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Urban Jungle: Exotic Pets in Beijing

One day, while he was at Lady Street buying fish to feed the snapping turtle living in his bathtub, Zi Bo Tang saw a pair of baby alligators in a bucket of water on the floor. He felt they looked sick and mistreated, but knowing what a big responsibility an alligator would be, he went home to think on it.

He returned the next day, when there was just one alligator left who “had no energy to hiss or move.” He purchased the alligator for about RMB2,000, plus a custom tank. In just nine months, the alligator doubled in size and never showed any signs of domestication.

Over time, Xiao Feng Zi, or “Little Crazy,” became increasingly aggressive and, in turn, more difficult to feed safely and a growing threat to his owner’s cats. “When I look into his eyes, the only thing I see is the power of nature, the true predator.”

Zi Bo Tang tried to give the alligator to various zoos, but none would take him, saying the animal wasn’t an endangered species, like the Yangtze River alligator. Friends didn’t want to take on an alligator, either, so Zi Bo Tang drove “Little Crazy” to an alligator farm in Anhui Province, where the animal is likely to end up in a meat market in two or three years.

Zi Bo Tang isn’t the only Beijinger who has brought an exotic, or non-traditional, pet home. A few people have seen a man walking his rhesus monkey around town, and this writer has even seen an old man in a neck brace trying to keep his capuchin monkey calm in an April Gourmet, as well as a woman who had a beautiful exotic bird with long tailfeathers poised delicately on her shoulder at the same store.

But while these animals are magnificent reminders of the majesty of nature, they’re not necessarily something we can all have at home. Not only do these animals require special care and attention, they can also be illegal to own, depending on the species.

Mary Peng, co-founder of International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS), estimates that 90 percent of problems they see with exotic pets, which, in veterinary terms, includes any pet besides a cat or dog, can be traced back to people not understanding their pets’ needs. “Most consultation time goes toward education,” she says.

She offered an example of a pet owner who brought in an Australian sand lizard with a severe case of hemorrhoids. Its owner had been feeding it a high fiber, vegetarian diet, but the animal is actually a carnivore whose diet in the wild would include lots of bugs. If the owner had been better versed in the animal’s natural diet, it could have spared the animal a lot of pain as well as a trip to the vet. Another exotic pet owner wasn’t offering her African Grey Parrot enough enrichment opportunities, so the bird got bored and plucked out its own feathers.

Meanwhile, Mallory Vopal, a conservation education specialist at the Wilds, one of the world’s largest and innovative wildlife conservation centers located in Ohio, says pretty much any animal besides a cat or a dog will need a special vet, and this is something to consider when thinking about getting an exotic pet—even hamsters and rabbits.

“If you can’t find an exotic vet who can treat the species you are interested in, it’s not worth it to go through the heartbreak when your pet is sick and no one can help,” Vopal says.

For those who can no longer care for a pet, or simply don’t want to, she adds that zoos and other wildlife conservation centers can neither treat nor take in outside animals, mostly due to federal regulations and quarantines.

“[Zoos and wildlife conservation centers] have to maintain a high level of sterilization in their facilities and simply won’t take the risk of your animal bringing in something that may have a negative consequence for the animals that already live there,” she says.

Beijingers need not fear—ICVS vets can and do treat all manner of pets, including cats, dogs, “pocket pets” like hamsters, guinea pigs and gerbils, a wide range of birds, turtles and rabbits. However, there aren’t many vets that specialize in exotic species in China, and Peng says those that are qualified generally don’t operate in a private practice.

“Exotic species are animals that are not popular with the general public for a reason,” Vopal says. “They need incredible extra amounts of care, typically have wild demeanors, cost more for upkeep, and require a great deal of background knowledge and understanding of the animal’s natural history.”

There aren’t prepared foods or “pellets” for many exotic species, Peng says, so people also should think about how much time and money they’ll need to devote to food alone.

While Zi Bo Tang’s alligator was completely legal, there are plenty of other exotic pets that aren’t, including all manner of primates.

In addition to government regulations prohibiting the private ownership of protected species and other wild animals, China is a member of the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), an international agreement between governments meant to protect the survival of wild animals and plants by making the trade of such species illegal. There is a list of protected species, or endangered species protected by law, for each member country to the CITES.

For someone to legally own a protected species in China, they would need to obtain the appropriate license, but these licenses are only given to research institutions, animal sanctuaries, labs and universities—entities that have special programs for preserving a protected species or its habitat.

People with pets that are protected species are supposed to register the animal with the local public security bureau, just as they might register a dog. But having a protected species is illegal, so registering it would mean essentially turning oneself in for owning it. This discourages people from registering such pets, and makes it practically impossible to know how many there are in Beijing.

Meanwhile, as Peng points out, it’s also not legal for a shelter to take on an exotic or protected species if someone decides they no longer want or can no longer care for such an animal.

Giving an animal to a shelter in Beijing is also problematic, as they’re often not legal, licensed entities and are unlikely to have the facilities an exotic species might require, she says. This means that the only option is to “pass on the problem, and it becomes a problem for the next person.”

Conservation efforts do not include the private ownership of protected species. Members of protected species don’t need to live with families, they need greater efforts by experts to restore their habitats, increase their numbers both in captivity and in the wild and educate the public on the importance of wildlife conservation.

Vopal warns that bringing an animal from a protected species home means “removing it from an important gene pool critical to its future survival on the planet,” which is “another step toward that organism’s extinction.”

Those who want to help these species can do so by supporting sanctuaries, zoos or animal shelters either with donations or through volunteer programs. Vopal even suggests recycling to slow down habitat loss, or “watching what types of food you eat to protect species from over-collection.”

“Your home is not their habitat,” Mary Peng says, “it’s not their home.”



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