The Animal Welfare Issue
By far the most important ethical issue about keeping wild animals as pets pertains to the welfare of the animal itself. In captivity, can we provide a wild animal with the proper diet, exercise, and socialization that it would get in the wild? Before deciding on a wild animal as a pet, carefully consider whether the animal is better off in captivity or in the wild.
If you are considering a wild animal as a pet, the first thing to do is check the laws where you live.
There may be local laws (at your city or county level), or laws at the state/provincial or federal levels that restrict the types of pet you may keep. Don't rely on information from the internet, and don't assume just because you can find an animal for sale locally that it is legal where you are. Get official confirmation; ignorance of the law will not protect you or your pet if you are turned in or discovered, and your pet will likely be confiscated.
Background: Domestic Animals, Wild Animals, and Exotic Pets
The distinction between wild animals and domesticated animals can be fuzzy at times. Domesticated animals are those that have been bred in captivity for a number of generations, but the precise number of generations in captivity needed to qualify as domesticated is not easy to define. All domesticated animals were once wild animals, so where is the line drawn?
There is a tendency to equate exotic pets with non-domestic animals, but this distinction depends on your definition of exotic pet.
Here, I consider exotic pets to be anything that is not a dog, cat, bird, fish or horse. In this context, several species of exotic pets are considered domesticated, including (but not limited to) rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, guinea pigs, chinchillas, gerbils, fancy rats and mice, llamas, and alpacas).
Some of these have been bred in captivity for hundreds of years.
Many other exotic pet species have been bred in captivity for many years, and could probably be considered to be at least partially domesticated. However, being bred in captivity for even several generations does not make an animal domesticated, and the animal's wild instincts tend to be retained -- and depending on the animal, these wild instincts can be potentially destructive or dangerous.
Potential Problems With Keeping Wild Animals as Pets
- Stress for the Animal: The stress of capture and transport and improper care in captivity can cause illness or death. Even for captive bred animals, being kept in confined spaces and the inability to exhibit natural behavior can be very stressful.
- Illegal Smuggling of Animals: There is a healthy black market for wild animals and related products which appears to be a growing problem. The black market in wildlife fueled by mush more than the pet industry, but the demand for increasingly rare exotic pets does contribute to the problem. Authorities estimate that the black market in wildlife is valued in the billions of dollars, second only to illegal drug trafficking. Especially in the case where animals are caught and transported illegally it is estimated that many animals die for each one that eventually becomes someone's pet. See Wildlife Smuggling Boom Plaguing L.A., Authorities Say (National Geographic News, July 26, 2007) for more on this topic.
- Declining Populations: Capture of animals for the pet trade can contribute to declining wild populations of some species.
- Exotic Diseases: Wild animals can carry diseases transmissable to humans (e.g. the mild Monkeypox outbreak in the U.S. in 2003, which was thought ot have originated via an imported Gambian rat from Africa).
- Invasive Species: The importation and movement of non-native species for the pet trade has led to several cases of pet species becoming invasive species and disrupting local ecossytems when the pets escape or are released. Examples include red eared sliders in many locations, and iguanas and burmese pythons in Florida.
Wild Animals Often Become Problem Pets
Wild animals often become very difficult pets, especially once they reach maturity and / or full size. They can be aggressive and some larger pets are dangerous simply due to the combination of sheer strength and natural instincts. Furthermore, problem behaviors develop since animals in captivity can become frustrated at not being able to exhibit natural behavior, or from being confined to small spaces.
Animals taken from the wild tend to be very stressed to begin with, and they may not adapt well to captivity (and are susceptible to illness as a result). Wild animals raised from a young age may be tame until they reach maturity, then revert to more skittish and sometimes aggressive behavior.
Taking on a wild animal is not a commitment to be taken lightly. Providing proper care for a wild animal for its lifespan can be challenging, expensive, and time consuming. Finding a vet to care for your wild animal pet can be difficult. You must also consider what you will do if you are no longer able to care for your pet for any reason -- will you be able to find someone to take proper care of your pet (especially if there are behavioral issues involved)? Finding good homes for adult pet wild animals can be very difficult indeed.