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InFocus

“This is not merely leaving foxes to run hen-houses, it is asking foxes to design them too”

Governments urgently need to prioritise independent experts, vets and animal welfare organisations for advice on pet trading and keeping issues

New research emerges almost weekly documenting the harmful effects of exotic pet trading and keeping. Regularly featured are threats to species conservation from large-scale capture of wildlife; ecological disruption from invasive alien organisms; high morbidity and mortality affecting countless individual animals; and global public health and safety concerns associated with zoonoses and injuries. All these “challenges” – to put it mildly – have burgeoned since the establishment of commerce in live wild pet animals, and none have been resolved.

The reasons why these avoidable miseries are imposed on planet, pet and person, and continue to resist abatement, might vary according to location. In some world regions (eg the Far East, South America and Africa) animal and environmental issues can be downgraded based on perceived bigger problems, lack of regulatory frameworks or political corruption – all of which can be rightly described as “complex”. In Western regions, while not entirely free of those hindrances, the overarching reason why wild pet species and their native lands become decimated, animals suffer and die in their hundreds of millions annually and many people get sick or hurt is actually rather simple: governments ask the pet industry “what to do”! This is not merely leaving foxes to run hen-houses, it is asking foxes to design them too. Probably the worst example of this unscientific, irrational and unsustainable approach can be found right here in the UK.

While the British government can rightly be commended for numerous novel initiatives on animal welfare, Defra’s primary policy advisors on the pet industry are, well, the pet industry. Admittedly, this nonsensical situation was inherited from previous administrations, but here it remains despite prior warnings about vested interests succeeding in “regulatory capture”.

Quite how this reckless arrangement came about is unclear. One theory is that the British and other governments assign greater consultation weight to “big movers” within a given sector: “proportionality of say”. If so, how does one properly define proportionality? Is it a matter of money? Base scale? Or, perhaps more logically, how much good versus harm is caused by an industry?

Taking these questions in no particular order, where exotic pet trading and keeping are concerned, the “good versus harm” argument is staggeringly against the sector, with the only substantial “pro” arguments being that some people get enjoyment from it and others make money. It is questionable whether on balance the revenue raised by exotic pet trading and keeping offsets the huge expenditure involved in, for example, regulation, enforcement and clean-up management, as well as charitable interventions to alleviate the animal welfare, environmental and social fallouts, which make any true profits very costly.

Let’s now look at the scale of the industry’s support base because this is probably the most surprising and revealing part of the puzzle. It is interesting inasmuch as one can (sort of) understand why a government would assign a strong voice to a labour union that employs and represents a massive number of people. However, in a new study published in the Journal of Veterinary Behavior, a co-researcher and I compared the differences in scale between exotic pet trade and hobby stakeholders versus animal welfare organisations, veterinary entities and independent experts, focusing on numbers of employees, registered supporters and social media followers (Warwick and Steedman, 2021).

Animal welfare organisations representing the public massively outweighed the exotic pet trade and hobby organisations in terms of employees, supporters and Facebook followers by ratios of over 400:1, 870:1 and 144:1, respectively. Veterinary establishments substantially outweighed pet sellers and breeders by a ratio of more than 1.4:1 and employees by more than 2:1. In terms of employees within the “labour-like” representative unions, the difference is, frankly, embarrassing for the exotic pet trade and keeping sector, with animal welfare organisations employing 6,750 people versus just 16 for the pet industry’s “unions”. That is just the comparison with the animal welfare and veterinary community. If you add in the species conservation and public health and safety sectors, the true “political” status of the pet industry becomes vanishingly small.

So, if governments are to use representative scale as “gravitas” to award greater proportionate say, then the exotic pet trading and keeping sector simply doesn’t have it. In reality, it is, and always has been, a feeble squeak in the dark with neither brawn nor brains to match the veterinary, scientific and animal welfare communities. Thus, while the negative effects of exotic pet trading and keeping reach far and wide as well as domestically their actual stature is diminutive to say the least: puffed-up bullfrogs posing as lions. The British government, among others, have been misled by an array of kitchen-table organisations trying to impress civil servants, who are all too often ready to listen to the wrong people. Objective scientific and veterinary guidance is vital to resetting the historical imbalances that have overly influenced policy towards animals, environments and public health and safety. In our report, we concluded that all governments should urgently revisit their advice policies to prioritise first independent impartial experts; second, arm’s length interest parties; and third, and last, competing vested interests to break the cycle of harm-doers being favoured over do-gooders.

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