In her April 2014 National Geographic article “Wild Obsession, Lauren Slater considers the subject of exotic pets in America. While the article does mention some of the moral issues regarding such pets, I think it is worthwhile to consider the ethics of owning such pets in more depth.
While there are various ways to define what it is for a pet to be exotic, I will focus on non-domesticated animals that are kept as pets. Naturally, some of these pets do not involve much moral controversy. For example, keeping a tank of small fish seems to be morally fine—provided the fish are properly cared for. I am, for this short essay, mainly concerned with animals such as lions, tigers, bears, wolves, kangaroos, chimpanzees and other such animals. That is, animals that are wild and can present a danger to human beings.
One of the most obvious moral arguments against allowing people to own such exotic pets is that they can present a serious danger to human beings—be it their owners or other people. For example, a bear can easily kill its owner. As another example, an escaped tiger would present a rather serious threat. There is also the harm caused to ecosystems by escaped pets, such as the constrictors infesting parts of my adopted state of Florida. This can be cast as utilitarian argument in terms of the harms outweighing the alleged benefits of having such exotic pets.
The obvious response to this argument is that non-exotic pets, such as dogs and horses, injure (and even kill) people. As such, it would seem that the harm argument would also hold against having any pet that could be legitimately seen as a potential danger to a human being. This response could be taken to entail at least two things. One is that all pet ownership of potentially dangerous animals should not be allowed. This, of course, would not appeal to most people. The other is that people should be allowed to have potentially dangerous pets, be the pet a dog or a bear. While this view has some appeal, the easy and obvious counter is that there are clear relevant differences between pets like dogs and pets like bears.
While a domesticated animal like a dog or horse can seriously injure or even kill a human, they are generally less dangerous and far less likely to attack a human than a wild species like a bear or tiger. After all, domestic animals have been (mostly) selected to not be aggressive towards humans and for other appropriate (from the human perspective) behavior. So, while my husky can bite, she is not as dangerous as a bear and is extremely unlikely to attack a human, even when provoked. This is not to say that it is impossible for a previously well-behaved dog to turn violent. This is just to say that a well-trained dog is extremely different from even a well-trained bear or tiger.
As a side point, there are many reports of people being harmed by dogs—but this is because there are so many dogs kept as pets. As such, even a low percentage of aggressive dogs will result in a relatively high number of incidents. There is also the legitimate concern about dogs that have been bred and trained to be very aggressive (even towards humans). Such dogs, most notoriously pit bulls, would present a threat to people and arguments can be made about restricting ownership of such dangerous dogs (and some places have such laws).
Another obvious moral argument is based on the harms done to the exotic animals. While domesticated animals can do well in a human environment (for example, my husky is quite happy with living in my house—provided that she gets her regular runs and outdoor adventures), wild animals often do not do very well. Most people who own exotic pets cannot provide the sort of environment that a wild species needs (even some zoos cannot) to be happy and healthy. There are also the concerns about medical care, proper exercise, diet and so on. As such, allowing people to own exotic pets would tend to have negative consequences for the animals. Once again, the moral case can be made on utilitarian grounds.
The obvious reply is that domestic animals also have needs that must be met. As such, it could be contended that if the keeping of domestic animals is acceptable provided that they are properly cared for, then the same must hold for the exotic animals. This reply does have considerable appeal. After all, if an animal is properly cared for and is both healthy and happy, then there would seem to be no moral grounds for forbidding a person from having such a pet.
As noted above, the practical problem is that caring properly for such exotic animals is more challenging and more expensive than providing proper care for a domestic animal. As I mentioned, my husky is fine living in my house and going on runs and expeditions with me. While medical care and food is not cheap, taking care of her is well within my financial ability. Exotic pets tend to present much more serious challenges in terms of cost. For example, a tiger is expensive to feed and one should not take a tiger out for an adventure in the local dog park. However, with proper resources these challenges could be addressed.
As a final moral argument, there is the concern that it is simply wrong to keep an exotic animal as a pet. To steal from Aristotle, it is not the function (or nature) of wild animals to exist as pets for humans. While people and animals might form bonds, the wild animals are such that being made into a pet is a distortion or even violation of what they are, which would be wrong. This, of course, would seem to suggest that we have distorted animals and perhaps wronged them by domesticating them—which might be true.
This line of reasoning can be countered in various ways, ranging from arguing against there being such natures to religious appeals to the claim that humans were given dominion over the animals and thus we can do what we wish with them.
My own view is somewhat mixed. Since I have a husky, it should be no surprise that I am morally fine with having a pet (provided the pet is well cared for). However, I tend to lean towards regarding keeping exotic animals as pets as morally problematic. That said, some people do truly love their exotic pets and take excellent care of them. In the case of endangered species, there is also the added moral argument involving the preservation of such species as pets—which does have some appeal when the alternative is extinction.
However, I would certainly not have a lion, tiger or bear as a pet. A dire husky…well, sure.