Saturday, March 21, 2015

Should native animals be kept as pets?

possum wildlife native animal
Hello possum! NB the images from this post are all of wild native animals, as opposed to those kept as pets. This possum is a juvenile being hand-reared because it was orphaned due to motor vehicle trauma - a not uncommon fate of our native animals.
Would you be happy to live with a quoll, say, instead of a cat? It’s a proposal frequently tabled in Australian parliament, discussed within the pet industry and mooted in debates about feral versus native animals. Most recently, Senator David Leyonhjelm suggested that native animals should be kept as pets and “quolls may replace domesticcats” (a big statement from a guy who only last week tweeted an image of himself holding his own cat). 

In principle I don’t think the idea is bad but I think the proposal to keep natives as pets raises some practical issues that are difficult to ignore (and may mean that it simply isn't viable). But first, a conflict of interest: I currently keep a native animal as a pet (Glenn, a Centralian Bearded Dragon), as do many other Australians. The current public debate is focused more around the keeping of native mammals as pets as private domestic keeping of native mammals is currently prohibited in most parts of Australia.

It’s easy when dealing with dogs and cats, for example, to forget that we are working with species that have been domesticated over thousands of years.

There’s also the issue of animal husbandry, nutrition and management. Again, it’s easy to take for granted but it’s much easier to care for dogs and cats than other species. And I’m not just talking about wildlife here. Rabbits, guinea pigs, fish, rodents and reptiles often receive less than ideal care simply because people are less educated about these species. Just because an animal is kept as a pet or a companion does not, unfortunately, mean that its needs are being met.

In Australia, children are taught about dogs and cats from a very early age. We’re saturated with dog and cat food commercials and dogs and cats feature on storybooks, movies. Major pet chains are geared towards selling mostly dog and cat products and much of their staff training is around these species. In my experience I’ve had to dig much harder to obtain decent information about Glenn’s husbandry than for any other animals I’ve lived with (the guinea pigs came a close second).

Native animals have very different needs to dogs and cats and it doesn’t follow that just because X can care for a cat, that X can care for a quoll or a Mitchell’s hopping mouse.

Spotted quoll native animal
This wild quoll was anaesthetised to enable a full physical examination and microchipping.
I am also of the view that the conservation of a species in the wild does not follow directly from the keeping of that pet in captivity. Certainly, living with a member of any species may increase our knowledge about that species – but it may do very little to alter our behaviour, for example motivate us to fund a wildlife corridor or register protest against a development that will destroy habitat.

In terms of knowledge about these species, there is little known about the impact of long-term captivity in household settings, comparatively little known about diseases and conditions they are likely to suffer (and zoonoses that may be carried). We also don’t know what exposing these critters to a larger scale pet market will do in terms of creating demand for certain phenotypes. In the land of reptiles at least, there is a demand for animals bred for particular colours or markings. Will pet owners push for brachycephalic or long-haired phenotypes in native animals, as we have with dogs and cats?

Naturally there are some very polarised and different views around keeping natives as pets.

This article in theConservation suggests that keeping Quolls as pets is “practically useless” as a conservation strategy.

Professor Michael Archer isa proponent of keeping native animals as pets, in part because when he was doing his PhD he actually hand-raised a quoll. The quoll used a litter tray like a cat, played like a puppy, and – unfortunately – like a dog or cat, mouthed a cane toad when the opportunity arose and suffered the fatal effects of toxicity.

Archer is horrified by our ignorance around our own native animals and feels this ignorance means we’re unlikely to be in a position to conserve these species. Living in close quarters, he argues, is the antidote to ignorance.

wombat native animal
Wombats are unlikely to make it onto the list of potential companion animals. Having met wildlife carers who live with them I can appreciate why - their digging tendencies and strength enable them to put impressive holes in foors, walls and other structures you might not want holes in.
The question is always who stands to benefit more…the animals, or people? Would at least some native species “benefit from having a place curled up on the couch as well as a secure home in the bush”, as Professor Archer says, or is this a naive vision?

I don’t know the answer and its not easy. We do need to consider the welfare of animals, both wild and captive, before we open the floodgates. And substantial education of veterinarians, members of the pet industry and the general public will need to take place if we do keep these native mammals as pets. The Australian Government Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation (RIRDC) published a feasibility study on the keeping native animals as pets in 2010, which you can order here