Knowing how many exotic animals are kept in Canada is as difficult as knowing how many illegal immigrants have crossed into the country, experts say. Several exotic species are banned here and authorities do not do comprehensive or routine tracking, which makes tallying how many African rock pythons or komodo dragons are being stored in suburban basements an impossible task.
"There's no way to appraise how many are actually in the country in homes or non-accredited zoos. Nobody would ever be able to produce a reliable answer for that," said Kyle O'Grady, assistant curator of the Indian River Reptile Zoo, who is in Campbellton, N.B. to help relocate the animals seized from Reptile Ocean.
But by studying U.S. data, experts say it's safe to assume the populations of exotic pets is growing in Canada. U.S. trade in wildlife and wildlife products increased by 62 per cent from 1992 to 2002, according to a report written by Rob Laidlaw, the director of Zoocheck Canada. Though his evidence is anecdotal, he says there has been an increase in the import of exotic pets in Canada in the last 15 years, the most popular species being green anole lizards, ball pythons and green iguanas.
The most recent data available on reptile ownership in Canada comes from a report prepared by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, though Mr. Laidlaw says those numbers are likely much lower than the true figures (which include banned species). In 2001-02, 54,738 wild-caught reptiles were imported to Canada. The most popular were green iguanas (nearly 16,000 of those were brought in), followed by ball pythons (7,846 of those). The vast majority of these wild-caught animals were imported through Quebec from the wilds of Indonesia, El Salvador and Ghana – countries with landscapes and climates dramatically different from the ones found in Canada, Mr. O'Grady notes.
Other exotic creatures might be identified by pet stores as "captive-bred," which means they were most likely raised on farms in the U.S. or Latin America, but Mr. Laidlaw says that term is misleading. In many cases, wild reptiles are brought to farms and, after acclimatizing, are labelled "captive-bred" – a tactic used because animals bred in captivity often command a higher price.
But whether they were plucked from a jungle and smuggled into the country or raised on a domestic farm, Canadian homes are not appropriate habitats for these animals, Mr. O'Grady said.
"Wild animals don't co-exist well with private dwellings. You can take the animal out of the jungle. You can't take the jungle out of the animal. These animals react on instinct; they've been beautifully tailored to suit their environment for eons."
These are some of the illegal animals seized from Reptile Ocean: