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Executive Summary: The Implications of the Global Exotic Pet Trade

Team: Katelyn Ferguson, Kejsi Mellani, Moon Jung Kim, Tyler DeSue: Crime

Week of: 4/27/21

Illegal trade of Squirrel Gliders in the “bird markets” of South Jakarta[1]

The global exotic pet trade has led to the deaths of numerous animals worldwide and contains many illegal elements. Much of the wildlife captured and trafficked for this trade is illegally obtained, which disrupts ecosystems and environments, often causing them to become invasive species in their new environments. Additionally, many owners of exotic pets do not understand the dangers and trauma that their animals endure under their care. It is very rare for exotic pet owners to be able to completely mimic their animals’ natural environments and provide proper physical, social and mental stimulation, which has led them to become malnourished and anxious under exotic pet ownership. Currently, this trade is glorified and facilitated by popular social media apps such as Tiktok and Instagram, which provide sellers with a wide platform to distribute exotic pets to individuals who may be influenced by the content they see. In many instances, untrained owners are unaware of the care methods for exotic pets and end up releasing them into the wild or trying to give them to pet shops, zoos, or individuals who will willingly take them. Considering the ongoing nature of the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a very likely chance that this trade will continue and/or grow, as many people are spending more time on social media and are becoming exposed to this type of content adopting pets for companionship. Despite the high likelihood that such individuals will allow the exotic pet trade to persist, it is possible to decrease exotic pet sales by increasing education on sellers’ tactics in appealing to potential buyers' emotions and the long-term implications of the trade on these animals.

Big cats, wolves, marine life, various reptiles, and other small animals are placed on the exotic pet market for many different reasons, the main one being consumers’ desires to acquire what they consider as “novelty pets.”[2] In the United States (US), cub pettings became one of many ‘fad trends’ on social media sites such as Instagram and Tiktok. Many viewers become interested in acquiring these animals to partake in popular trends and to demonstrate their wealth and power to the general public. To capitalize off of this phenomenon, exotic pet zoos and licensed exhibitors throughout the US began to direct their funds into breeding lions, filming them interacting with humans and importing their cubs to consumers as quickly as possible. However, for the sake of profit, many zoos and exhibitors failed to keep these animals under humane conditions. Many of the animals that interacted with humans in these settings were heavily drugged and eventually developed trauma from continued interaction with humans in this state. Several zoos also failed to provide these animals with spacious living quarters and nutrient-rich food. In some cases, these animals were unjustly killed by breeders and zoo owners who deemed them to be “too expensive” to care for.[3] Additionally, many zoos neglected to inform interested buyers on proper care basics for lions, which meant that these animals were often subject to cruelty or improper care by their new owners.[4] Such exploitative practices are largely characteristic of the entire exotic pet market. It may only be through increased activism and awareness about the true implications of buying an exotic animal that the exotic pet market may experience proper legislative punishment or internal reform.

Social media is often used as a fundamental tool for exotic pet zoos and licensed exhibitors to create a huge demand for exotic pets among the public. Currently, the internet is a global billion-dollar black market for exotic pets. Exotic pet traffickers and poachers across the world have turned to easily accessible social media platforms to evade detection from law enforcement. They have also used sites such as Facebook, Whatsapp, and Instagram to market exotic animals illegally, connect with interested buyers, and negotiate contact points to further avoid law enforcement.[5] These platforms rely on algorithms to moderate harmful content and are not advanced or reinforced enough to be able to detect when criminals using their features add new friends or join groups. This allows for exotic pet traffickers and poachers to gain access to a wide pool of interested buyers without risking law enforcement intervention, which is a violation of existing security laws and regulations designed to prevent illegal trade online to protect exotic animals.

Yet promoting exotic pets is prevalent not only among regular social media users but also among influencers with a large viewer count. For example, Lele Pons and Jeffree Stars, two influencers with over 50 million followers on Instagram, posted videos and photos with a baby alligator, a baboon, and a capuchin monkey that were rented for their promotional photos.[6] The influencer trend to use exotic pets for profit has led millions of people to view them as accessories and not live animals. While influencers may rely upon such promotional photos for profit, doing so may cause physical harm to the exotic animals themselves. Much of the wildlife involved in the exotic pet trade suffer while being trafficked due to cramped and unsanitary conditions, high levels of stress, and a lack of enough food and water.[7] Subjecting these animals to long periods of interactions with humans may worsen their stress levels, which may induce them to become aggressive and in extreme cases, face death from their owners for their inability to display tame behavior.

Additionally, most exotic pet zoos and licensed exhibitors do not have the ability to mimic the environments that their exotic pets require. Exotic pets are extremely expensive and high-maintenance, and many owners are not aware of the large responsibilities that come with being an exotic pet owner. For example, feeding a 400-pound tiger costs approximately $200 a week.[8] These animals also require extensive physical care—such as daily engagement and habitat maintenance. Failing to provide these animals with the proper nutrition and care may contribute to their deteriorating health and increased aggression levels. The international exotic pet industry, as well as the wildlife entertainment industry, have largely continued to allow this trade to prosper by evading law enforcement, and there are not enough regulations or restrictions set in place in order to protect wildlife from abuse. Although bills such as the 2020 Tiger King Bill have been passed in the US to allow breeding and transporting of big cats only by educational facilities, there has been no proposed federal bill to ban zoos and licensed exhibitors from perpetuating the exotic animal trade—which has largely allowed for these zoos to continue pursuing animal cruelty for the sake of inexpensive care practices and larger profits.[9]

The US reportedly imported 3.24 billion live animals from 2000 to 2014, with approximately half from the wild and nearly all were intended for commercial purposes, most likely the exotic pet trade.[10] Although 3.24 billion is the recorded number, it is also crucial to consider the percentage of wildlife that was illegally imported and thus undocumented. The number of live wildlife imported to the USA could be much larger than 3.24 billion, meaning that the issue of global pet trafficking is even more concerning than it was originally perceived to be. Additionally, we must also consider the amount of wildlife that is being bred into captivity within the US to be sold as exotic pets as they are not included in the number of wildlife that is imported.

Social activism is therefore essential to rally public awareness on this issue and to facilitate wide-scale policy change on a global and domestic scale. The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) will continue to monitor news sources and social media posts to examine the growing number of sources dedicated to providing the public with accurate information on the exotic pet trade. The Crime Team specifically will produce more reports on this intelligence and provide several policy recommendations to legal organizations, and politicians dedicated to exposing the cruel practices involved in the global pet trade to lawmakers. The Crime Team will also analyze the privacy laws of social media platforms widely used among exotic pet traffickers and poachers in order to distinguish that algorithms do little to shield consumers from these criminals and that more advanced cybersecurity features are needed to deter them from relying upon the internet as a tool for their illegal trade.

_______________________________________________________________________ The Counterterrorism Group (CTG)

[3] Cub Petting - the sad reality behind this industry, The Wildcat Sanctuary, April 2021,

[4] One Year After ‘Tiger King,’ Bill Aims to Protect Big Cats, New York Times, April 2021,

[5] Holding social media companies accountable for facilitating illegal wildlife trade, Mongabay, October 2019,

[6] Petition: Ban Photos that Glamorize Exotic Animal Ownership on Instagram, One Green Planet, April 2021,

[7] Many exotic pets suffer or die in transit, and beyond—and the U.S. government is failing to act, National Geographic, March 2021,

[8] Does the US have a pet tiger problem?, BBC News, June 2018,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Many exotic pets suffer or die in transit, and beyond—and the U.S. government is failing to act, National Geographic, March 2021,



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