Exotic pets can be a danger to native wildlife

Pets that are released, or escape, into the wild can be a danger to our native wildlife. The European Union has placed some of the worst offenders a list of invasive alien species of concern. Stan Whitaker, our non-native species adviser, looks at the implications for nature conservationists and pet owners.   

Red eared terrapins © NNSS, Crown copyright 2009

Red eared terrapins © NNSS, Crown copyright 2009

Keeping exotic pets is increasing in popularity. Trends are often linked to social media, film and TV, like the demand for terrapins following the film ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’.  Once they grow to the size of dinner plates, red eared terrapins, one of the most popular kinds of pet turtle, are frequently abandoned in urban ponds.  Fortunately, our summers aren’t hot enough for them to breed, but individual animals can live for a long time.

Releasing exotic pets into the wild is cruel as well as dangerous. Most die of the cold, starvation, disease or are caught by predators.  So rather than being given their freedom, most released animals are likely to meet a cruel and untimely death.  Only a small minority survive to become invasive and seriously affects our native wildlife and environment.  Pet trade organisations have produced this code of practice designed to encourage pet owners to act responsibly.

The raccoon is top of the list of invasive animals that we don’t want in Britain. In Germany, introduced raccoons prey on native wildlife, damage fruit crops and carry diseases and parasites which can affect humans and animals.  Keeping raccoons as pets has become fashionable in the UK and there are sporadic reports of animals in the wild.  Luckily, they have not formed a wild population here yet. This one was captured on camera by Scottish Wildcat Action volunteers in the Highlands.

Raccoon captured on a remote camera ©Blackwater Wildlife Group

Raccoon captured on a remote camera ©Blackwater Wildlife Group

The European Union’s list is aimed at preventing invasive alien animals getting into the wild. Importing, breeding and selling of animals on the list is now banned; however, existing pet owners are allowed to keep their animal to live out its natural life, provided it is kept in a secure enclosure and not allowed to escape.  These frequently asked questions provide further advice for pet owners.

If a species on the list is detected in the wild, the relevant government agency must attempt to remove it, at an early stage of invasion. For example, our colleagues in Natural England are removing populations of American bull frogs in Sussex and Essex.  These voracious predators will devour native wildlife in a pond and carry a disease, Chitrid fungus, that is lethal to other amphibians.

American bullfrog in a pond in Sussex © NNSS, Crown Copyright, 2009

American bullfrog in a pond in Sussex © NNSS, Crown Copyright, 2009

Responding quickly to new outbreaks of invasive species has several advantages. Although lethal control of American bullfrogs was necessary, this avoided many more animals having to be killed in the future, and large amounts of native wildlife being eaten.  It makes economic sense too.  We estimate that managing an established population of muntjac deer would cost the Scottish economy up to £2 million per year, compared to just £60k to eradicate a single outbreak.

You can get involved by reporting any sightings of exotic animals in the wild to info@sears.scotland.gsi.uk or 08452 302 050.

We would also like pet owners to report any escaped exotic animals. We may be able to help reunite you with your pet, for example, by lending you cage traps.

If you come across an injured or distressed animal, please call the Scottish SPCA’s animal helpline.

Invasive Species Week 2018 runs from 26 to 29 March. For more information on what’s happening, search for the hash tag #InvasivesWeek.

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