Not your average cute animal video

When Emily Martel took a trip to the Amazon, she had no idea she’d stumble across the subject of her documentary film: the exotic pet trade.

She was speaking with veterinarians at a university in Ecuador when she first heard about the exotic pet trade.

When one young vet mentioned that the industry was the third-most lucrative form of trafficking after drugs and arms, she knew she had to learn more.

“That was really surprising to me,” said Martel, ArtSci ’16. “And then she said that 90 per cent of the animals die within the trafficking.”

What’s even more surprising is how widely accepted the trade is in Canada.

“I found out later on that Ontario actually has no legislation to protect exotic animals, so I started doing a lot of research on that,” Martel said.

Martel, a distance studies student working out of New York City, has spent the last eight months on a documentary exposing the truth about the trade of exotic animals as pets.

While much of Martel’s work focuses on South America, the effects of the trade can be felt around the globe.

“When you’re talking about the exotic pet trade in the United States or in Canada, a lot of the animals don’t only come from the Amazon, but they come from Japan, they come from Indonesia, they come from everywhere else in the world,” she said.

On the rare occasion that the exotic pet trade comes up, most conversation among non-experts centres on tigers, elephants and other large, potentially dangerous animals. While these animals are certainly affected, they aren’t the only ones.

“Birds and reptiles are huge in trafficking because they’re easily smuggled,” Martel said.

“Especially parrots, they’re so trafficked and they’re so easily trafficked that people don’t necessarily pay attention, but … they’re also endangered.”

According to Martel, the troubles certainly don’t end once these pets are purchased.

“People don’t realize how long these animals actually live,” she said. “They live for such a long time that after a while, people get bored of them.”

Getting “bored” of an animal isn’t an easy problem to solve, particularly when that animal isn’t as widely appealing as a more traditional companion animal.

“They like them when they’re small. When they get bigger, it’s not necessarily cute anymore, so then they give them away,” Martel said. “They give them to sanctuaries and they donate them. Now sanctuaries are [at full] capacity.”

With sanctuaries overwhelmed by the number of animals and funding low, options are limited for how to properly move forward. What’s clear is that what we’ve been doing so far — either actively participating in the exotic pet trade or passively standing by — won’t continue to work.

“Either we continue doing the way we are and in 40 years the forests are going to be empty, or change our path and then by changing our path we might make it better,” Martel said.

“There’s only two ways to go right now. If we continue the way we’re going, it’s for sure going to be no more animals.” For those of us who love travelling as much as Martel does, she said it’s important to keep in mind that supporting the exotic pet trade will severely limit opportunities to interact with wildlife abroad, as their populations are suffering.

Supporting the exotic pet trade doesn’t have to mean buying a monkey, either.

“If I saw a primate a year ago, before I started doing the project, and I saw a video on YouTube or something I would have thought, ‘Oh, that’s really cute. I’ll share it with my friends,’” Martel said.

“The more that you share it, the more that you don’t realize what’s happening. That’s actually helping the exotic pet trade and saying it’s fine to continue because it’s cute.”

Martel’s documentary Wildlife Captive: Save Earth’s Last Animals is hoping to begin production soon and is currently seeking funds through an Indiegogo campaign.

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