the questions researchers presented in an online, Buzzfeed-style quiz targeted at potential exotic pet owners.
Researchers with the London-based nonprofit World Animal Protection and WildCRU, Oxford University’s wildlife conservation research team, devised the quiz to see if sharing different types of information, such as human health risks and animal welfare or conservation concerns, would make people think twice about buying a pet that’s not your standard dog, cat, or hamster.
The results were surprising: Most respondents said that even if the animals were endangered or were going to suffer while being caught and transported, they'd buy them anyway.
“The effects on the animals themselves weren’t persuasive in terms of changing attitudes,” says Neil D’Cruze, a researcher with World Animal Protection and WildCRU, who helped develop the quiz and co-authored a study analyzing responses to it. For campaigns by wildlife advocates that aim to reduce demand for exotic pets, emphasizing the risks to animals—as opposed to their human owners—may not be the best strategy, he says.
Every year millions of animals—especially reptiles, birds, and monkeys—are moved around the world, destined for people’s basements, garages, and backyards. Many are plucked from the wild and smuggled across borders. Increasing numbers of those animals are sold online, where they’re often misidentified or passed off as captive-bred.
Taking an animal into your home can be risky. Exotic pets can spread diseases such as salmonella and herpes. And owners can face legal consequences for keeping a prohibited animal or for buying a poached animal.
But there are also the risks to the animals themselves, which can suffer, even die, when they’re captured or being transported. Most birds captured in Senegal and Indonesia don’t live long enough even to make it out of the countries. (Related: “What Happens to Smuggled Animals After They're Seized?”)
“The capacity for trade to harm the welfare of the animals involved is clear, whether through fear, anxiety, behavioral restriction, physical injury, or deprivation of resources,” wildlife researcher Sandra Baker, of WildCRU, previously told National Geographic. In addition, the insatiable demand for exotic pets has caused wild populations of many of the most prized species, such as African gray parrots and ploughshare tortoises, to plummet.
Cuddly or Scary?
The quiz, which popped up as a link after people googled keywords related to exotic pet ownership (and still does), took respondents through a series of questions about which exotic pet would best match their preferences (did they want a cuddly pet or a scary one, high energy or low?). Eventually the potential buyer’s ideal exotic pet is revealed, accompanied by some information about the animal.
Some people were given neutral details about the animal’s diet or habitat, while others also saw information about the risks facing either the pet owners or the exotic animals. People were then asked whether they wanted to buy the animal.
The researchers compiled the findings from more than 1,300 respondents, most in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. The results, published this summer in the journal Conservation Letters, revealed that potential buyers presented with information about the risk of disease or legal consequences of exotic pet ownership were 39 percent less likely to want to buy the animal than those who received only facts about diet or habitat.
In contrast, information about animal welfare had minimal effect, and details about the animal’s threatened status in the wild had no impact on a person’s decision to purchase it.
Despite the quiz takers apparent callousness, D’Cruze suspects that they care more about animals than it seems. He says it’s possible that people think that exotic pet ownership benefits conservation or felt the damage to the animals had already been done. “There’s partly probably an impact of whatever bad has happened to the animals has already happened, and as a consumer they’re then in control of the positions the animals could be in.”
Nevertheless, D’Cruze says, the results of the study suggest that it can be possible to reduce a person’s desire for an exotic pet—if the threats of disease and legal consequences are emphasized. “Not only do we have to think about species involved and where demand is, but this also shows that you really need to think about the type of information you provide to consumers,” he says.
Adam Roberts, CEO of Born Free USA, wasn’t surprised by the results of the study. He says it confirms what his organization already believed: that people tend to react only when they find out about the harm exotic pets can do to them. For years Born Free had worked to stop the commercialization of primates, he points out, but it was only when a woman in Connecticut, Charla Nash, was attacked by a friend's chimpanzee that the issue gained any traction in Congress.
Grace Ge Gabriel, Asia director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, says the study shows that wildlife advocates should work more closely with the health sector to deliver messages to the public.
Roberts adds that it’s heartening to know that communicating with people directly can change their attitudes, rather than having to rely on getting laws passed to effect change. “This needs to be a big part of our campaign and advocacy work—to go directly to consumers to tell them about disease and other risks in keeping these animals.”