The Ethics of Releasing Your Pet into the Wild

When people think of biodiversity loss they often don’t think of the pet trade. Sure, you may think of larger animals such as elephants dying for their ivory, or tigers for their skin, but not of our furry everyday companions. Everyone loves pets. When you were a child it’s the first thing you ask your parents for; you want a cuddly companion to love you. Yet, that doesn’t always translate into the long term benefit for the pet. Things happen, you move, you realize this was more of a task then you thought you signed up for, and then you decide that the most humane thing is to release the pet into the wild. After all that’s where they came from right? Wrong. Few people understand that this is an illegal and frankly unethical practice. The degree of punishment you receive from releasing a non-native species into the wild varies by state. Some repercussions include large fines or small jail time.

Why is this a Problem?

These domesticated creatures are rather helpless in the wild and cannot usually survive on their own. They have been bred for generations to be dependent on humans for survival. You can’t just throw them back, their niche, or ‘place’, in the environment is no longer there. Our domesticated rabbits for example are descendants of European rabbits and cannot mate with our native Eastern Cottontail or jackrabbits. They are also more susceptible to disease and predators because they never developed defenses against them. If our furry friends happen to survive and meet another pet that was abandoned in the wild, it could cause a series of consequences for the ecosystem.

Rabbits breed like crazy and can produce up to 14 babies per litter (although it’s usually around six). Their gestation period is about a month so therefore rabbits could produce up to 14 babies per month at their maximum potential. Releasing cats or dogs doesn’t let you off the hook either. They have a high breeding potential as well and there’s a lot more of them that become ‘set free’ into the wild. They fall into the same two fates that the rabbit succumbs to. Leaving less space for the native species to persist.

Even tiny pet goldfish wreak havoc among the ecosystem’s system of checks and balances. In Boulder, Colorado wildlife officials noticed that a few people were dumping some goldfish into Tellar Lake and it’s a huge lake. One wouldn’t think that a few goldfish could really do that much in a lake but in just two years their population exploded. From a few goldfish to around 3,000 to 4,000 goldfish thriving in this lake, they had successfully shaded out most of the native fish that once resided there like the sun fish, blue gill fish, channel catfish, etc.

Exotic pets are even more detrimental as they are harder to care for and have unprecedented effects when released into the wild. They are sometimes bred to be used as companions, but more often than not, they are taken directly from the wild. Poachers will often kill the mother for easier access to the babies. When released, these organisms can take over the landscape and harm native species. For example, in the everglades pet boas and pythons are released regularly and with such abundance that they have wiped out native opossum and raccoon populations. These organisms are important as they eat ticks and are overall very adept at pest control.

What are Some Other Options?

All in all, pets are important to all of us. We care about our furry companions and should want the best for them. They don’t belong in the wild. There are many other methods of relocating a pet you can no longer care for. Depending on your location you can call the proper authorities, such as humane societies or animal fostering programs, and even pet stores. Our ecosystem has a balance to it, this balance enables native plant and animal species to persist and thrive. We live in this balance and should contribute to its health.

Additional Reading

Article by Tatiana Eaves


  •  Goldfish and snake photo courtesy of Tatiana Eaves
  •  Rabbits: Rabbits at [ Chai-Negev], RevivimIsrael. Source: Taken by Michael Baranovsky {{GFDL}}
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