The Kangaroo industry
Keeping Australian Native Animals as Pets
Living with the Australian environment
In Australia, some people believe that native animals belong in a cage where environmental wardens can be paid to protect them from Australians of ill repute. It is due to this mentality that Australians are not legally allowed to own native animals as pets. Unfortunately, native animals are not having the greatest of success under the wardens’ care. In places like Kakadu National Park, the wardens have overseen a 71 percent decline in the total number of native animals over the last two decades. Today, almost half the area of the national park no longer has any native mammals at all.
While the natives are on the way out, they are being replaced in the ecosystem by dogs, rabbits, and cats that were once under the care of Australians. In their suburban homes, the feral animals have an oasis in which to survive droughts, fire and floods or other shocks that decimate their wild cousins. If the domesticated pets are then released, escape the human care or just venture out bush for some hanky panky, they either repopulate wild populations, or infuse wild populations with fresh genetics that strengthens the gene pool.
Although it is illegal to keep native animals as pet in Australia, foreign countries do not have such laws and animals smuggled out of Australia are helping build new populations. Not only are the citizens of foreign countries gaining a great deal of enjoyment out of native Australian animals, they are helping ensure that the species wont go extinct even if they die out in Australia.
One of the most popular pets is the sugar glider. Because they are social animals, they bond very well with humans. They are also intelligent, playful, inquisitive, cute and relatively clean. They eat nectar, fruit, insects and even small rodents, so are quite easy to feed.
The Sugar Glider is a popular pet in many countries
The rock wallaby is another popular pet. In Australia, it is endangered and it will probably go extinct in the bush in the near future. Fortunately, they are sold as pets in Japan so their survival is assured. Breeding pairs have also ended up New Zealand, Hawaii, the Isle of Man, Ireland, Scotland, and England where they have escaped to form wild populations. Because they reach heights of around 55 cm, they are not the ideal marsupial pet. Their size gives them quite a good ability to escape enclosures. This is one of the reasons why they have gone wild in other countries.
A wild Rock Wallaby in Hawaii
Blue-tongues are extremely popular pets in America. The live up to 20 years in captivity and require very little maintenance. They just need an old fish tank, light and food twice a week. They eat anything, such as cooked meat, snails, insects or dog food. There can also be a lucrative business in breeding them. A single lizard can sell for around $500.
In other countries, Blue-Tongues are often considered the Rolls Royce of pet lizards
In the 19th century, wombats were kept as pets by many well-to-do Europeans. Even Napoleon had a pet wombat. The fact that the fashion of owning pet wombats died out probably reflected some of the difficulties in keeping wombats as pets. The main problem is that they are extremely powerful diggers that like to hide. If kept as pets in suburbia, they could make a mess of carpets, flower beds, fences and anything else that stands in the way of their desire to dig, explore or hide.
Possums are easy to make into a semi-pet. They live in most suburban gardens and can be tammed with food.
Tasmanian devils used to be kept as pets. In the 1950s, Tasmanians used to put them on a leash and take them for walks. They found that devils responded well to kindness but very poorly to harsh corrective measures. Although that makes them more risky to keep as pets, it also makes them more ideal for helping an owner's emotional development. In short, no animal should be subjected to harsh corrected measures; however, dogs put up with it more than would devils and that is not necessarily a good thing. A pet that doesn't take shit from its owner has great potential to educate its owner about how it should behave.
Ideally, Tasmanian Devils could be bred for domestic ownership on the mainland. If they did go wild, then they would serve a valuable role in the preservation of its own species, but also help us build wild populations of lizards, bogals, and antechinus in Australian backyards. To explain in more detail, presently, the cat is the chief threat to native fauna in suburbia, but if we had a devil on the prowl, cats would be at serious risk of being eaten if they ventured into the yard. Admittedly, dogs can also serve this role, but devils are more likely to be on guard at night when the marsupials are out and cats are on the hunt. (Devils are not good hunters of native fauna and therefore not a threat themselves.)
Perhaps the quoll would also an ideal pet for the family home. It can grow to up to 75 cm in length and weigh up to 7kg. It will even use a kitty litter tray if trained. Professor Mike Archer, former Director of the Australian Museum, once kept a quoll as a pet and was full of praise. According to Archer,
The view was echoed by Dr Paul Hopwood, a vet from the University of Sydney:
The bilby is potentially a great replacement for the pet rabbit. Like the rabbit, it burrows and eats vegetation. In addition, it also eats spiders, seeds, fruit, fungi, lizards and small mammals. As a pet, it could be fed cat food or bird seed, or both. It could also run around the garden catching funnelweb spiders, snails and mice. This would be especially ideal for the hobby farmer that wants a native animal to control some of the insect pests.
Rabbits are cute, but perhaps the Bilby is cuter
The antechinus is a marsupial predator about the size of a small rat. It would make a good pet or a handy pest controller around the house. They do not chew on cables, do not have the pungent odour associated with mice, and rarely eat stored food. They primarily prey on invertebrates such as spiders, beetles, weevils, lizards and perhaps mice. People concerned about funnel web spiders would receive some comfort in the knowledge that their local antechinus would pick them off as they wonder about. It would definately be more ideal to find an antechinus in the ugg boot than a funnel web.
Potentially, breeding antechinus for pet sale could be a problem due to their unusual reproduction habits. The males basically work themselves into a sexual frenzy and then die of exhaustion. The women will give birth to around 8 babies, which will hang off her teats as she walks around with them in her pouch. She dies not long after they leave the pouch.
The Antechinus is a marsupial predator about the size of a small rat, but it is much cleaner
The bush rat (bogal) is not a marsupial. Although it is related to the black rat that came on European ships, it is a different species with different habits. It is not known when the bush rat arrived in Australia, but some estimates put their co-evolution in the Australian ecosystem at 2 million years. They have large round ears, long whiskers and seem to hop and jump over the landscape. Bush rats are not usually found in suburbia or in houses. Because they tend to stay outside, they fall prey to cats. A few dogs in the backyard can help them establish a presence. Devils would be better because they are more nocturnal and would walk around the garden when the bogals are out and cats on the hunt.
Opposition to native pets
Despite the advantages of keeping native animals as pets, there remains staunch opposition to change from vested interests who are governed by a prison warden psychology. For example, in government submissions, organisations such as The Wildlife Foundation have argued that if we were allowed to have native pets, we would inflict
'untold suffering of animals’ and experience 'untold heartbreak' despite being ‘well-intentioned, caring people'(2).
It then suggested that if we wanted to care for native animals, we should join The Wildlife Foundation. A cynic would argue that there was an obvious conflict of interest in the Wildlife Foundation's submission. It was trying to protect its revenue streams rather than protect the survival of Australian native species.
In its government submissions, Animal Liberation (Victoria) claimed we only want to keep native animals as a status symbol and we wouldn’t treat them well. In words of the organisation:
It seems Animal Liberation's dislike of people made it difficult for them to conceive of any possibility of good in any of us, which in turn clouded their judgement. It would be quite right to say that if native animals were allowed as pets, some would be neglected and abused. Just like cats and dogs, some would be dumped, starved, beaten and treated in a cruel manner. Nevertheless, saying none of us should keep them as pets because some would be abused would be like saying we should all be sterilised because some parents neglect, abuse, rape or kill their children. Likewise, just because a handicapped child needs special care is no reason to remove the child and make him or her a ward of the state. Good policy rewards good behaviour and tries to correct the bad. It doesn't forbid everything just because there is a risk of something bad happening. Admittedly, Australian governments have a habit of seeing the worst when making policy. It was for this reason that it listened to activists who saw a few Aboriginal children appearing to be neglected and then started arguing that all Aboriginal children should be made wards of the state; however, history showed that such policies to "help" often do more harm.
Aside form being illogical, Animal Liberation's point of view seemed to be saying that it was ok for us to abuse cats and dogs because they weren't natives. For those of us who love cats and dogs, it was quite a negative view point. If Animal Liberation truly cared about animals, perhaps they should have spent more time on helping people care for all animals rather than trying to confine animal cruelty to dogs and cats. Definitely, Animal Liberation's passion had not been used in an efficient or educated way.
A media piece run by the ABC also made some strong arguments against native animals being kept as pets. The piece quoted Dr Karen Viggers and Dr David Lindenmayer, who were deemed to be experts because, like your average bushwalker, they had "experience in wildlife biology and conservation. (3)" According to the two experts, if a native pet industry developed, funds would be diverted from far more important conservation projects, such as restoring native habitats and setting aside reserves. In other words, if native animals were not endangered, we might be less supportive of their grant applications.
In addition to concerns about money being directed away from researchers, Viggers played the fear card by arguing that we might contract diseases from native animals, and therefore we needed to be protected. According to Viggers,
Although Viggers was right to say that viruses can jump species, any kind of contact can cause the jump. For example, SARS is believed to have originated from Chinese hunting wild animals. AIDS might have jumped from chimpanzees to humans the same way. Bird flu may have come from chicken farming. Pig flu may have come from pig farming. If Viggers was truly concerned about human welfare, she would have been lobbying to stop all people having contact with animals. That would include researchers like herself that monitor, tag, breed and release native wildlife. It would also include land care managers that trap and kill animals and zoos that let tourists hold koalas. The fact that she wasn't lobbying against her fellow researchers suggested she wanted an emotive fear campaign to argue against keeping native animals as pets and didn't really care about protecting humans from disease. In other words, perhaps she was being dishonest.
A final argument used by Viggers was that keeping native animals as pets wouldn't help conservation. According to Viggers:
Although dogs are related to wolves and domestic cats are related to lions, they are not the same species. Viggers might as well have said the domestication of dogs and cats didn’t help the conservation of elephants and dodos. Keeping dogs and cats as pets has helped the conservation of dogs and cats. Furthermore, in Australia, the dogs and cats that have gone wild have further strengthened their species that exist in the Australian bush. Keeping dogs and cats as pets has most certainly helped dogs and cats maintain a strong presence in the Australian ecosystem.
One of the oddest arguments against keeping native animals as pets is that it will cause us to mix up the animals' genetics. According to Peter McRae, a man who raised nearly $750,000 to build a 25 square kilometre enclosure for endangered wildlife, genetic diversity has now become harmful for a species. In his own words:
If McRae was scientifically educated, perhaps his fear of genetic mixing was an example of scientific emotion instead of scientific logic. Scientists like to categorise things. They love going out to the bush and finding something like a snail with a different coloured shell. Ideally, the snail will be sufficiently different to allow it to be categorised as a new species and the scientists can then be credited with its discovery! (perhaps they can even have the new species named after themselves.) If not, the diversity might be explained as some kind of localised environmental adaptation, which is interesting as well, and something that might be cited in a research paper. For scientists (and most of us), a world without categories is quite boring. The concern for scientists is that a snail with a dark shell that is on the verge of becoming a new species might mate with a snail with a light shell, and blur the categories once more. Even though the mixing of genetics is probably great for the species, it makes the environmental world more boring for the humans that want to study it, and certainly less newsworthy. Perhaps when McRae said, " some sorts of problems", he was referring to the emotional distress he might personally feel if the categories separating bilby populations became blurred. If McRae wasn't motivated by scientific emotion or money, it was possible that he was just silly. Genetic diversity reduces the susceptibility to disease and increases the likelihood that a population can adapt to change. If we mixed up bilby populations, then we would help them.
The likes of Peter McRae and his big cages are not the solutions to the dangers threatening native animals. While his 25 square kilometre enclosure protects bilbies within it, it doesn't protect the bilbies in 7,600,000 square kilometres outside of it. Furthermore, if he maintained his philosophy of not mixing genetics, his bilbies would eventually become inbred and die of a disease. It might not occur in his lifetime, but it would happen eventually.
The dingo offers a useful precedent in regards to the value of a relationship with humans. It arrived in Australia between 3-5,000 years ago. Although it was less well adapted to Australian conditions than was the thylacine (marsupial wolf), the dingo formed a symbiotic relationship with humans that eventually caused the thylacine to go extinct from mainland Australia. Today, the dingo is breeding with domestic dogs and becoming more adaptable as a result. If a dingo bred with a whippet, the offspring would better able to catch rabbits. If a dingo bred with a great dane, the offspring would be more able to form large packs capable of pulling down feral cows. If a dingo bred with a bull terrier, the offspring would be more capable of pulling down feral pigs. Admittedly, if a dingo bred with a shih-tzu, the offspring would be useless and probably die. The great advantage of diversity is that natural selection results in the most suitable hybrid surviving. The greater the diversity, the greater the number of potential hybrids that can adapt to change.
Although the decline in the dingo’s purity is sad from an emotional perspective, it helps the dog survive in the Australian bush. Trying to preserve the dingo in its pure form is really no different than breeding defective species like the shih-tzu for their aesthetic value because it is done for our benefit, not the benefit of the species. Likewise, trying to preserve native marsupials in a pure form in a 25km2 cage is done for our emotional desires rather than to help the animals adapt to change.
The RSPCA's position on native animals is perhaps the most revealing about how opposition largely stems form a cynical view of humanity. It basically considers us to be incapable of meeting the special needs of native animals because some of us can't meet the needs of dogs and cats. In its own words:
The RSPCA’s attitude is somewhat understandable because it deals with extreme cases of neglect. Dealing with animal cruelty day after day makes it easy for them to just think no one should be allowed pets just as a social worker who works in a battered wives’ refuge would find it easy to think all men are bastards. While there are bad people out there, sometimes faith needs to be extended if people are to improve themselves. Low expectations tends to produce low outcomes. Furthermore, it is important not to act like an uptight school teacher that punishes everyone in order in order to release some frustration with not being able to punish the minority that treat animals badly.
Although some of us don't want to admit it, we humans are a major part of the Australian ecosystem. Over the next few thousands years, the dominant native animals will be those that are best able to form a symbiotic relationship with the evolution of our lifestyle, and those animals will not be those locked in a zoo. There are an estimated 7.4 million households in Australia. If every household kept one native animal as a pet, then there would be 7.4 million households forming affectionate ideas to native fauna and 7.4 million households forming a symbiotic relationship with native animals. 7.4 million Australians caring for native wildlife is a far superior situation than a couple of researchers with their cages intent on preserving genetic purity or getting funding to go around killing things.
Ideally, native animals will continue to run free but unless there is a big change with the laws governing how we are allowed to interact with the environment, in a few decades time, native animals will only exist in zoos, where eventually they will become inbred and die. The Australian ecosystems will then be populated by the cats, rabbits, rats and dogs which were once our pets.
Should Wild Animals Become Pets to Ward Off Extinction?
Bush fire prevention