Britain acquires taste for exotic pets

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The Independent Online
THE GOOD news is that the Beast of Basingstoke is back in captivity. There is now no need for the residents of the Hampshire town to keep their lavatory lids firmly shut.

The Sealed Lavatory Alert went out when Andy Paice's seven-foot boa constrictor, Cashmere, went missing and was believed to be slithering through the sewers. The alert brought into focus the growing obsession of Britain's animal- lovers to go for exotic - and sometimes dangerous - pets. Snakes, poisonous spiders, crocodiles, wolves, llamas, lizards, tree-frogs, pot-bellied pigs, fire-bellied toads, stick insects and giant African snails are just a few of the pets on which the nation spends pounds 3bn a year.

So much so that insuring exotic animals is a growth industry, especially as many have to be licensed under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Exotic Direct, an insurance company, reports a 30-per-cent year-on-year increase in business and the RSPCA, police and fire brigades are kept busy hunting escaped exotics.

In February the RSPCA had to round up 20 Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs roaming a wood at Tiptree, near Colchester, Essex. They believe the pigs were abandoned when they grew too big to handle, something which happens a lot with unusual pets. Cute terrapins the size of a 50p coin become dangerous finger- snappers when they grow to be dinner-plate size.

On 1 April people suspected an April Fool's joke when a crocodile was reported attacking fish and scaring anglers in a country-park boating lake at West Bromwich. But the RSPCA took it seriously, as a caiman, a member of the alligator family, dumped by an unlicensed collector unable to cope with its special needs.

There has been a sharp increase in cases of cruelty involving exotic animals. Chris Laurence, the RSPCA's chief veterinary officer, regrets the commercialisation of exotic pets and explosion in their popularity. ``The problem is providing the proper environmental conditions for them. The difference between a lizard in a cage and a dog is that a dog is its own master. A lizard is stuck in whatever conditions it is kept in. It is entirely dependent on the human getting it right.''

Peter Curry, a biologist with Euro Rep, a company selling reptiles, said the profits of suppliers were doubling every two years. Pets once regarded as unusual are so commonplace they barely merit the description "exotic".

``These animals are no longer rare specimens owned by specialist collectors. Now they are just Joe Public's pets.''

Why do people like Mr Paice do it? Mr Paice, a 34-year-old computer student with sons aged two and three, keeps his boa constrictor in a tank embedded in his living-room wall. He said: ``My obsession started when I was a boy, but then it was slow-worms and grass snakes. It's nice to have something that other people haven't got. I've got an iguana which goes on walks with me on a lead and all the local kids love it. There is a flip-side, though: some of my family won't come round to my house.''

Perhaps it is his tarantulas that put them off: there is a Chilean rose, a Puerto Rican bird-eater called Rita (``after my mum") and a baboon red, whose venom can dissolve muscle and bone. They went missing at the same time as the snake, when Mr Paice's home was broken into. The snake has been found - but the bad news for Basingstoke is that the spiders are still missing.