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AZA “Not a Pet” Campaign: Why It Doesn’t Help Anyone

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Kaycee is an exotic pet owner experienced in working with a variety of non-domesticated animals.

A marble color morph red fox.

A marble color morph red fox.

In 2022, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (or AZA, for short) released an article for their ongoing campaign, dubbed as “Not A Pet.” It’s a collaboration with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) with the goal of increasing awareness for the illegal wildlife trade and hardships of owning exotic animals as pets.

This may seem all well and good at first. Wildlife trafficking is an evil that should be condemned, after all. Not only is it harmful for the environment, but it's usually abusive to the animals that are at the mercy of smugglers and illegal wildlife markets. You would be hard pressed to find any person who agrees with or supports this.

So why is the AZA’s “Not a Pet” campaign problematic?

Not A Pet?

The first and foremost issue you will spot is the contradiction in the very name of the campaign — Not a Pet. The animals the AZA labels as not being pets include, but are not limited to:

  • Iguanas
  • Saltwater fish
  • Corals
  • Turtles
  • Parrots

These animals are most certainly pets, and quite common ones at that. And while others listed, such as fennec foxes and servals, are much less common, they can be and are successfully kept as pets all the same.

But for the average person, a turtle or parrot is a much more normalized and familiar species to own —so the fact the largest private zoological organization in the world is declaring them to not be pets should concern you.

The AZA continues by stating the following, from Sara Walker, the AZA's senior advisor on wildlife trafficking:

“The messaging will not be, ‘don’t buy an exotic pet.’ The messaging will be ‘be informed about exotic pets.’”

But this could not be more disingenuous when the campaign is quite literally named “NOT A PET.” There were minimal attempts made to prevent this campaign from being negative, and it is clear to anyone with a critical eye the AZA does not want people owning any exotic animals, and does not support those who do. To claim otherwise and lie to our faces is an insult to the intelligence of animal owners.

Sugar gliders are one of the most common exotic pets.

Sugar gliders are one of the most common exotic pets.

The Not-So-Illegal Wildlife Trade

Continuing on to the actual claims made in this article, a key issue is the lack of differentiation between the illegal wildlife trade and the perfectly legal trade of captive bred exotic animals.

Virtually every species listed by the AZA in the Not A Pet campaign’s main article is commonly bred in captivity, with the exception of some reptiles like green iguanas, which are an invasive species most often caught in Florida.

If you see someone who owns a fennec fox, scarlet macaw, sugar glider, or other species here in the U.S, then there’s an overwhelming chance the animal was born and bred in the United States, from a licensed breeder and lineage of animals that have been captive bred for multiple generations.

In fact, it is required by law for sellers and breeders of exotic mammals to be licensed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to prevent the very issue of trafficking. These animals are not smuggled from the wild, and neither were there parents, or even their grandparents.

And while many species of reptiles, coral, and fish are still caught in the wild by the thousands and imported from their natural habitat, it is unfair to collectively judge these issues or suggest that they are the same for all species.

Creating Your Own Problems

Perhaps the most confusing part of the “Not A Pet” campaign and the AZA as a whole are the misguided attempts at educating people against wanting exotic animals as pets, while at best getting people to ignore them, and at worst only making people want them more. Brooke Tully, a behavior change consultant who did research in 2019 for IFAW, states:

“Although there are a number of reasons for the rise in exotic pet ownership, photos and videos of them scattered all over social media no doubt plays a large role. In addition, “anything in the entertainment realm feeds it. For example, the hit show Tiger King may have turned off some people to owning a tiger — but may also have encouraged others.”

People have always had a fascination with animals, and in our modern age seeing them up close at the zoo is easier than ever and accessible to all.

Not only that, but we are constantly bombarded with photos and videos of people interacting with said exotic animals — despite what the AZA would have you believe, many of these on social media are from zoos accredited by them or private facilities, sanctuaries, and organizations with “licensed professionals” handling, cuddling, playing with, and even walking ambassador animals on leashes; some of which are large predators like wolves and cheetahs.

Does this not encourage people to have a favorable mindset about interacting with these animals? Do these videos and behaviors not also help normalize the idea that exotic animals can be tame and friendly, or even inspire curiosity for what it would be like to own one?

If you are truly trying to convince people these animals are terrible pets, and do not want the concept to be normalized from social media, then perhaps parading them around on leashes as ambassador animals is not the right thing to do.

At the end of the day, it is clear that the “Not A Pet“ campaign is just another attempt by the AZA to smear exotic animal owners and use them as a scapegoat for issues that are far more complex than the media makes them out to be.

Whether you own a snake, lizard, bird, or exotic mammal, you should be concerned by the hostility shown towards your existence by the largest, most profitable, and most influential zoological organization that most certainly does not consider your animal to be a pet.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.