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Debate Topic: Exotic Pets Should Be Legal

Melissa holds a bachelor's degree in biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

Explore several arguments in favor of owning exotic pets.

Explore several arguments in favor of owning exotic pets.

Are you debating whether or not exotic pets should be legal or if it is ethical to own them? If you haven’t decided on whether you are “for” or “against” exotic pet ownership, the truth is that exotic pet owners are unfairly persecuted for no logical reason.

Exotic pet-keeping is rapidly becoming a taboo in this country, thanks to the persistence of animal rights groups and the unfortunate tendency of many Americans to view animals as precious, innately pure, human-like beings. Wild animals are often celebrated as "free spirits," and it is thought that they cannot and should not be tamed by human greed.


The Truth for Your Debate

The crux of the argument is that the ethics of exotic pet ownership do not differ at all from traditional, so-called domesticated pets that few question the ethics of owning. To argue for exotic pets alone would be a debate for the keeping of pets in general, and it wouldn’t make a lot of sense for someone to be forced to take on that philosophical debate solely because they support exotic pet ownership.

Exotic pet owners want to enjoy the same rights as owners of traditional pets. The majority of anti-exotic pet arguments rely on the logic that exotic pets are significantly different from "normal" pets.

Comparing Traditional and Exotic Pets

Hatred of exotic pet-keeping thrives from the "fear of the other" psychology, or fear of something different. Why do people question some pets and not others? When someone sees a pet they are not familiar with, there must be a reason keeping it is bad. This is why parrots, which are very demanding pets, get less criticism than a less common exotic, including even other birds like a toucan.

What is an exotic pet? Where is the line drawn? Some exotic pets are also traditional pets such as budgies, chinchillas, and pet reptiles. How would one distinguish between the needs of a fox and a hamster? Hamsters can run for miles in the wild, which is something the largest hamster cage cannot replicate. Both species are subjected to unnatural conditions.


The most common deception of anti-exotic pet arguments is that all exotic pets are somehow significantly different from domesticated and traditional pets. Opponents will try to remove exotic animals from the context of traditional pet-owning ethics and elevate their status as something close to human. An example of this is the knee-jerk reaction people have when people "exploit" (sell, trade, re-home, etc.) exotic animals. This is seen as appalling for exotics, but unobjectionable in the context of dogs, horses, and other traditional pets.

Even the most socially acceptable domesticated pets have striking similarities. The only issue they don't have in common is environmental concerns from over-harvesting; however, domesticated pets impact the ecosystem in their own unique ways. People who are apt to find problems with the exotic pet trade while failing to see similar or even worse problems with the pets they find acceptable are using confirmation biases.


Debate Point 1: "Exotic Pets Are Dangerous"

Exotic pets, overall, aren’t dangerous, or the level of danger present reflects on the competency of the owner.

First and foremost, exotic pets include a massive number of diverse species ranging from those the size of an eraser to the largest animals on Earth. Exotic pets can never be identified as dangerous as a whole; rather, we should define what danger means and which exotic pets are identified in the debate.

If danger means lethality, only extremely large exotic pets and venomous animals have killed people in the U.S. This is mostly limited to big cats, bears, wolves, the largest constrictor snakes, venomous snakes, and large ungulates (deer, camels, bison, elephants). It is only accurate to then state that large or extremely venomous animals are dangerous.

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In comparison, medium-sized dogs have caused human fatalities, and these deaths are more likely to involve people who are not the owners of the animal (or living with it) or have not voluntarily interacted with it. Large and inherently dangerous exotic pets are often owned with more discretion, so while there is a valid point for regulating these animals (although bans are still unnecessary), none exists for the majority of exotic pets.


Smaller exotic pets are capable of inflicting harm by biting, but this is true of any pet that has teeth. All domesticated pets also can inflict injury, but this never receives the attention of an exotic pet-related injury, even if it is more severe.

Exotic pets are not more dangerous than comparably sized dogs and cats, and they are sometimes less dangerous. Exotic pets that pose an unusually high risk of severe injury or death are reasonably safe when owned by responsible people, although mistakes and isolated incidences of tragedy are inevitable—just as they are with any other pet—and that is just a part of life.

  • Dogs kill 30 people annually in the U.S. Large constrictor snakes kill 0-1 people per year. Big cats within the last 30 years have killed no more than 5 people in one year, although most years it is 0-1 fatalities annually. This figure includes accredited zoos.
  • There are substantially more dogs in the U.S. than exotic carnivores, but most dogs are too small (about 30 pounds and under) to cause fatalities and are easy to control.
  • People pay more attention to serious exotic pet attacks, even though they are extremely rare, due to sensationalism.
  • Most exotic pet-related fatalities involve the owner and willing individuals who interact with the animals, not the public; therefore, exotic pets are not a significant public safety threat.

Debate Point 2: "Keeping Exotic Pets Is Selfish"

Keeping exotic pets is not any more "selfish" than keeping domesticated pets. The argument of selfishness suggests that exotic pets are different from traditional pets, and this is simply not true. All animals are subjected to unnatural conditions, and this even includes dogs and cats. Accusing an exotic pet owner of being selfish is mostly an empty attack holding them to a higher standard when it is convenient for the accuser. It is a common, emotionally manipulative, demonization tactic.

Debate Point 3: "Wild Animals Do Poorly in Captivity"

Exotic pets are not “wild animals” and can adapt to captivity reasonably well.

Animals that do not do well in captivity tend to breed poorly and make bad pets, so they do not last long in the pet trade. Exotic pets enjoy more popularity when they are adaptable to living with humans under the proper conditions.

  • Another variation of this topic is that wild animals have instincts that cannot be satisfied in captivity. All animals have instincts, and no animal, domesticated or otherwise, has truly adapted to living indoors with a human. An example is that indoor cats can suffer health problems and perform stereotypical behaviors which can be corrected using the same methods as the care of so-called wild pets.
  • Another common argument is that cages are too small and inhibit naturally free-ranging animals from roaming. All pets roam longer distances than enclosures allow. Studies show that most cats will roam a considerable distance from their home when permitted.
  • The worst argument people use is that exotic animals can survive in the wild and domesticated animals can't. This couldn't be further from the truth. There are several domesticated species thriving and reproducing in the wild, including cats, dogs, and horses. In contrast, even true wild animals raised by humans require special rehabilitation before they have a chance to survive in the wild.

Debate Point 4: "The Exotic Pet Trade Hurts Wild Animal Populations"

This is only partially true for some species, particularly reptiles, fish, and birds, which make up the majority of the illegal trade involving shipments destined for the United States. A good portion of the trade occurs locally, in the country of the animal's origin, which is not related to the trade in the U.S. but is often cited as related.

There have been some problematic trades that have affected wild populations prior to enacting regulations. The trade can be successfully regulated as are other industries such as hunting, although habitat fragmentation is the major cause of most declining populations that makes resolving the situation more difficult or impossible.

A significant number of species in the exotic pet trade are now captive-bred, and the importation of threatened species has been reduced or eliminated. There always remains a threat from the illegal black market, which already has laws in place against it. To simplify:

  • The wildlife trade now has reasonable regulations in place.
  • The local wildlife trade is damaging but wouldn't be affected by bans in the United States and other countries.
  • In most cases, habitat fragmentation is the cause of species decline, resulting in any further species removal being cited as an additional threat.

Debate Point 5: "Most People Cannot Care for Exotic Pets"

There are different animals in captivity, and some are harder to care for than others. Some dog breeds would be miserable in a traditional household, while some cats have traits that are very similar to the so-called wild traits of exotic pets. It is understood that these animals shouldn't be banned just because they are not suitable for most people. Instead, educating the public is the answer. Most exotic pets that are considered to be hard to care for are already less popular than unsuitable dog breeds like border collies, high-drive hunting dogs, and working lines of shepherd breeds.

Debate Point 6: "Can You Justify Exotic Pets?"

This is a typical argumentative trap that requires a response based on the assumption that keeping exotic pets is inherently wrong. Do not fall for this loaded question. If someone were to say "justify owning dogs," it would be seen by most as a silly question, as literally all of our actions could be seen as negative should we be required to establish them as inherently good in order to be unobjectionable.

This treads into some more severe philosophical questions (do we deserve to exist?) that place an unfair standard for exotic pet owners to meet in relation to everything else. Defending exotic pet owners with arguments (it's good for conservation, it saves animals from the wild, etc.) is indirectly supporting anti-exotic pet arguments.

Pros of Allowing Exotic Pet Ownership

While exotic pet ownership is not "wrong," there are also some societal benefits people may want to take into consideration to further enhance how much of an injustice blanket exotic pet bans are.

  • Property rights: Pet owners should be able to choose the type of pet they want. The personal feelings of other people shouldn't impact the rights of others.
  • Mental health: Many studies show that pets could have a benefit for people who wish to own them. While the species studied tend to be dogs and cats, this likely applies to many more species.
  • Education: Pet owners continue to learn from their pets and may even pursue higher education from experiencing the care of unusual animals. Many owners contribute information to zoos that enhance our understanding of the natural world.
  • Economy: The exotic pet trade encourages the creation of many jobs including but not limited to exotic pet medicine, pet supplies, animal ambassador programs, and pet boarding.
  • Conservation: In some cases, exotic pet ownership has contributed to conservation efforts. Private owners have aided in species survival programs and offered knowledge for some species that are difficult to care for or breed. Some animals can be offered for in situ conservation programs.

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.


Ronnie on March 11, 2020:

This could help me learn my animal test.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 31, 2018:

ManNewt That's entirely dependent on the species. For many animals it's not a matter of amount of individuals that can save their population, it's available habitat. You can breed all the animals you want but most of them can't be saved even if they can be returned to the wild effortlessly (most animals this isn't the case.) The axolotl is going extinct yet there are millions of them in captivity. That has zero effect on wild populations. You often hear that there are more tigers in captivity than the wild. You can't just dump tigers back in nor is most of the captive population needed. There's also plenty of lemurs in captivity but that doesn't make their wild situation any better.

ManNewt on May 29, 2018:

So I was told by someone that keeping endangered animals as pets regardless of their treatment or source was unethical because

"endangered animals kept as pets are not in the breeding population unless the owner consents to it, and make recovering the population much harder"

Would there be a rebuttal against this particular claim?

bobo on April 26, 2018:

Well I hope these points will help me on uni.

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