Exotic pets - Scottish Animal Welfare Commission: interim report

An interim report produced by the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission on exotic pets in Scotland.

5. Definition of exotic pets/non-domesticated animals in private keeping

A number of terms, including “exotic pets”, are used interchangeably throughout this interim report.

In its enquiries to stakeholders, SAWC did not specifically define the term “exotic pet”. This was to allow the widest possible range of interpretations from respondents. However, while useful as a shorthand term, the term “exotic pet” is potentially misleading and inappropriate.

The commonly used alternative “non-traditional companion animal” also has at least two weaknesses. Firstly, the word “traditional” is open to subjective interpretation, as has been seen in responses to our enquiries. For example, the European College of Zoological Medicine response defined “exotic pets” – much in the same way as SAWC has done – as “non-traditional companion animals such as rabbits, and other small mammal pets (such as ferrets, hedgehogs, guinea pigs, rats, degus, pocket rodents, etc), birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians in addition to those animals that are less often seen as pets such as marmosets and meerkats.”

Conversely, at least two local authority responses referred to fish, small rodents and cage birds as non-exotic and some stakeholders (such as the National Fancy Rat Society) offered a firm view that the animals of interest to them were domesticated.

Secondly, there could be legitimate debate about the extent and nature of “companionship” received from, and provided for, an exotic pet and that in turn will vary according to the kind of animal kept.

World Animal Protection was sceptical about the use of the word “pet” with reference to non-traditional animals:

“The phrase ‘exotic pet’ is essentially a marketing term for the trade in wild animals as pets. By wild, or ‘exotic’, we mean a species that does not have a history of domestication. When bred in captivity, exotic pets remain wild animals, having similar traits (behaviours and psychological needs) as their counterparts living in situ.”

It might be more objective simply to describe all of the animals under consideration as “animals”, their evolutionary status as “non-domesticated”, and their circumstances, for the most part at least, as “in private keeping”. In other words: “non-domesticated animals in private keeping”.

To cover relevant retail, trade and collection scenarios, another option might be: “non-domesticated animals kept by humans”.

A further question then arises concerning the kinds of animals that are, or are not, domesticated.

While not an exact analogy, the issue of domestication was addressed in the context of the Wild Animals in Travelling Circuses (Scotland) Act 2018. Section 2(1) of that Act states that a wild animal is an animal other than one which is of a kind that is commonly domesticated in the British Islands. Section 2(2) states that for the purpose of that subsection, an animal is of a kind that is domesticated if the behaviour, life cycle or physiology of animals of that kind have been altered as a result of the breeding or living conditions of multiple generations of animals of that kind being under human control.

Paragraphs 16 and 17 of the statutory Guidance to the 2018 Act (Scottish Government, 2018) clarify that domestication is a genetic selection process across a significant population of animals, over “more than just a few” generations, and that individuals or groups of “tame” wild animals are still wild animals for the purposes of the Act.

The Guidance also clarifies that the word “kind” (rather than “species” or other more technical term) is consciously used in the Act to make it clear “that whether an animal is considered wild or domesticated is not decided at the level of an individual animal or group of animals; it is considered at the much wider level of the kind of animal. When considering whether or not an offence has been committed, it is necessary to consider what kind of animal is being used by a travelling circus.” (Paragraph 18).

The word “kind” is also used in the Schedule to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.

Alternatively, it might be clearer and more relevant to focus on a list devised on the basis of the welfare needs of the animals.

In cases of uncertainty or conflicting views, the 2018 Act allows the Scottish Ministers to specify, by regulations, whether a particular kind of animal is, or is not, wild (i.e. non-domesticated).

This may be relevant in adjudicating debates over the status of certain commonly kept animals. For example, the National Fancy Rat Society submission to SAWC stated:

“R. norvegicus have been bred as pets since the 18th Century in Japan, and since the 19th Century in Europe before being imported into the UK in the 1850s. The UK pet stocks originate both from rats imported from French showmen and possibly from colour mutations kept back from the rats caught for the common bloodsport of the Rat Pits. By the early 20th Century, rats were being shown and were available in a number of patterns and colours. They are now a common and popular pet for people of all ages.

“It’s been recognised that domestication of the rat has produced profound changes in them, as has been seen in other domesticated species. The neophobia seen in wild rats is not present in domestic ones, presumably as part of the process of selection for tameness.”

The Ornamental Aquatic Trade Association made a similar point in its response, saying that while fish are the largest sector in numbers, they are not always seen as “exotic”. The Parrot Society UK stated that, perhaps unlike some other elements of exotic pet keeping, “the care, maintenance and breeding of birds (Aviculture) has a considerable lineage dating back thousands of years” and included an important social element.

“Cage & Aviary Bird Clubs were a feature of almost every Scottish town, notably those that gave homes to miners, shipbuilders & dock workers. These clubs focused upon Canaries (indeed Scotland has three of its own heritage breeds of Canary: the Border, Fife & Scots Fancy); Budgerigars and Foreign Finches, but also represented those keeping Parrots & Parakeets.”


Email: SAWC.Secretariat@gov.scot

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