A raccoon dog kept in a rabbit hutch and a tortoise deprived of water and warmth are among hundreds of exotic animal rescue calls to the RSPCA revealed today.
The UK’s largest and oldest animal welfare charity has released its annual statistics revealing the plight of the more unusual animals being kept as pets and for entertainment in the UK.
Nationally, the charity received a total of 15,790 calls about abandoned, stray, sick, suffering and neglected exotic reptiles, mammals, birds and fish, more than 40 a day, or more than one every hour.
In Durham the charity received 232 calls about exotic animals and rescued 60 exotic pets and two exotic fish, a rise on 2017’s total of 43 creatures and nine fish.
The RSPCA believes the reason behind some of the suffering of these exotics pets is that owners do not do their research and don’t understand the type and amount of care that they need, resulting in them being neglected, dumped or escaping.
Among the cases was a raccoon dog who was kept in a rabbit hutch by his owner was rescued by the RSPCA in March last year.
The animal was struggling to use his back legs and a veterinary examination found that he had neurological issues which meant he was unable to walk properly.
RSPCA inspector Catherine Maddison, who rescued the raccoon dog in Durham, said: “This raccoon dog had allegedly been kept in a rabbit hutch by his owner who then realised they couldn’t cope caring for the raccoon dog any longer and handed him over to a mobile petting zoo.
“They contacted the RSPCA as they realised he had problems with his legs and needed care. Unfortunately, despite treatment his condition did not improve and it was decided by the vets that he needed to be put to sleep to end his suffering. The vets believe the friendly, young male’s neurological condition could have begun as a result of an inappropriate diet.
“In recent years, the RSPCA has dealt with a number of incidents of raccoon dogs being kept as pets that have escaped, or been deliberately released into the wild. We believe they do not make good pets and would strongly discourage anyone from buying or keeping them as pets.
"They need a great deal of space at all times, as they travel over large areas in the wild, and their needs cannot be adequately met within typical household environments.”
Raccoon dogs are wild animals and their natural habitat consists of wide open spaces near open water and vegetation. They are native to eastern Siberia, northern China, North Vietnam, Korea and Japan but are now also widespread in Europe having been accidentally released or escaped.
Since February 2019, it has become illegal to sell new ‘stock’ of raccoon dogs and keepers must keep raccoon dogs securely at all times and not allow them to breed, as they have been classed as an invasive species risk in Europe.
Another animal rescued by the RSPCA in Durham was a Horsfield tortoise named Winnie, who was found underweight and in an unsuitable enclosure.
She was rescued in January 2017. She was in a vivarium with no heat lamp and was found with no food or water.
Inspector Cathy Maddison rescued Winnie, she said: “She was tiny when we rescued her and the vets thought she might stay like that throughout her life but I am pleased to say she is much, much bigger now and very happy.”
Cathy was so taken with Winnie she told her Mum, Pam Mastrantonio, all about her and Pam - who also lives in Durham - decided to take Winnie on herself.
Cathy added: “My Mum has had tortoises since she was little and I think Winnie’s story tugged on her heart strings.
“It’s so nice to be able to see Winnie whenever I like and to know she is flourishing - it really makes the job worthwhile.
“I do think her case just goes to show that people take on these types of exotic animals with no real knowledge of how to care for them - in this instance there wasn’t even a bulb in Winnie’s heat lamp. She was freezing and extremely underweight.
“It is testament to what a strong character she is that she has come out the other side of this and will hopefully go on to live a long and happy life.”
Chief Inspector for the area, Mark Gent, said: “Although their numbers are small compared to more common pets, we have real concerns about the welfare of reptiles and other exotic animals kept as pets or entertainment in this country.
“Reptiles and other exotic pets are completely reliant on their owners to meet their welfare needs including requiring the correct levels of heat, light and humidity, plus an appropriate diet. Many of the animals we’re called to help are found stray outside, where they can very quickly suffer in the cold.
“These animals are commonly found for sale in pet shops and are advertised online. At least in the past, animals have often been handed over to buyers with little or no information about how to care for them properly, although new regulations in England should improve this.
"In some cases, we believe owners take them on simply because they believe they will be easier to care for than other pets, but it is essential that people research what is required in the care of their pet, from food, equipment, environment and vet care, before taking one on. We would also urge them to ask for help if they’re struggling to meet their needs.
“We believe that people may buy them with little idea of how difficult they can be to keep and the animals are sometimes neglected when the novelty wears off and the commitment hits home. This is why we would encourage anyone thinking of getting an exotic pet to find out as much as possible about the animal’s needs and whether they’re the right pet for them.”
The RSPCA, which has a team of specially trained exotics officers, rescued more than 4,000 exotic animals in 2018, including more than 500 snakes, more than 300 turtles, 145 bearded dragons, five raccoon dogs and even four marmosets and one wallaby.