While the prevailing belief is that wildlife should stay in the wild, at least one respected biologist thinks that allowing us to keep Australian animals as pets could help their chances of survival.
- Professor Mike Archer has kept quolls and swamp wallabies and says they make great pets
- He believes having native animals at home would aid conservation efforts
- Reptile rescuers say interest in snakes and lizards as pets is growing
A paleontologist at the University of New South Wales, Mike Archer, told Geoff Hutchison of ABC Radio Perth that not allowing the public to keep native animals as pets was “potentially a passport to extinction”.
Only South Australia and Victoria permit the keeping of native animals as house pets, and Professor Archer said that if it were more common there would be greater interest in saving them.
“You wouldn’t be interfering with what’s happening to them in the wild,” he said.
“At the moment, the only thing they care about really are the animals they live with. That’s what they’re really going to look after.
“Unless we set up breeding colonies and enable people to have a pet quoll instead of just a cat, we’re not going to get that that bonding that we need in the next generation, to care about the conservation of our Australian mammals.”
‘Pet Tasmanian tigers would still be alive’
Professor Archer said there was evidence that keeping them as pets could have prevented the extinction of the thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, by the 1930s.
“As soon as the Tasmanian sheep farmers decided that the reason they weren’t making as much money as they expected was because the Tasmanian tigers must be eating their sheep, the Tasmanian government set up a bounty and 4,000 thylacine were killed,” he said.
The bounty was paid between 1888 and 1909, and is thought to be the primary reason behind the thylacine’s eventual extinction.
“The saddest thing about this whole story was during that period it was, of course, illegal to have anything to do with the thylacine. They were regarded as vermin,” he said.
“But it was illegal and they ultimately had to turn them in and have them killed.
“If that had not been illegal, do we think the thylacine would be extinct today? Of course the answer’s no.
“Any animal we put our arm around and look after is guaranteed a future. It’s those ones we don’t care about, and we try to have nothing to do with, they’re the ones that are endangered.”
‘We don’t share diseases with these animals’
While not all native animals would be suitable for life in the suburbs — the male platypus, for instance, has venomous spurs that would land someone in hospital — Professor Archer thinks marsupials would be ideal.
“They are so phylogenetically distant from us. We don’t share diseases with these animals,” he said.
He also suggested mammals, citing his own experience of keeping a chuditch — or Western quoll — while living in Western Australia in the late 1960s.
“I fell in love with this animal and this animal fell in love with me,” he said.
“It was an obsessive user of a kitty litter box. It was clean. It was like a puppy all its life.
Sadly, when Professor Archer moved to Queensland the chuditch did not survive.
“I let it out in the backyard and unfortunately he bit a cane toad and he was dead in my arms 20 minutes later,” he said.
“But apart from that disaster he was the most spectacular pet I’ve ever had.”
Reptile ownership on the rise
While owning mammals and marsupials is off-limits in most of Australia for now, having reptiles as pets is increasingly popular, according to WA-based reptile catcher Phil Schenberg.
“There used to be a stigma towards reptiles as not being an ideal pet,” Mr Schenberg told Jo Trilling.
“But as more knowledge is getting out there, people are discovering that they are quite interesting pets to have.
While owning reptiles is allowed in all states and territories, owners must get a licence before taking on a reptile as a pet and only certain breeds are allowed.
Not doing okay in the wild
Professor Archer said there needed to be a shift from the idea that the best way to preserve wildlife was solely to leave it in the wild.
“The old idea was to make sure that people didn’t have anything to do with them, leave them in the bush and they’ll be okay. Well, they’re not okay. Not even in Kakadu,” he said.
“We need to keep fighting to conserve animals in protected areas, but we need other strategies and to be able to have breeding facilities.
Poised to become our new best friends
Just like cats and dogs, Professor Archer believes many native animals would embrace domestic life.
“I had a pet swamp wallaby, Wallabia bicolor, in the house with me and it was like a dog. It was wonderful,” Professor Archer said.
“It would sit on my lap. It shared cooked chickens with me and all sorts of weird things.
“We’ve never given them this chance.
“We’ve said the only animals that are suitable for being companions with us are alien invading animals that we brought in from Europe. And this is crazy.”