Illegal Pet Trade

We love animals — keeping them in our homes, visiting them in zoos and watching feel-good movies about their adventures. An estimated $66.75 billion was spent on pets by Americans in 2016, and the number is estimated to rise by $3 billion or more this year.

The movie industry takes advantage of this love of ours, and screenwriters have instilled life lessons in their productions with the use of animals for years. Iconic films such as “Finding Nemo” and “Free Willy” have made us passionate about freeing captive creatures to the wild, but have also inadvertently hurt the animals they strive to protect.

The illegal pet trade is the culprit behind a vast majority of animal cruelty in the United States, and you might be contributing to it without even realizing it.

Misplaced Passion

Finding Nemo” addresses the damage inflicted on exotic fish that are removed from coral reefs and placed in captive aquariums around the world. Behavioral and environmental issues arise within fish populations when wild fish are captured and traded around the world for use in saltwater tanks.

However, while addressing the problem, the movie also caused clownfish trade industry profits to skyrocket. The fish that actually just wants to be returned to the reef is instead bought and sold in large quantities and adoringly named Nemo. The tank full of fish with behavioral issues and claustrophobic tendencies is now recreated across the world, damaging countless ecosystems through the illegal pet trade.

Similarly, the film “Free Willy” has stirred a great passion in our hearts for Orca whales. Once referred to as killer whales, the star of the film, an orca named Willy, redefined his misunderstood species. Orcas went from looking menacing to cuddly, as audiences around the world watched a little boy free a captive whale from a theme park.

Ironically enough, the film has only seemed to increase attendance at SeaWorld shows featuring similarly captive whales. Willy was wildly misrepresented as a creature who enjoyed waving his fins at his human friends and allowing them to ride on his back, when in reality he would swim up to 100 miles a day in a predatory, pack-oriented social group. Housing Orca whales in captivity has only recently been seen as animal cruelty, despite the movie’s efforts.

“Rio,” a popular children’s movie about an exotic bird, has increased interest in children to keep macaws as pets. “The Wild Thornberries” normalized the owning of a monkey, along with countless other movies and TV shows that feature wild animals suffering from the illegal pet trade industry. Unfortunately, movies starring exotic animals without offering the education their audience needs about the natural environment of those animals end up inflicting damage they don’t intend to.

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The More You Know

What comes next is our response. What should we do, knowing that our adoration of exotic animals is contributing to a cruel, illegal underground system?

The answer is education. Documentaries such as “Blackfish” address concerns about the capturing, purchasing and breeding of orca whales in captivity. Resources that expose the mass breeding and production of popular exotic pets such as parakeets, ferrets, guinea pigs, boas, pythons and various lizards can help us make informed decisions about the organizations we want to support and the pets we want to buy.

As always, do your own research. Before buying a pet, look into common sources for that species of animal and find out what its natural habitat is. Consider supporting local organizations instead of feeding money into potentially corrupted trading systems. Animals that don’t live on your continent are often transported across oceans in cruel and illegal ways.

Tell the kids that Nemo might be better off in the ocean — we might as well save him that long trip home.

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