It’d be tough to give an exhaustive list of which animals I feel it’s morally wrong to keep as pets and which I don’t, because it really is a species-by-species basis. And there are exceptions on both ends- both animals that have very good lives in captivity thanks to capable owners and owners who I would never want to own a cat or dog, much less an exotic pet.
It’s annoying to hear the conversation on exotic pets get sidetracked again and again by the same meaningless statements: on the one hand you have the people saying “that animal belongs in the wild!” which is nice, but adds nothing, and on the other hand you have “cats and dogs used to be wild too!” which just mind-numbingly tosses thousands of years of evolution to one side.
I mentioned before the three* criteria I use when thinking about whether or not I’m morally comfortable with certain species as pets. They are: is the animal captured and sold directly from the wild or does it breed easily in captivity? can the animal be rehomed? and of course, can the animal live a fulfilling and healthy life in captivity?
It may surprise people that I actually place the least emphasis on the last, but it’s for a number of reasons: one, it’s hard to concretely define ‘fulfilling,’ and even sometimes ‘healthy,’ when it comes to animals, and it’s easy to get lost in subjectivity. Two, the resources that people have vary greatly; certain exotics are going to be easier to support if you are wealthy, so it’s hard to make a blanket statement without taking that into consideration. Three, people focus on this a lot, but ignore the other two big considerations far too much in my opinion.
If an animal cannot be easily bred in captivity- in other words, if it is easier to capture or poach it from the wild to sell it than it is to breed it- my answer is an unequivocal no. The trauma of wild-captured individuals aside (though it shouldn’t be) even the capture of non-endangered species from the wild poses a serious threat to the environment that they live in. Consider the way that trees are often cut down to get to the nests of wild parrots, for example. Stressing wild populations to supply the pet trade is not acceptable; it should be cheaper to obtain an animal from a breeder than from the wild.
And when I say ‘breeds easily’ I also mean that it can be bred in ethical conditions. It’s probably easy to have room and enrichment for six tree frogs; less so for just two capuchins. Far too many people purchase animals without asking the breeder the right questions. A good breeder should always be willing to show you the condition and living space of the parent animals. This obviously goes for dogs and cats as well as exotics.
Though you should be conscious of the effect you are having on other animals of the same kind when you look for an exotic pet- both its close relations and is entire species- you also need to think about your own responsibility to provide the animal with lifetime security. This is why I place a lot of emphasis** on whether or not the animal can be rehomed when thinking about how comfortable I’d be with keeping it as a pet.
You should always adopt with the intent of giving an animal a forever home, of course. But you need to consider what will happen to your pet if anything happens to you. Will you be able to find a new home for your pet? Will anyonewant to adopt your pet?
Many exotics, particularly large carnivores and primates, are valuable as infants, and basically worthless as adults. Would you buy a cute tiger cub? How about an adult tiger?
Of course, I’m not going to debate whether or not I think that tigers, bears, chimpanzees, or crocodiles should be sold as pets (I hope the answer is obvious). But the rehoming rule applies to animals you might not expect. Ever tried to rehome an adult serval or fox? I have a feeling you won’t be able to find an owner- and even if you do, it’s good luck to them, because your hand-reared serval or fox has probably only bonded with one person- you- and is terrified of strangers.
The bonding aspect is particularly important to me when it comes to social animals like birds and mammals. Dogs and cats bond much more easily with new people than many wild animals do; those thousands of years of evolution have made them more infantile and trusting. For many other species, once they are an adult, that’s it. They know who their family is, and changing that is incredibly traumatic for them.
The options outside of rehoming are either a sanctuary, a release, or euthanasia. None are desirable, not even the sanctuary- considering the prevalence of both disreputable sanctuaries and the fact that most goodsanctuaries are already bursting with cast-off exotic pets. A sanctuary is not a backup plan. Neither is a release- I shouldn’t have to even go over the issues with releasing exotics, particularly reptiles, into non-native environments.
The final point, after considering how your purchase affects the species and whether or not you can provide your pet with lifelong security, is the quality of life you will be able to give to your animal. Much has been made of this by others, so I won’t dwell on it here. It IS extremely important, of course, and there are plenty of animals that I disagree with keeping as pets largely on this point (primates, for example, as well as the aforementioned large carnivores, many parrot species, highly sensitive kinds of reptiles, fish, and amphibians, etc.).
I understand the appeal of exotic pets. I love animals too. But understand that the desire to keep pets is selfish instead of selfless. Sharing your life with an animal should be a privilege, not a right. And if you have to compromise the welfare of an animal or other members of its species to do it… I think you should seriously think about what you’re achieving.
*There are many other criteria to consider besides these, of course; these are just the ones I think are the most useful in conceptualizing the ethics of keeping members of a species as pets. There are a lot of vague loose ends even in these, and I think an open debate is necessary, and I wish people on both sides worked more towards aiding the animals than shouting at one another.
**I also place a lot of emphasis on whether or not an animal can be rehomed because it’s my personal goal never to buy an animal and to have every pet I own come to me via adoption. It’s practically impossible to adopt a lot of exotics.