Humans have long sought to claim ownership over the wild. Conquerors such as Kublai Khan and Alexander the Great collected animals along with lands. In Citizen Kane, the pinnacle of the titular character’s wealth is symbolized by Xanadu, like Khan’s an opulent estate complete with lavish menagerie. The histories of the powerful, fictional and nonfictional, have been permeated with exotic animals.
In the age of the smartphone, the influencer and influenced, and the conveyor belt of endorphin-boosting virtual validation, wild animals have retained their status symbol—often to their detriment. In 2016, an endangered Franciscana baby dolphin died while a mob of tourists passed it around for selfies on a beach in Argentina. Five months earlier, similar-minded tourists swarmed a beach in Costa Rica, interrupting vital nesting processes of olive ridley sea turtles for photo ops with the vulnerable animals.
If taking a photo with a wild animal is a short-lived thrill of self-importance, actually owning one as a pet is a level deeper in this strange need to master nature. What happens to a wild animal when it becomes a commodity?
It’s been 13 years since tigers could be kept as pets in British Columbia. Sara Dubois remembers those days well. She had started volunteering with the BC SPCA’s Wild Animal Rehabilitation Centre. “People had tigers as pets, lions, panthers, jaguars,” she recalls, now working as the BC SPCA’s chief scientific officer. “Sometimes they were taking them to birthday parties for kids. They were having them as attractions at malls.”
In 2007, a woman was killed by her fiancé’s pet Siberian tiger in 100 Mile House, prompting the provincial government to ban ownership of big cats along with more than 1,000 other exotic animals deemed a “risk to people, property, wildlife or wildlife habitat.” The list of banned animals is part of the province’s Controlled Alien Species Regulation. Accredited zoos, research institutions, or certain film productions can apply for a special permit to have one of these animals in the province.
At the time, the law was a breakthrough, but it’s already outdated: the list is not exhaustive, and exotic pet owners have simply shifted to different species that were left out. “Now that the big cats have been prohibited as pets, we’ve moved to medium- and small-size cats,” she says. “And there are breeders here in B.C. that are allowed to breed and sell and export these animals over the world.”
Enter the province’s new-found favourite exotic cat: the serval. A sleek feline with a tawny coat dappled in ink-black spots and stripes, large bat-like ears, and a small face not unlike a house cat’s, the serval is a medium-sized wild cat native to parts of Africa. According to a recent report by World Animal Protection, a nonprofit animal welfare organization, B.C. has 70 per cent of all serval pets in Canada. A quick Google search yields several breeders across the province advertising savannah kittens for sale. Where there are savannahs, there will also be servals—savannahs are bred by crossing a serval and a domesticated cat. Just this year, savannahs made local headlines when one was spotted roaming the streets of Shaughnessy.
Dubois and the BC SPCA have been vocal about how servals are not meant to be pets, particularly after 13 servals were seized from “horrific” conditions from a Little Fort breeder in 2019, where the cats were found living among their own feces in an RV. While servals are not particularly dangerous to humans, when kept as pets, they are vulnerable to a host of medical and behavioural problems, from metabolic bone disease—a developmental disorder that causes bones to break easily—to emotional distress from lack of stimulation, which can manifest in destructive behaviour.
“Feeding wild cats is a science in and of itself. The average pet owner is not going to be capable of feeding a serval,” Dubois says. “And there’s very few veterinarians that have worked with these animals that can provide veterinary care as well.”
These are wild animals, and no amount of socialization with humans will diminish their instincts.
Adrian Walton heads one of the few veterinary clinics in B.C. that can handle serval care. His Maple Ridge practice has seen its fair share of wild cats. About 10 years ago, he treated a serval brought to him by a pair of local DJs who thought it would be cool to own the exotic cat. The animal was in poor shape, had a foreign body obstruction, and eventually died. The DJs never responded to Walton’s calls or paid their bill.
The other servals he sees are well cared for, he says, though he’s lost clients when he refuses to declaw their pets. While he is an exotic-pet owner himself, Walton argues that 99.9 per cent of people aren’t capable of providing for servals. “These animals are designed to have very large ranges in their native countries, so it’s really hard for people to provide enough space for them to truly express their normal behaviours. They are capable of leaping over any fence that mankind has produced,” he says. “You’re talking about an animal the size of a small Lab that has the lightning reflexes of the most feral cat out there.”
The problem is that these are wild animals, and no amount of socialization with humans will diminish their instincts. “It doesn’t matter if these animals are wild caught or captive bred. They remain wild because they haven’t genetically evolved to become a domesticated species like cats and dogs have evolved,” explains Michèle Hamers, a wildlife campaign manager with World Animal Protection.
“Our stance is that no wild animals should be kept as pets, because there’s almost always a degree of suffering involved,” she says. “These animals weren’t created to live in captivity, not like our dogs and cats that co-evolved with us.”
For Dubois, Hamers, and Walton, the answer is in education and legislation. The Jane Goodall Act, a proposed bill that would implement the strongest-ever animal protection law across Canada, is currently being considered by the Senate. If passed, the legislation would phase out roadside zoos, ban the domestic trade of elephant ivory and rhino horn, and dramatically reduce the exotic pet trade in Canada.
Most Canadians who buy exotic pets do so on impulse, usually without researching in advance, and often prompted by videos of animals interacting with humans online, according to Hamers. With the BC SPCA, Dubois often sees exotic pets abandoned by owners who finally realize they are in over their heads. Often, these pets must be euthanized due to medical or emotional issues; the rehoming process is a lot more complex with wild animals, who are susceptible to more duress when they are handled in captivity.
It isn’t difficult to empathize with exotic-pet owners: these animals are beautiful, and to interact with them so intimately is surely an experience akin to spiritual. But when reverence and love are translated into ownership, it echoes with a sort of colonial need for mastery, for harnessing the unbound.
Even the word we use to describe these types of pets—exotic—rings of otherness. In her 1987 book The Animal Estate, historian Harriet Ritvo writes that the menageries of 19th-century England served as “impressive symbols of British domination both of vast tributary territories and of the natural world.”
What does it say about our psyche when we pay thousands of dollars for an exotic pet, while unhomed dogs and cats die in shelters? “Often it is just the novelty, it’s exotic, it’s different, it’s a challenge,” Dubois says about why people purchase wild animals. “It’s detrimental.”
Image of Felis serval – 1818-1842 – Print – Iconographia Zoologica – Special Collections University of Amsterdam by Geoffroy-Saint-Hilaire & Cuvier, Histoire naturelle des mammifères, pl. 6.
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