CHAPTER 1 HISTORY OF EXOTIC PETS
The word exotic is used as an adjective to describe many different things in society. Generally, this term indicates something unique, dangerous, or exciting. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition,1 the definition of exotic includes: “1. introduced from another country: not native to the place where found, 2. (Archaic) foreign, alien, and 3. strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual.” Any of these definitions are applicable to the species of interest in this book. However, there are other adjectives commonly used to describe exotic animals too, including nontraditional or nondomestic.
Selecting the best adjective to describe the species addressed in this text can be difficult. For example, to call all of these pets exotic may not be correct, as certain species, such as box turtles (Terrapene carolina) or red-eared sliders (Trachemys scripta elegans), are kept as pets in the United States but are native to large regions of the country. The use of the term nondomestic or nontraditional would not necessarily be correct for certain species either, such as ferrets, as these animals have been associated with humans for over 2,300 years.2 For purposes of simplicity, the editors have selected the adjective exotic to describe the species described in the text because they are certainly considered by most to fit the third dictionary definition for the term exotic: “strikingly, excitingly, or mysteriously different or unusual.” There are those nonexotic (or traditional, domestic) species that the public acknowledges as common or usual, including the dog, cat, cow, horse, sheep, goat, pig, or chicken, and then there are those that are anything but common or usual, such as the goliath bird-eating spider (Theraphosa blondi), freshwater angelfish (Pterophyllum scalare), blue poison dart frog (Dendrobates azureus), blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua scincoides), hawk-headed parrot (Deroptyus accipitrinus), or chinchilla (Chinchilla lanigera).
Exotic pets have long held the interest of humans. During the early and mid-20th century, it was not uncommon for newly imported reptiles, birds, or mammals to stir the imagination of the public. The following is a brief historical review of how some exotic animals gained in popularity.
Ornamental fish represent one of the oldest groups of exotic pets. Evidence suggests that the Sumerians were the first to keep fish in captivity (2500 bc), but it was for food.3 The Egyptians and Romans were likely the first groups to keep fish as something more than just a food source. However, it was the Chinese (Sung Dynasty: 960-1279) who were the first to actively keep and breed fish for their aesthetics. Goldfish were the first fish to be actively maintained for this reason. It was not until the 17th century that these ornamentals made their way to the Western world (Europe). A major problem encountered by those who did not have regular access to natural spring water was the inability to maintain the health of the fish. Losses were likely great in those days from elevated ammonia and nitrite levels in the water. Issues of water quality were first addressed by Robert Warrington in the 19th century. His theory for a successful aquarium was to use plants to produce oxygen for fish and snails to eat the detritus. It was not until the early and mid-20th century that the importance of aeration and filtration was acknowledged. Ornamental fish arrived in the United States in the late 19th century/early 20th century. The ornamental fish hobby grew with the advent of commercial travel. Fish could be moved globally by ship, railroad, or plane. The cost of the fish and equipment, although expensive, finally became affordable after the 1940s. Over the past 2 to 3 decades, significant advances have been made in filtration techniques, water quality standards, and fish nutrition. The ornamental fish industry remains an important contributor to the overall pet market; however, to date, veterinarians have not developed any significant inroads into this field.
Reptiles have only recently become popular as pets and something more than a “dime store” fancy. From the 1940s to the 1970s, the primary reptiles being sold in the United States were native species, such as the red-eared slider turtle and green anole (Anolis carolinensis). In the earlier decades of the 20th century, hatchling turtles were collected from wild nests and offered for sale. Starting in the 1950s and 1960s, turtle farming became popular in the southern states (e.g., Louisiana). Green anoles and other native reptiles were also routinely captured from the wild for the pet retail trade. After the U.S. Food and Drug Administration instituted the 1975 regulation restricting the interstate and intrastate sales of chelonians under 10.2 cm (4″), turtle farmers began exporting the turtles. During the latter half of the 20th century, reptiles were imported from Australia, Africa, South and Central America, and Asia; however, it was not until the 1980s and 1990s that a real explosion in the pet reptile trade occurred. Much of the initial trade revolved around green iguanas, although boids (e.g., boa constrictor, Boa constrictor) and pythons (e.g., ball python, Python regius) were also being imported in large numbers. In 1997 alone, more than 566,000 green iguanas, 94,000 ball pythons, and 29,000 boa constrictors were imported.4 During the 20th and into the 21st century, there has been a move toward captive propagation of reptiles. Many of the “designer” reptiles that are currently available, including corn snakes (Elaphe guttata), leopard geckos (Eublepharis macularius), bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps), and ball pythons, have been derived from the establishment of specialized genetic lines. With the current high dollar value of many of these animals (e.g., $5,000-$30,000 for ball pythons), individuals are often interested in obtaining veterinary care for their pets. The current status of the reptile trade in the United States is based on a combination of both wild-caught and captively propagated species. Wild-caught animals continue to be primarily distributed through retail pet stores, where the client’s knowledge regarding the care of these animals is limited, whereas captive animals, especially high dollar animals, are trading hands by more experienced herpetoculturists.
Psittacines may represent the class of exotics that have been kept the longest in captivity. Records in Egypt suggest birds were kept in captivity for purposes in addition to food since 4000 bc.5 With the advent of open water sailing during the 15th to 18th centuries, the movement of exotic birds became more commonplace. Many of the birds considered common, such as canaries (Serinus canaria), parakeets (Melopsittacus undulatus), and zebra finches (Poephila guttata), have been bred in captivity since the 18th and 19th centuries. In the United States, aviculture became very popular with the turn of the century. With the advent of flight, it became even easier to transport birds across the country. Through most of the 20th century, a large proportion of birds being sold in the United States were wild-caught animals. These could be distinguished from captive-born birds by their open leg band. Fortunately, over the past 2 decades, the number of birds being imported has declined, and the majority of the psittacines offered for sale are captive-born (closed leg band).
Ferrets are one of the exotic species of animals that have a long and documented history with human civilization. Originally brought into captivity around 350 bc, these animals have held many roles in captivity, including hunting partner, vermin control, and companion animal. Ferrets are thought to have been introduced into the United States during the 1700s. These animals would have been brought over during the great migration to the New World. Their value for hunting and mousing certainly would have gained them favor among their caretakers. Today, these animals have a lifestyle that is very different from their past. Ferrets, no longer considered “working animals,” spend the majority of their day slumbering and serve as companion animals. In certain parts of the world, such as the United Kingdom, ferrets remain active working animals, assisting hunters with the capture of rabbits.
Domestic rabbits, like ferrets, have been associated with human civilization for over 1000 years. Oryctolagus cuniculus, the domestic rabbit, was originally found on the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the Pleistocene era.6 Historical records suggest that it was the Phoenicians who first exported rabbits to Spain in 1100 bc.7 However, it was a group of French monks that were credited with domesticating and selectively breeding the rabbits that are consistent with the animals known today. Rabbits were prized by the Romans and English. There is little documentation regarding the landing of domestic rabbits in the United States before the 20th century. It is likely that animals were imported from Europe before this time, but not in any great numbers. The Belgian hare was the first rabbit to catch the American public’s attention. This large breed was prized not only because of its aesthetics but also because it could provide meat and fur. The first organized rabbit association, the National Pet Stock Association, was formed in 1910. The organization, which has since changed its name to the American Rabbit Breeders Association, has over 37,000 members. Rabbits remain popular today in the United States for production of meat and fur, as research animals, and as companion pets.
Chinchillas remain exotic animals of interest in the United States. These animals, like ferrets, have served many different roles since being acknowledged by humans, including providing fur and meat, acting as research models for auditory research, and serving as companion pets. Chinchillas originallly served as a prey species, providing meat and fur to indigenous peoples of the Andes mountains. An international trade for chinchilla fur was founded in the 1500s, but by the late 1800s native populations had been decimated.8 Chinchillas were originally introduced into the United States in 1923 by Mathias F. Chapman. This founder stock comprised 11 animals, 3 of which were females. Although chinchillas are still being raised for fur production, they are now very popular as pets.