environment

From exotic pets to pests

Animal protection groups say the global exotic pet trade is a growing multibillion-dollar industry that’s having a devastating impact on wildlife populations across the world. In New Zealand, lizards and turtles are traded freely, legally and in increasing numbers, and when the odd one has escaped our cold temperatures have largely stopped them reproducing. But those temperatures are heating up. 

The World Animal Protection is urging people not to buy, own or breed a wild animal as a pet.  It’s commissioned polling that found a quarter of exotic pet owners did no research before buying a wild animal as a pet ... and more than half of them didn’t realised their pet was classified as 'exotic'.

Cassandra Koenen heads the group's campaign on exotic pets. 

“There’s an assumption that a reptile can be released into the wild and it will be fine,” she says. “But that doesn’t take into account the biodiversity (of the place it’s being released to). In countries like New Zealand that’s something that’s highly challenging,” she says.

“One of the challenges in owning an exotic pet is that in many countries it’s legal. There’s a perception that because it’s legal then it’s a great idea. That’s not the case.”

Koenen is talking to state and federal governments in several countries about the concept of a “positive list” – a list of species that are allowed to be kept as pets. It’s basically restricted to domestic animals (cats, dogs, guinea pigs, horses) and anything not on the list is banned. Belgium introduced it in 2001 for mammals. Koenen, who is based in Canada, says for example in Toronto it’s not legal to have a flamingo as a pet because if released, it wouldn’t survive in the wild.  

Department of Conservation science advisor, biosecurity, Rod Hitchmough, says quite a number of species now have the potential to establish in this country and become a problem. Some Australian lizards in particular, such as blue tongue skinks, are a worry - another that’s been found in several water ways are Water Dragons. They are carnivorous and go for New Zealand's giant land snails. 

He says imported birds are an issue as well – he names rainbow lorikeets and ring necked parakeets as flashy flying creatures that are prone to escaping, where they compete with native wildlife. 

Hitchmough says it’s not illegal to keep these lizards and birds as pets, but problems arise when people don’t want them any more or they escape ... particularly when people release them to reserves. That is illegal. He says the extent of any damage they do isn't exactly known, but it's not just direct damage to the environment that could be a problem. Diseases may well be transmitted to native species, and there's predation to worry about as well. 

The most worrying are the ones that have the potential to establish. For birds that’s rainbow lorikeets and ring necked parakeets; with reptiles it’s water dragons first with blue tongue skinks second. “Water dragons can be very elusive,” he says. But they're also very expensive, which means owners are more likely to hang on to them. 

The assumption is that either pet owners just get sick of them and let them go – they turn out to be too expensive or they just get too big. "It's pure speculation though."

Trade Me is awash with red-eared slider turtles, which is the species being collected most often by reptile rescue services. "Kids have lost interest", one honest seller says. 

Red-eared slider turtles - one of the world's 100 worst invasive species - are increasingly being found on urban edge areas, and in the water ways of towns and cities. Auckland's Western Springs Park is a popular dumping ground and they’re often spotted in marsh at Bethells Beach. At the moment it’s not too much of a problem because sex determination is temperature-dependent, and it’s too cold in New Zealand for females to hatch. But Hitchmough points out that with global warming, that may change.

Red-eared slider turtles - it's illegal to 'set them free'. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“It’s about being a conscientious pet owner,” he says. “If you no longer want your pet, do the right thing and find it a good home, or give it to a rescue organisation. Also, not breeding if you don’t know what you’re doing. Breeding them is not illegal but whether it’s ethical or not is a personal decision.”  

Hitchmough points out that making the turtles readily available cheaply increases the likelihood of impulse buying, regretting the decision, and letting it go.

He says turtles were rare as pets in New Zealand until the 1960s. “A lot of species have only been in the New Zealand pet trade for 30 years at the most and the numbers have been building up, so it’s quite recent. We don’t know why that is. There’s no proof that a lot of these things were illegally imported ... and it would be very difficult to prove.”

Pet accord 

There are 1800 different pet species here not native to New Zealand, most of them ornamental fish. The Ministry for Primary Industries is setting up a Pet Accord, which has assessed 35 species as being of high risk of becoming established. New Zealand has the highest rate of pet ownership in the world, but there's a list of escapees which have gone on to form wild populations here. 

At the moment MPI is working on an eradication programme for the European Alpine Newt, which has been seen near Waihi - that's on the verge of a successful conclusion. 

MPI's principle conservation advisor, Erik van Eyndhoven, says several programmes are also underway to catch Indian ring-necked parakeets, including near Thames and in Christchurch. They are easier to find than amphibians, with the public happy to report them. Red-eared slider turtles, he says, are "certainly on our radar and something that needs to be watched closely", but they have been assessed of being of medium concern when it comes to establishing feral populations. Adult males and females have been released but temperature bias does keep the numbers down - however van Eyndhoven says there are micro-sites where females have been produced. 

"Anecdotally we are getting more and more reports of red-eared slider turtles," he says. However data is not collected on it - and reports also go to councils around the country, and DoC. "Definitely we want owners to realise that they can't release them into the wild." The cheap price of replacement pets also concerns him - that makes it easier to just go and get another one. 

Van Eyndhoven says there are a variety of reasons as to why pets get out - including people who can't bring themselves to euthanise a pet and let them go instead. He says there's also a religious element where releasing animals is enshrined in practices. 

DoC and Biosecurity New Zealand recently issued a press release aimed at the Chinese community, reminding Buddhists that the practice of 'saving lives' of animals should not extend to releasing invasive species such as red-eared slider turtles and koi carp into lakes and streams. 

"This action is not only against the law, it is extremely harmful to the native species living in these areas. Native species do not co-habitat well with these imported species as we know from the disastrous introduction of rats, stoats, possums and weasels," it said. 

The Chinese Conservation Education Trust has offered to let Buddhists attend a native species release instead. 

Not good for the natives - or the turtles

Sarah Liggins, a trained veterinary nurse, runs North Shore Reptile Rescue from her home. She gets turtles passed on from the SPCA or pet shops, or they’ve been dumped in a box outside her gate, or handed in by people who find them on the road. Often they have rotting shells or dog bites from fending for themselves in the wild. It’s not the damage to the country’s water ways that worries her, but the cavalier treatment dished out to the turtles.

They’re creatures that need a lot of care and attention, and that costs money. Initial setup costs are around $1000, for a tank, ultra-violet heat lamp, water conditioner, food, filters – “a lot of people get put off when you tell them that,” says Liggins. They also smell. When they get bigger they need a proper pond – they will end up being about 30cm long. And they can live up to 40 years. 

“It’s definitely time-consuming (looking after them),” she says. “Finding a savvy vet can be hard too – people don’t want to pay for that. A lot of people think they can buy one of those blue sandpits from The Warehouse and it’ll be fine.”

She had to find homes for 20 turtles before Christmas but has none at the moment – the job goes in fits and starts.

Liggins says they’re being mass produced by breeders who are simply feeding demand – they’re going for $38 on Trade Me. “I’ve spoken to a couple of people who breed red-ears for the pet market and they don’t have any problem with it,” she says. “They say it’s doing minimal damage to the environment, that hardly any get released. But we’ve seen a lot of them at Western Springs, most of them big adults. They’re in Lake Pupuke, I’ve rescued axolotls from there too. I’ve seen turtles in a stream at Belmont, one down at Takapuna beach, some from a creek in Brown’s Bay – you find them everywhere.” Many are in salty water or filthy ponds, in terrible conditions or with damaged shells.

Liggins says the turtles do eat native fish, and if there’s a shortage of those they will come up on land to eat mice and skinks, but to her knowledge they’re not causing huge environmental damage. She says Australian water dragons and blue-tongued lizards are another story however – the water dragons can grow a metre long.

Liggins would like to see pet stores adopt a ‘no questions asked’ policy for people to return unwanted turtles instead of releasing them into the wild.

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