This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
The Exotic Pets Hotel in the London borough of Islington doesn't look much like a hotel. Nor does it appear particularly exotic. From the outside, it's little more than a terraced two-up, two-down exercise in complete suburban anonymity.
Yet behind the pink brick walls, the home hosts four tarantulas, two milk snakes, a green tree python, a rock monitor lizard, a panther chameleon, a fat tail gecko, a boa constrictor, and a red-foot tortoise called Cordelia. Their owner, David, shares the house with his wife and their four-month-old baby, and has invited VICE photographer Chris Bethell and myself to meet his guests in person.
Arriving at the house, neither of us are sure what to expect, but certainly couldn't have predicted the genial calmness of it all, as we're welcomed into his family's home, the floor littered with laundry baskets and crayons, and offered a cup of tea.
David walks us up and down the glass tanks that flank the right-hand side of their living room. As we pace deliberately past the cases, we're drawn to the chameleon, which rests halfway up a thin branch, dome-like, embossed eye staring back through the glass at us. Its skin, like tire-rubber, is a speckled blend of deep red and shocking blue. "They look amazing, but they take so much work," David remarks from over our shoulders as we gaze at them. "That chameleon won't drink water from a bowl—you have to spray water on the leaves, so he can drink it from there. You need to feed them with locusts, but you need to feed the locusts with the right food. You also need to have an overlight so that the chameleon can digest the food he's eating. Every single animal comes with a whole ecosystem."
Depending on how you define "exotic," the true number of unusual or dangerous animals living in Britain at the moment is unclear—but every participant I spoke to for this article estimated the number in the hundreds of thousands. Behind these numbers are a hugely diverse range of species, all with specific needs, some challenging, some less so. From the perspective of NGOs and animal welfare organizations, gradual rises in the number of exotic pets over the past decade are a cause for concern. In 2015, the RSPCA was called to 247 incidents in 2015, involving a total of 1,198 exotic animals—animals that the organization themselves are often ill-equipped to cope with and care for. Over the past six years, phone calls to the RSPCA about exotic pets have risen by 45 percent. This Christmas, they renewed their campaign to dissuade the impulse purchase of exotic animals as gifts.
Yet law-making and public opinion remain murky on the issue of exotic pets. Gray areas cloud around the two big questions: Which animals should be kept as pets, and who should be allowed to keep them?
David's pet hotel came about by accident rather than design. Shortly after he first moved to London, he learned that one of his friends was planning on dumping two terrapins he no longer wanted in Crystal Palace park. "I said 'no way'—that would have been freezing for them; they need heat." David intervened and offered to take the terrapins himself. "Then we got a corn snake—a boy had bought it, but his mom wouldn't let him keep it. After that, it just took off and went like crazy."
David is originally from Colombia. He tells me he's always been around animals, having "grown up with spectacled bears" and "eaten breakfast surrounded by parrots." It's this familiar proximity to wild animals that informs his attitudes toward keeping them as pets. "In Colombia, you can't have an exotic animal as a pet—it's worse than being a drug dealer."
Despite housing so many of them, David says, ideally, he wouldn't own any exotic animals at all. Rather, he opened his "hotel" as a safety net to catch vulnerable animals abandoned by their owners—or simply as a place for owners to leave their pets temporarily while they go on vacation. As he sees it, boa constrictors and panther chameleons do not belong in the home. "I'm not really happy with people who keep exotics," he tells me.
David is not alone in his misgivings toward the keeping of exotic pets. During a phone conversation I have later with RSPCA in-house scientific officer Nicola White, she outlines exactly why the domestication of unconventional animals poses such a problem to rescue services.
"For us, there is the health and safety of our staff," she explains. "If a staff member goes out to pick up a snake, we've got to make sure they can recognize one of thousands of species. Then there's the issue of how we safely capture and transport it." Unlike an abandoned dog, an aviary of exotic birds dumped in a back alley or a neglected Burmese python have demands the RSPCA struggles to meet. "Then there's the legislation," Nicola goes on. "If we rescue an animal, do we have the facilities? Our centers, for example, don't always have a DWA (Dangerous Wild Animal) license, so we could get in a lot of trouble."
In the RSPCA's eyes, this isn't about making life more difficult for exotic pet owners; rather, the goal is educating the public as to the implications of buying animals they don't fully understand, or might not be entirely capable of caring for. Not every unwanted pet is likely to be as fortunate as the ones that end up in David's Exotic Pet Hotel. Nicola tells me that mostly animals are found rather than handed in, and often in appalling situations. As she sees it, this is all too often the result of impulse buying—a practice only made easier by the rise of online trade. "We don't want to be an organization that makes life difficult for pet owners, but at the end of the day, if the owner doesn't know what they are taking on, it's the animal that suffers," she says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the RSPCA's relationship with the exotic pet owning community has never been totally harmonious. Campaigns to limit ownership have also informed public opinion, fostering what many in the exotics community feel are broadly hostile attitudes toward largely capable and equipped owners. After spending time with David and speaking with the RSPCA, I begin reaching out to various exotic pet owners. I put an open call out, publicly via Twitter and also to closed Facebook groups full of thousands of members of the exotic pet community, so I'm surprised when I receive no responses whatsoever.
Eventually, the moderator of one of these groups, Sean Rhodes—who owns "a skunk, a few snakes, and a scorpion"—agrees to speak to me.
"There is a bit of an image problem around how exotics keepers are viewed," he explains. "Many decent keepers are quite insular, and as a result of this, it's typically the more gregarious or eccentric people who are highlighted, which reinforces perception that exotics keepers are a bit weird." As Sean sees it, the exotic pet community has been damaged deeply by misunderstandings about who they are and, as such, now keep media contact at a distance. "I've been bitten before, when promised an article was to be focused on animal welfare and the good side of keeping, and it was spun into a quirky lifestyle story complete with silly pun headline," he tells me. "I'm still a bit wary about this article, to be honest!"
This image problem, Sean believes, comes down to a fundamental question that is too often neglected: How do we define the word pet? What makes one animal suitable for domestication and another not? It might seem like there are logical answers to this question—cat: yes; scorpion: no—but given that owners and their circumstances can be as varied as the needs of the animals, this sort of categorization quickly becomes over-simple. "One of the issues I see is the very use of the term 'exotic pet,'" Sean continues. "This has connotations of someone cuddling up with a tiger in their lounge, when the truth is, a large proportion of keepers keep their animals in large naturalistic outdoor enclosures, often with higher standards than many zoos."
Sean concedes that the RSPCA has liberalized its attitudes toward exotic pet ownership. Unlike many animal welfare NGOs, such as Born Free or CAPS, the organization has moved away from attempting to restrict exotic pet ownership completely. However, he believes there is still some way to go in terms of fair characterization of exotics keepers. Throughout our conversation, he sends me multiple links to RSPCA statements, which he believes highlight apparent double standards in rhetoric used—how the case of an abandoned tortoise reflects on "a growing number of exotic animals being abandoned," whereas an abandoned cat "highlights the needs for more education to ensure potential cat owners understand the commitment."
"They definitely demonize exotic keepers and tend to lump the worst of the worst in with everything else," Sean concludes. When I later pose this suggestion of bias to Nicola White from the RSPCA, she responds firmly: "We don't demonize exotic keepers; what we are trying to encourage—exactly the same as with cats—is responsible ownership."
Chris Newman, who represents both the industry and private keepers in an official capacity for the Reptile and Exotic Pet Trade Association, and the Federation of British Herpetologists, makes it his business to illuminate what he sees as a truly misunderstood industry and community. Chris first became involved in the debate in an official capacity in the early 2000s. He was publishing a specialist-magazine called Reptilian around the time the RSPCA was calling for an end to all exotic pet ownership. Chris' vocal role in fighting this led to him sitting on government boards, advising the animal welfare bill of 2001. From what he tells me, the climate a decade ago was far more volatile. "I've had my home attacked over the years, people [animal rights activists] break in and try to release the animals," Chris remembers. "I'd say it's a decreasing trend—we haven't had an incident here for a number of years. In the mid 2000s, it was happening a lot."
Chris's disagreements with the RSPCA have historically been with the top end of the organization, rather than the people on the ground who he regards as "very good" at what they do. He is keen to stress that conflicts with the RSPCA are far less of an issue today. "We still have lots of arguments and debates, but I think they are moving in the right direction," he says.
However, Chris tells me that policies he perceives as misguided are still being proposed across Europe. "The big drive at the moment is the implementation of what's called a 'positive list' of species," he explains. "Belgium is trying to push through its list on reptiles and amphibians, including something like 27 species they think are acceptable. We actually keep more than 3,000 species currently. All of a sudden, on purely arbitrary grounds, you can no longer keep a species that may have been kept for the last 300 years completely successfully. I don't understand how that benefits welfare or conservation."
Chris is passionate and well-informed, but what's most interesting is how his defense of exotic pet ownership reflects an almost libertarian approach. "In England, we've always had quite a liberal view—no animals were illegal; instead, they were regulated, so a dangerous animal—such as a venomous snake or a crocodile—you had to be licensed by the local authority. I don't believe I have the right to tell people what they should and shouldn't be able to do. If you want to keep an animal, you should be able to keep that animal, provided you can meet its welfare needs and look after it."
Having spent some time in David's garden photographing some of his animals, he asks if we've got time for a quick walk to meet his friend Steve Ludwin. Steve's already a friend of VICE, having been the subject of a documentary on his practice of injecting snake venom, back in 2013. It's a warm day, so we agree and make our way to a impressive house among the lush, residential greenery of Canonbury. Steve warmly welcomes us in and we're excitedly ushered upstairs. Before long, David is sitting in the frame of an open kitchen window cradling a crocodile. It's small, yes, but a crocodile nonetheless.
There's a certain power to seeing animals like these in environments as unlikely as kitchens in Canonbury, especially in observing the gentle command seasoned owners like David possess in handling them. It brings to mind what might be the most important values at the center of this conversation: respect and responsibility. Naturally, animals like Steve's crocodile or Sean's skunk are owed a great deal of respect. They are not cats or dogs, and as such, those taking them into their homes need to be prepared to accept the responsibility of looking after them properly.
Respect is also due to the RSPCA, which—despite criticism from the exotic pet community and a lack of resources—continues its efforts to educate beginner owners and rescue abandoned animals. Finally, as Chris and Sean also point out, it's important that respect is also afforded to those who responsibly care for their animals. Even if you disagree with the practice altogether, to paint all exotics owners as reckless is a mistake, and it seems slowly they are being accepted by the wider animal-owning community.
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