Snakes alive! Everyone wants an exotic pet now

Lizards, lemurs, pythons and porcupines are overtaking cats and dogs in popularity, reports Danielle Demetriou
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From city to countryside, cats and dogs have long basked in the nation's adulation. But they may soon find themselves ousted from the coveted spot by the hearth. They are steadily being usurped by less furry and more exotic rivals: reptiles.

From city to countryside, cats and dogs have long basked in the nation's adulation. But they may soon find themselves ousted from the coveted spot by the hearth. They are steadily being usurped by less furry and more exotic rivals: reptiles.

New research revealed yesterday that the popularity of lizards, snakes and iguanas was rising so fast that they would overtake the number of dogs in Britain within two years.

The number of reptiles has exploded to 5 million, compared with 1.5 million nine years ago, according to the Federation of British Herpetologists.

If the ranks of reptile owners continues to grow at the same rate, they will outnumber the British dog population by 2006 and threaten the supremacy of the 7.5 million cats.

"There is a change in trends in pets," said Chris Newman, the chairman of the federation and editor of Reptilian Magazine. "Dogs and cats are actually quite hard work. The attraction of reptiles is the fact that they are so easy to look after. They are perfect for people with busy lives as you don't need to take them for a walk or need a lot of space for them to live in."

The figures came to light on the eve of the Government's announcement of an overhaul of legislation governing the ownership of exotic pets.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, recognising the growing number of people wanting less-conventional animals as domestic companions, will unveil amendments today to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, which was compiled in 1976 at a time when big cat pets were the height of fashion. The list of animals which require licensing from local authorities is being amended for the first time in 20 years.

A string of animals, including sloths, porcupines and Bengal cats, will no longer require a licence in order to be kept as pets. Other species to be legalised include wolf spiders, ostriches, emus and wild boar.

Other animals, including scorpions, dingos and four deadly snakes, have been added to the list. Owners of these animals will have to get licences from their local authorities to ensure that the safety of the public is protected, according to the proposals.

Ministers are still seeking advice on whether anacondas, the semi-aquatic South American snakes, and reticulated pythons should be banned.

"Some petkeepers want an animal that is out of the ordinary," said Elliot Morley, the Environment minister. "But we have to make sure that there is no risk to the general public from poisonous spiders, snakes, scorpions and other exotic pets and that these creatures are properly cared for.

"The changes will mean that local authorities are better able to police the small minority of irresponsible pet-keepers, while all pet-keepers will benefit from lower licence costs and clearer rules."

The proposals also include guidelines for local authorities on the granting of licences and greater powers to enforce the Act.

One of the recurring complaints for many exotic pet owners was the disparity in licensing policies between local authorities.

As many as 95 per cent of all pets owned in Britain which feature on the Dangerous Animals Act list were illegally unlicensed, according to Jim Collins, a consultant zoologist of the Pet Care Trust.

"A huge number of local authorities do not issue licences at all, and the cost of those who do can vary between £25 and £1,000," said Dr Collins, who also acted as a consultant to Defra on the proposed rule changes.

"Councils are trying to put people off owning these animals but it is only going to make them go underground. The animals are becoming more popular as pets and there has to be a way to facilitate this."

While pet owners and animal welfare groups welcomed the legislation, concerns surrounded a number of animals being cast off the list.

Pam Mansfield, who looks after 300 creatures at the Exotic Pet Refuge in Peterborough, said: "If the proposals go through, I will be bracing myself for an influx of coatis and raccoons.

"These are creatures which should not be kept as pets. People think they look like lovely animals and want to put them in their homes but they are difficult. They're wild animals and should be licensed."

But for many of the nation's pets, however, there are only two animals that appear to be truly in danger now: the humble domestic cat and dog.

Tarantulas: Julie Chuter

At the end of the hall in the Somerset home of Julie Chuter and her partner, Martin Nicholas, lies an unexpected surprise. In a large, clear tank happily resides an eclectic collection of as many as 100 exotic spiders, mostly tarantulas.

Ms Chuter, 27, would be among the first to admit that their passion for arachnids does not fall within the categories of conventional pet-owning, but she was keen to emphasise that they found the spiders infinitely more fascinating than creepy.

"We just love spiders," said Ms Chuter, a cattle breeder who lives in Wells. "We have between 50 and 100 adults, mostly tarantulas, and lots of babies. They make great pets because they are not very high maintenance. The only thing we need to do is feed them crickets."

She added: "They are fascinating creatures and come in the prettiest shapes and sizes. Big, small, red, black. Some of them can give you a nasty bite that makes you a bit ill but others are just like bee-stings. But they are not dangerous creatures, which is why you don't need a licence."

Mr Nicholas, 35, who works in the water industry, has travelled extensively in his spare time, researching the species of tarantulas. "There is one species named after him in Borneo," Ms Chuter said. "We're both going to Vietnam to look at spiders this year. We try to combine our holidays with looking for different and interesting spiders."

She added: "But the rules should be more strict on who can own dangerous animals. That would stop a lot of people thinking, 'Oh, wouldn't it be lovely to have a cute little monkey.' Some animals are wild animals that are just not designed to be pets."

Lemurs & monkeys: Sarah James

It was while spending time at zoos as research for designing toys that Sarah James first became interested in somewhat unconventional animals.

"I always loved animals as a child and, although I had rabbits and guinea pigs, I did crave more exotic pets like chimpanzees," said Mrs James, who has four children aged between 13 and 21 and lives on a smallholding outside Bristol.

"It was later that I started to make the most of living on a large site of land and taking in animals which were in some sort of distress.

"The first animal that came to stay was an orphaned wallaby about 20 years ago. Now we have a range of 13 lemurs and several squirrel monkeys.

"They are very much part of the family and probably get fed better than my children."

Mrs James, whose name has been changed at her request to prevent reprisals from animal welfare groups, provides round-the-clock care to the animals, each of whom have personal names, in terms of the conditions of their enclosures and diets.

"I have never kept any animals that could kill you but some could do an awful lot of damage," she said. "I am very attached to them but they do require specialist care, particularly when there are children around.

"But I must stress that I do not see them as pets as such. As many of them have been in crisis before coming here, I feel it is important for them to be animals that are free to be themselves on the land."

Snakes & parrots: Mark Amey

For the past three decades, Mark Amey has harboured a fascination with all things reptilian. Mr Amey, 43, now shares his Rickmansworth home in Hertfordshire with a string of venomous snakes. He also has a pair of dogs, an umbrella cockatoo and an orange-winged Amazon parrot. He refers to the last two as his "children".

Following his interest, five years ago he left his job as a butcher at Asda to set up a pet shop. From Burmese pythons stretching 18 feet to boa constrictors, stock from the shop often stay in the "snake room" at his home.

"Reptiles are the perfect pets for many people, which is why they have become so popular," he said. "People today have less time and less space. Reptiles are very low-maintenance once you have the right environment. All you have to do with snakes is feed them defrosted rodents once a week, which you can buy pre-packed."

However, Mr Amey was keen to emphasise that he believed the current system of issuing licences was flawed as it was applied between local authorities. He also highlighted the responsibility of the pet shop in selling exotic pets.

"It is absolutely essential for a pet owner to check the competency of the buyer," he said. "I would never sell a reptile to someone who did not know a sufficient amount about the necessary equipment, lights, feeding, carrying. They are not dangerous pets if you are properly set up and treat them correctly."

Crocodiles & snakes: Claire Pitt and Andy Webb

Despite being called Cuddle, he is a pet that offers little in the way of affection to his doting owners. For Cuddle is a seven-foot Nile crocodile. He is one of 12 much-loved pet crocodiles who live in an outhouse, along with an assortment of venomous snakes, at the bottom of the garden of the Gloucester home of Claire Pitt, 26, and her 28-year-old partner, Andy Webb, an electrician.

From caiman, Chinese and saltwater crocodiles to cobras and anacondas, the pair are passionate about their pets.

"We have been keeping large, aggressive reptiles for years as we find them fascinating," said Ms Pitt, a support worker.

"Crocodiles are quite unusual animals to have as pets but there are an awful lot of misconceptions about them. They are actually very intelligent creatures. We go into the enclosure with them from time to time when we feel we know them very well."

Despite their affection for their pets, they are the first to acknowledge that they require a lot of time in terms of maintenance. "You need to have the equipment and ponds and space," she said. "You also need to be there for them around the clock in terms of feeding, cleaning and vitamin supplements."

She added: "Reptiles are not as dangerous as people make out. There are a lot fewer accidents involving reptiles compared to dogs. It has been over-hyped.

"I think what is important is for pet-shop owners to become more responsible when selling animals to people to make sure they are well looked after."