Understand risk, rules, before giving exotic pets as gifts


By Jennifer Churchill

Special to The SUN

With the holiday season approaching, some people might be considering giving pets as presents to family or friends. But Colorado Parks and Wildlife officials are urging residents not to give illegal exotic pets as presents.

Exotic pets include animals such as snakes, frogs, non-native mammals, fish, reptiles and birds. Some of these animals are difficult to keep, can be dangerous to human health, and pose threats to Colorado’s native wildlife and habitats.

“Exotic pets are growing in popularity throughout the United States,” said Mark Caddy, commercial parks and game damage coordinator with Colorado Parks and Wildlife. “But people need to make sure that the pets they’re thinking of buying are legal to own in Colorado, that they understand the behavior of these animals, and that they are capable of keeping these animals in their homes.”

Specific regulations in Colorado govern the types of animals that can be owned by the general public. Some pet stores have been found to be selling pets illegally.

“If you go to a pet store, make sure that the animal you’re considering buying is legal to own in Colorado,” Caddy said.

Both Colorado state law and Colorado Parks and Wildlife regulations restrict or prohibit the importation, ownership and release of exotic animals. Colorado wildlife law, in general, prohibits the importation, live possession, sale, barter, trade or purchase of any species of wildlife native to Colorado. In addition, these same laws restrict or prohibit the importation and possession of exotic (non-native) wildlife; and possession of regulated mammals by non-commercial entities has been prohibited by these regulations since 1983. Fish are included in these regulations.

Owning exotic pets causes many concerns. A major issue is the potential of transmitting diseases to humans. People with young children should be especially wary of owning exotic species. A 2008 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found numerous cases of diseases transmitted to children by exotic pets. Some of these diseases include: salmonella, rabies, tuberculosis, giardia, hookworm, cat-scratch fever and many others. These diseases are serious and can be fatal.

“Owning an exotic is nothing like owning a cat or a dog. Most don’t like to be handled and will bite or scratch. And your local medical professional might not know how to treat an injury caused by one of these animals,” Caddy said.

Behavior of these animals can also be unpredictable. Every year news stories provide details of people who have been attacked by their “pets” or bitten by snakes that they keep. Bites from these animals can cause serious injury, illness and death.

Some pet owners who find the animals difficult to handle will release them into the wild. But, releasing a non-native animal is illegal and dangerous. Exotic animals can out-compete native species and take over habitat areas; some can breed with native species causing hybridization; and some non-native species are predators that will attack native wildlife and spread uncontrollably.

The most vivid example today is the rapidly growing population of giant Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades. People obtained this species of snake to keep as pets. But some of the snakes escaped from homes or were released by owners who decided not to keep them.

Pythons have damaged populations of birds, reptiles, amphibians and numerous small mammals and are becoming dominant in the local ecosystem.

Elsewhere, non-native rabbits have severely damaged vegetation in Australia. In the United States, European grackles and starlings — bird species — cause millions of dollars of damage in cities every year. In Colorado, bull frogs, a non-native species, have displaced native northern leopard frogs which are now considered a species of concern.

In the last few months, some Colorado residents on the Front Range have purchased the degus, a hamster-sized animal, from some pet stores. These animals are from the Andes Mountains in South America and are illegal to own. The small mammals are adapted to high-altitude climates and if they escape or are released could thrive in Colorado and displace native species.

A list of all rules and regulations, and animals considered to be domestic and/or regulated can be found by going to the Colorado Parks and wildlife website: http://wildlife.state.co.us/RulesRegs/Regulations/Pages/Regulations.aspx.

If you have questions about exotic species, call your local Parks and Wildlife office. CPW’s district wildlife managers, also known as game wardens, keep their eyes on all wildlife-related concerns in Colorado.

“CPW’s district wildlife managers aren’t just out chasing poachers,” Caddy said. “Wildlife officers are very involved in the protection of all native wildlife species by working to prevent exotic wildlife from competing for habitat, spreading disease or hybridizing with native species. We are very concerned because we are seeing an increased interest by the general public in the keeping of exotic pets.”

For a list of all Colorado Parks and Wildlife offices, go to: cpw.state.co and click on the “Contact Us” button at the bottom of the home page.