Around Christmastime the shops are bursting with toys and merchandise featuring the latest, most popular characters, usually from the blockbuster family movie released that year. Since the rise of animation in the early 20th century, this often means anthropomorphised animals [Fig. 1]. But, what happens when cuddly toys aren’t enough, and children (and adults) demand the real thing?
In 2003, ‘Finding Nemo’ burst onto screens, making fans across the globe and a cool $940,335,536 worldwide. It also made a star of its featured species, the clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris) [Fig. 1]. Clownfish sales soared as people clamoured to have their own ‘Nemo’. Although easily bred in captivity, overwhelming demand means that over 1 million clownfish are taken from the wild annually. The combination of over-collection and damage from coral bleaching has resulted in population declines and even local extinctions.
This wasn’t the first, nor last, time that the popularisation of an animal species led to increased demand . Releases of ‘101 Dalmatians’ in 1985, 1991, and 1996, saw demand for Dalmatian puppies skyrocket. Subsequent years saw sharp increases in the number of Dalmatians abandoned in shelters. Similar scenarios have occurred with owls and ‘Harry Potter’, terrapins and ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’, and even meerkats following the ‘Compare the Meerkat’ adverts.
While increased demand for domestic animals can cause inbreeding and welfare problems, it is the popularisation of exotic animals that is of most concern.
The global wildlife trade is worth billions annually, and threatens biodiversity and conservation worldwide [2, 3]. The term ‘wildlife trade’ covers any trade of wildlife, or wildlife products, for purposes including use as food, clothing, and traditional medicine. A 2013 report found that 22% of recent wildlife trade reports were driven by demand for pets or animals for use in entertainment [Fig. 2] .
Wildlife trade causes issues with biodiversity loss, criminal activity and animal welfare . The exotic pet trade specifically is linked to a wide variety of problems.
Exotic pets are often wild-caught, and capture methods can cause injuries and stress. For example, young primates are normally taken after their parents are killed . Animals are typically then transported long distances, often in highly unsuitable conditions, leading to illness and mortality. Conservative estimates suggest that three animals die for every one traded to a consumer . Captive-breeding has its own issues, and doesn’t stop animals being taken from the wild as breeding stocks must be replenished frequently.
Whilst the sustainable harvest of exotic animals from the wild is possible, it’s difficult to set appropriate limits. As a result, many species have suffered population declines and local extinctions due to unsustainable harvesting . Although legal trade can be regulated and controlled, it often encourages the illegal trade which makes up the majority of the market [Fig. 3] .
Once exotic animals arrive at their destinations more problems arise. Incidents where dangerous pets have turned on their ‘loving’ owners with life-changing, or deadly, consequences are often linked with animal welfare issues [Fig. 4]. In the UK, pet owners are legally obliged to meet their pets’ needs under the Animal Welfare Act 2006. Exotic animals often have specialist needs, which can be difficult and expensive to accommodate, leading to pets being malnourished, stressed and sick.
The demands of keeping exotic pets can come as a shock to owners, and some may try to surrender their animals. When this isn’t an option it leads to pets being euthanized, abandoned, or released. I witnessed this myself whilst volunteering on an RSPB reserve in Belfast when we found an abandoned bearded dragon.
Although many exotic pets die when released, sometimes they become invasive species. The invasion into North America of the monk parakeet (Myiopsitta monachus) has been genetically linked to the pet trade . This species is a notorious crop pest and has caused problems by nesting on power structures.
Exotic animals often carry zoonotic diseases that can infect their owners and other species. An outbreak of SARS which killed 774 people in 2003 was linked to the wildlife trade . The pet trade is also a factor in the spread of the devastating amphibian disease chytridiomycosis.
The international trade of certain species is controlled by CITES, while legislation on keeping exotic pets varies among different countries including the UK and the US. Legislation can be hard to enforce due to corruption, ignorance, or the fact that the financial benefits of illegal trade outweigh the costs . The Internet and improved transport routes make trade easier to facilitate and much harder to regulate.
What can be done?
The exotic pet trade is a major issue, and there is a pressing need for education about the dangers of keeping exotic pets. A 2016 study found that when potential buyers were shown information about the disease or legal consequences of exotic pets, 39% were less likely to buy. However, information about welfare and conservation impacts had no effect . This may explain why films such as ‘Finding Nemo’ spike demand despite their strong underlying conservation messages. It is too early to tell if the ‘Million Kisses’ campaign to raise awareness about the wild-capture of aquarium fish, launched to coincide with the release of ‘Finding Dory’ earlier this year, prevented the same trend reoccurring. As the campaign focused on conservation concerns the study’s findings suggest this is unlikely.
In the future, information campaigns linking zoonotic disease and legality to the exotic pet trade should be launched alongside blockbuster animal-themed movies to reduce the demand for exotic pets. Somehow, I doubt this will happen. It hardly fits the Disney image, does it?
 D. L. Yong, S. D. Fam, and S. Lum, “Reel conservation : Can big screen animations save tropical biodiversity ?,” Trop. Conserv. Sci., vol. 4, no. 3, pp. 244–253, 2011.
 E. R. Bush, S. E. Baker, and D. W. Macdonald, “Global trade in exotic pets 2006-2012,” Conserv. Biol., vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 663–676, 2014.
 Baker et al., “Rough Trade,” Bioscience, vol. 63, no. 12, pp. 928–938, Dec. 2013.
 M. A. Russello, M. L. Avery, and T. F. Wright, “Genetic evidence links invasive monk parakeet populations in the United States to the international pet trade.,” BMC Evol. Biol., vol. 8, no. JULY 2008, p. 217, 2008.
 T. P. Moorhouse, M. Balaskas, N. D’Cruze, and D. W. Macdonald, “Information Could Reduce Consumer Demand for Exotic Pets,” Conserv. Lett., Accepted Author Manuscript, Jun. 2016.