Why are more Hongkongers going wild for exotic pets?
Experts warn against a rising trend in space-starved city where inexperienced owners take in unusual breeds only to abandon them later, and laws remain murky on species protection
For 16-year-old Victor Wong Long-in, home is where the heart is, and also where his six turtles, five horned frogs, four house geckos, a ball python and a corn snake reside. The high-school student shares his 800 sq ft flat in Hong Kong with his parents and a mini zoo.
An aquarium and a wooden cabinet – which hold his unusual pets – dominate their living room, and he keeps these carefully locked.
“Everyone knows I am into reptiles especially,” Wong says. “I treat them as my family.”
Wong is part of a rapidly expanding community of people in Hong Kong who keep non-traditional pets – from small pythons and odd-looking frogs to squirrel-like marsupials such as sugar gliders.
Latest government figures show that the number of exotic animals legally imported for sale as pets more than doubled, rising from 497,000 in 2012 to more than 1 million in 2016.
Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director of welfare at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Hong Kong’s leading animal welfare charity, says: “In Hong Kong, the exotic animal industry is fuelled by a trade that is murky and largely unregulated.
“An exotic pet can be loosely defined as any pet that is not a dog, cat, or farm animal. This encompasses many different species of animals including ... birds, reptiles, fish, and amphibians.”
In 2015, the SPCA contributed to a joint wildlife trade report which said Hong Kong had become a significant animal trading port internationally.
“It is unclear what happens to the hundreds of thousands of exotic animals imported into Hong Kong every year,” it said in the report.
According to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, there were 28 cases of illegal import of exotic pets between January and June this year, a slight increase compared with 26 from the same period in 2017. On top of this, two local cases of illegal sale of hedgehogs were recorded by authorities.
But while there are laws governing the sale and possession of endangered species listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES), some of the exotic pets Hong Kong enthusiasts seek are not on the list, meaning shops and owners may not be subject to legislation.
And in a city starved for space, there has been a surge in such animals being abandoned, driven by owners who have a lack of knowledge and experience in the hobby.
The SPCA says it has seen “record numbers” of unusual pets surrendered to its shelter.
Excluding pets and dogs, it has found homes for 908 abandoned pets this year – a rise of 22 per cent from the previous year.
“Sadly, what most consumers don’t realise is that these animals require a great amount of care and proper husbandry,” Woodhouse says.
Under the law, anyone who abandons an animal without reasonable excuse is punishable by a maximum fine of HK$10,000 and six months’ imprisonment.
But according to the Fisheries and Conservation Department, there was no prosecution initiated in the past three years.
Woodhouse says people often buy exotic pets because they want something “new and unusual”. What a lot of them do not understand is that keeping any kind of pet is a lifetime commitment.
An eye for oddities
Ben Tai Yiu-tong, owner of BT Reptile pet store in Shek Kip Mei, says his store has seen an increasing number of new customers looking for “something that cannot be seen everywhere”. Tai receives an average of 60 to 70 visitors each week, with about 20 of them walking away with a purchase.
“Some are also tired of dogs or cats because they make a lot of noise and take up a lot of space,” the 25-year-old says. “Animals like turtles are quiet and relatively small – at least when they are babies – so people just assume they are easier to keep.”
A reptile keeper with more than 15 years of experience, Tai estimates from users in online forums that the exotic pet community in Hong Kong numbers more than 20,000 people, with around 10 pet stores catering to the demands of this group. But he warns that this passion for exotic animals can become an addiction.
“Once you delve into it, it’s very hard to get out,” he says.
Tai adds that people who keep unusual pets tend to have several. “Like collectors, we are always on the lookout for the specimen with the most unusual colour and shape.”
Student and reptile enthusiast Victor Wong fits that description. A frequent visitor to Tung Choi Street North, also known as Goldfish Street and the city’s exotic pet hub, he got his first tortoise at the age of 10, and was irresistibly drawn to the hobby ever since.
“Every time I went to Goldfish Street to buy food for my pets I would discover something new and special. As soon as I made eye contact with it, I couldn’t resist buying it,” he recalls.
That was how he bought three frogs and two lizards within the last year alone, bringing his total number of pets to 17. “Even my parents, who have always been supportive of me, finally told me to stop buying new ones,” he says.
He saves most of his monthly allowance to buy food and paraphernalia for his animals, and spends about two hours a day taking care of them.
“Snakes still scare my parents, but they have developed fondness for the turtles,” he says. “Now the turtles will come close to my parents to ask for food.”
Kally Kwan, a freelancer in her 30s, was looking for something unique and fell in love with sugar gliders when she saw a picture of the furry creatures online. Sugar gliders – named for their fondness for sweet food such as plant sap and nectar – are a type of marsupial with a squirrel-like body and huge eyes. They can be found in Australia as well as in Indonesia, and are known for their ability to glide through the air, using membranes which stretch from their front to back limbs.
Kwan now shares her 400 sq ft flat with eight of them, all female and adopted. She spends most of her time tending to the nocturnal creatures after she comes home from work, preparing a recipe that includes vegetables, chicken breast and cooked worms.
She also put cupboards against the walls so the animals can leap and glide around without getting hurt. The air conditioning in her home is set at a steady 27 degrees Celsius to keep the little mammals’ blood temperature regulated.
But as cute and tiny as they are, Kwan says sugar gliders do not belong in small flats. “It would be a huge mistake to think gliders require less care.
“They are high-maintenance pets, and need even more attention and love than cats or dogs. The affection will go both ways only if you spend enough time bonding with them.”
Paul Crow, senior conservation officer at the fauna department of Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden, a conservation and education centre, says sugar gliders are brought into Hong Kong illegally by smugglers. But once in the city, they enter a legal limbo.
“Once they are in Hong Kong, there’s no legislation to control these non-indigenous animals. It’s technically legal to own them, but pet shops can’t sell them, because the Animal Trader Licence restricts the species that can be sold,” Crow says.
He points out that sugar gliders are not an endangered species, but while they are becoming popular as pets, in addition to the challenges of keeping them, they are known to carry rabies and other diseases.
“Sugar gliders, hedgehogs and ferrets that enter Hong Kong illegally generally bypass health screening requirements and rabies control mechanisms. That means these animals could represent a potential disease pool in the city.”
Experts warn that people should think carefully before taking on the responsibility of owning such animals.
Tai says that creating appropriate living conditions is the key to taking good care of pet reptiles, and this is sometimes even more important than companionship, as a lot of species are highly sensitive to temperature and food.
“But people tend to think reptiles are born with the ability to bear suffering and live long without much attention needed,” he adds.
In two years, more than 10 reptiles, including lizards and tortoises, were abandoned by owners at the door of his store, all in poor health.
“It has happened so many times,” he says. “Every time it occurs I still get angry. You can’t just dump your pet because it has become sick and smelly!”
For Wong, his dedication saw him joining the Hong Kong Society of Herpetology, an animal rights group, after he came across an online ad at the start of the year.
The society shelters unwanted reptiles and amphibians and puts them up for adoption.
As he learned more about the animals, Wong developed a deeper sense of concern for them. “I see sorrow and hostility in the eyes of the abandoned animals that are transferred to our centre,” he says.
Now a volunteer with the NGO, he has become knowledgeable about the documentation required for keeping exotic pets, and points out that he has a licence for the more exotic of his two snakes, a ball python.
Every month, the NGO receives between 30 and 50 abandoned red-eared sliders, a type of turtle commonly sold in the city for as little as HK$20. While a baby red-eared slider is usually 2cm in length, it can grow to 20cm within two years.
Pet abandonment can have far-reaching consequences, says Sung Yik-hei, assistant research professor at the School of Biological Sciences under the University of Hong Kong.
Releasing large numbers of non-native animals into the ecosystem can spread diseases among indigenous species, Sung says. “In addition, these introduced animals become an invasive species, posing a threat to native animals by competing for food and habitat.”
Sung warns that some animals, particularly the larger ones, are not suitable to be kept as pets.
“Some reptiles need to live in high trees, and some in huge water tanks. These demands are very hard to satisfy considering the limited space in Hong Kong homes.”
For potential exotic pet owners out there, Wong has some words of advice: “Most people who call us for help and say things like ‘I didn’t expect it to grow so big!’ or ‘My family is scared; we don’t have enough space for it’”.
He urges would-be owners to be knowledgeable about a particular species and its needs before taking the plunge.
“I am always aware that they are lives, not toys.”
Additional reporting by David Vetter
Five trending exotic pets in Hong Kong
Size: 20 – 200cm
Lifespan: 10 years and up
Price: between HK$200 and HK$300, those with special shapes or colours can cost more than HK$10,000
Hard to keep because: with a high level of intelligence, this lizard can be smart enough to open the door of the glass terrarium by itself and escape. So, training is the most difficult part, which means owners may need to spend a week or two enduring the hostile whipping of its long tail.
Size: 0.1 – 2cm
Lifespan: about one year
Price: between HK$200 and HK$300
Hard to keep because: having a pet as small as a jumping spider means owners have to watch closely when it is feeding time – the tiny creature may try to hop out of its cage. Also, baby spiders are extremely picky about food, so owners need to breed fruit flies – a live prey that the arachnids feed on.
Size: 10 – 100cm
Lifespan: between 10 and 20 years
Price: between HK$200 and HK$300, those with special colours can cost more than HK$1 million.
Hard to keep because: as one of the most common types of snake among exotic pets, ball pythons are picky eaters, and are highly sensitive to temperature. A tank with heating system is essential to create a proper living environment.
AFRICAN SPURRED TORTOISE
Size: 4 – 80cm
Lifespan: between 50 and 150 years
Price: HK$1,000 and HK$20,000
Hard to keep because: This type of tortoise has a surprisingly weak digestive system, which requires owners to check their faeces constantly to look out for any signs their pets may be unwell.
Size: 20cm – 30cm
Lifespan: between 12 and 15 years
Price: between HK$700 and HK$1,200
Hard to keep because: gliders are very social creatures which means they not only need a lot of attention, but also companionship, and will get ill, resort to self-harm or even die from loneliness. Most of the gliders are nocturnal, making them more active at night, so owners often need to spare time after work to bond with their animals. Space can also become an issue in Hong Kong, as gliders need lots of room in their cage to climb and jump around.