14 Reasons You Shouldn’t Keep Endangered Animals as Pets
You're not saving them—in fact, you're putting their species at greater risk when you keep endangered animals as pets.
Endangered animals don’t belong in your backyard
If, like millions of others, you were hooked by the bizarre tale of Netflix’s docuseries Tiger King, you’ve probably seen why it’s a really, really bad idea to keep any wild animals as pets—let alone endangered animals like tigers. Unfortunately, it’s not just eccentric zoo owners who possess these animals. There are only around 3,200 tigers left in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching. There are likely at least 5,000 in captivity in the United States alone—with only 6 percent in zoos or accredited facilities, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). Wildlife trafficking is literally killing endangered animals—one 2019 report from the United Kingdom found that the wildlife trade (for both alive and deceased animals) is the number one cause of species extinction. So, before you start thinking about owning that rare lizard, bird, big cat, primate, fish, pangolin, or other wild animal species you never knew were endangered, here’s why you should stick to dogs or house cats instead.
You can’t meet their needs
Even with the best of intentions, humans aren’t capable of providing the homes that these wild creatures need to live their best lives—which is true of any exotic animal but is particularly critical for at-risk species. “They have evolved to live in natural, wild habitats and by keeping them as pets, you are placing them in an unfamiliar and potentially very stressful environment where they cannot behave in the way they instinctively would in the wild,” says Caroline Pollock, Red List programme officer at the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), whose Red List is the most complete source of information on species’ endangered status. Housing an endangered creature “is potentially damaging to those animals,” she says. You should know about the wild animals that become endangered last year.
Keeping endangered animals diminishes their population
You may think owning endangered animals will help them from becoming extinct. But keeping these animals furthers the idea that they should or can be pets, creating demand and fueling the pet trade that removes them from the wild. “Unless you can be 100 percent certain that the animal you are buying was obtained through sustainable means, buying an endangered wild animal as a pet may contribute towards further endangering their species by reducing the number of these animals surviving in the wild,” Pollock says. “Unsustainable trade in wild animals as pets is rapidly reducing populations of many animal species across the world, driving them towards extinction.”
The demand for lemurs, for example, has led to over 28,000 individual animals being removed from the wild since 2010, according to a 2016 study. This includes the ring-tailed lemur, endangered due to the pet trade as well as habitat loss and bushmeat hunting. With an estimated 95 percent population decrease since 2000, there may be as few as 2,000 of them left in the wild.
You don’t really know where they came from
Even if you think you got your endangered animal from captive breeding, in the wildlife trade you can never really be sure they weren’t stolen from the wild. For example, “threatened songbirds are frequently sold as being captive-bred as this takes the pressure off the exploitation of wild populations but, all too often, this just creates a mechanism to pass off wild-caught birds illegally sourced from the wild,” says David Jeggo, co-chair of the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Asian Songbird Trade Specialist Group. Despite international protection, endangered species of birds that have been “quite clearly newly imported” are being sold, he says. You don’t want them to be added to the list of animals that have gone extinct in the last 100 years.
You’re making more species endangered
Even for animals that aren’t yet endangered, taking them from the wild can quickly deplete their population. “This high demand for species that were once common is driving them towards extinction, and for those species already endangered it can be the last nail in the coffin,” Jeggo says. For example, there’s the Banggai cardinalfish, which was discovered 30 years ago in Indonesia and quickly became in high demand for fish tanks around the world. By 2016, their population in the wild had dropped 93 percent, and they are now endangered, with less than 1.5 million left in the wild (which isn’t a lot for fish).
A similar situation is happening with the rare earless monitor lizard, which hasn’t been rated by IUCN but is protected in its native Borneo. Since the creature was spotted by scientists for the first time in nearly 40 years in 2008, it’s become the “holy grail” for reptile collectors—and of major concern to conservationists. After all, you don’t want these beautiful animals to disappear in your lifetime.
They could hurt you
Practically speaking, don’t be fooled into thinking you can “tame” an endangered animal. Placing them in an unfamiliar, inappropriate environment like your house is not just dangerous for them, but for you. “This is risky for their human ‘owners’ who can be harmed when their pet acts instinctively to protect themselves, for example by biting or stinging,” Pollock says. And it’s not just tigers you have to worry about. The chimpanzee, endangered because of habitat loss and hunting for bushmeat with less than 250,000 left in the wild, is stronger than most human adults by age five, according to the Jane Goodall Institute. One woman, Charla Nash, was attacked by her friend’s pet chimpanzee in 2009—he ripped off her face and hands, requiring a facial transplant.
They don’t have the human emotions you think they do
Such brutal attacks can occur even if you think your pet endangered animal loves you. They simply do not think of you the way you think of them and may lash out at any time, even after years without incident. “Unlike domesticated animals, like cats and dogs, wild animals are not bred for human companionship,” Pollock says. Believing that animals have the same emotions as humans are called “anthropomorphizing.” Instead, your endangered animal pet may actually resent you. The Jane Goodall Institute notes that chimps, for example, can become destructive and rebellious if you come home from work late—and they can make a terrible mess. Instead, find out the simple ways to help endangered animals without leaving your home.
They’re cute as babies, but they get big
As noted in Tiger King, everyone loves an adorable tiger cub. But many endangered animals, including snakes, lizards, chimpanzees, and other primates, not to mention tigers, get big—really big. “When they are young, animals are very lovable, cute, and interesting to be around, but when they grow into adults, they may either become large and difficult to house or control, even becoming dangerous to be around,” Pollock says. “Or they may lose their appeal by no longer being the cute and fluffy creature you first fell in love with, or by damaging furniture and other possessions.” In keeping such a pet, you’re the one who may have bitten off more than you can chew.
They have special diets
This is another thing most endangered pet owners don’t think about when they take in their exotic creature: Lots of endangered species don’t just eat any old thing—and if they do, they could get sick or become malnourished. “Many wild animals will have very specialized diets that may be expensive to buy or difficult to find,” Pollock says. Even smaller creatures, like lemurs, require a special diet. A research program on pet lemurs notes that each species of lemur (many of which are endangered) eats slightly different foods. They also shouldn’t be fed human foods such as rice, or have too many sweet fruits such as bananas or mangoes.
They carry disease
Endangered animals that people don’t normally come in contact with can also be unintentionally dangerous through the germs they carry. “Wild animals carry diseases that they may be able to cope very well with, but that can be transmitted to humans and other animals that may not be well-equipped to fight off such novel viruses and bacteria,” Pollock says. These “zoonotic” diseases can jump from endangered animals to humans. For example, “the purchase of songbirds from animal markets and pet shops, where wild animals are kept alongside domestic stock, does pose a health risk through the transfer of zoonotic disease,” says Jeggo. “Within the European Union there is a ban on the importation of wild-caught birds, a measure brought in as a result of avian flu.”
They could be a public danger if they got out
Because they’re not meant to be kept as pets, endangered animals can be a public safety hazard. “There is also the risk that the animal may escape and thus increase the risk they pose to other humans and animals,” says Patricia Cremona, Sustainable Use and Trade Programme Officer at IUCN. The Humane Society has recorded hundreds of incidents involving escaped big cats, including tigers, like this one from 2007 in New Hampton, Iowa: “A pet tiger escaped from a cage by rushing past the owner at feeding time and attacked and mauled the family’s dog. When the dog ran toward cars from the local sheriff’s department and the tiger followed, a deputy sheriff shot and killed the tiger through a partially opened window of his vehicle.” Such losses of any animal are upsetting, but losing a member of the most endangered tigers in the world is even more regrettable.
Escaped animals can become invasive
You’d think it would be good if escaped endangered animals started thriving on their own again, but that’s not necessarily the case if it’s outside their native environment. “The risks [to humans and domestic animals] may be further exacerbated if escaped animals are able to establish permanent populations in the wild, for example, escaped pet pythons in Florida,” Cremona says. The Burmese python, the Florida pest, is listed as vulnerable in its native Asia; but because it’s out of its normal habitat in the United States, it’s also a danger to native threatened and endangered species like the mangrove fox squirrel, the Key Largo woodrat, the wood stork, and the Key Largo cotton mouse.
In another example, a 2017 report suggested the success of escaped yellow-crested cockatoo, which is critically endangered at under 2,500 left, could revitalize the species by transporting them back to their native area. But that doesn’t solve the problem of why the animal was endangered in the first place—namely, the unsustainable trade itself, according to the IUCN—and could further fuel their demand as pets. Instead, note the ways these incredible animals came back from the brink of extinction.
You may want to get rid of it
Once you realize you can’t properly care for your endangered animal, there’s the question of what to do with it. “All of the things mentioned are reasons why people tend to abandon their wild ‘pets’ after a while,” Pollock says. You may then turn to zoos to take in your endangered animal, but accredited institutions don’t actually have room for all the unwanted exotic pets, according to the conservation group Born Free USA—that’s how big the problem is. Unfortunately, this often means many endangered pets are euthanized or left to die. In one notorious incident in 2011, an Ohio man freed all his pet exotic animals, a major public safety risk that resulted in 18 tigers, among other animals, being killed.
It’s probably illegal
If you still need more reasons not to own an endangered animal, maybe the threat of a fine or jail time will make you think twice. “Many endangered animals are protected by national and international laws,” Cremona says. “The applicable laws vary depending on the species, origin—bred in captivity or caught in the wild—and country concerned, both the country from which the animal originates and the country in which it is sold or owned.” In the United States, the Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to possess, sell, or buy an endangered species; the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is in charge of prosecuting violators. States and cities have additional laws as well. Check out the pets you probably never realized are actually illegal to own.
You may be part of an international criminal network
But even if you think your animal is legal, again you can never be totally sure of its origins, so is it worth the risk of being part of a huge international crime network? The illegal wildlife trade is big business, estimated at $10 billion a year. “While much of the trade occurs within a country, a large volume crosses international boundaries,” says Jeggo. “The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) exists to regulate such international trade in wildlife.” Admittedly, the laws aren’t perfect. Although much of the trade is illegal, it might not always be effectively enforced. Still, your best bet is to stick with a domesticated animal, like a dog or cat, especially since there are so many in shelters who need homes. Leave endangered animals to the wild where they belong. Next, find out why you shouldn’t keep an owl as a pet, either.