In recent years, Petco and +Kota have successfully cornered the lucrative Mexican pet market. The former is a US chain offering bright and airy superstores on edge-of-town retail parks, while the latter follows a convenience store model, offering a vast proliferation of branches in locations across the country, with 20 in metropolitan Guadalajara alone.
The specialist store Exotic Planet in downtown Guadalajara sets itself apart from the mainstream before customers have even stepped across the threshold. A huge orange-and-black tarantula is painted on the building’s facade, while a ten-foot long python springs out from behind a second storey window, its teeth bared for attack. At the entrance, a black-beaked owl keeps tireless guard, wide eyed, impassive and inscrutable.
Inside, customers are greeted by the sort of wild menagerie you would normally find at a zoo. A Burmese Python is coiled around a branch and will set you back 6,000 pesos ($330). A red-kneed tarantula costs 1,500 pesos ($80), while a black crow is on offer for 25,000 ($1,400).
Customers who find these pets too pedestrian can arrange for special deliveries.
“We have brought in everything from lemurs to lions,” a store assistant says. “They cost 75,000 pesos ($4,150) each.” The animals are mostly imported from the United States, where they are bred in special facilities.
Stores like these are catering to a growing demand, as exotic pets become the latest status symbol for well-heeled Mexican youth. Social media is awash with pictures of rich youngsters posing alongside lions, cheetahs and even endangered species like jaguars.
Late last year, photographs appeared on Instagram and Twitter of a man taking his tiger cub for a stroll in the upmarket Andares mall.
Such animals can be bought entirely legally, the owner of Exotic Planet is keen to emphasize.
“You can sell anything in Mexico,” he says. “Many people think that buying an animal is illegal, but if they have been brought up in captivity, if the rules have been followed, there is no problem.”
Yet the popularity of exotic animals is showing no signs of abating and has even spurred a domestic industry of breeding centers.
“People have asked us to get hold of every sort of animal, even dolphins,” says the store owner. “In fact, the largest breeding center for dolphins in the world is in Cancun … The cost is not in buying the animal, it is in keeping it. You need to demonstrate you have the correct environment. You can’t just keep it in your swimming pool.”
Breeding centers for iguanas, deer and tarantulas have sprung up in Jalisco, while there are accredited lion breeders in the State of Mexico. “It’s like oil,” the owner says, “it is all exported to the United States.”
In order to purchase exotic pets, customers at the store have to obtain special authorisation from the Secretariat for the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat). Permits need to be obtained, stipulating that the animal will be well-treated.
Nevertheless, once the purchase has been made, there is little guarantee that the owners will have the time or money to invest in its proper care.
Security is also a risk and escaped animals pose a real threat to neighbours.
Last September, a Bengal tiger cub was captured and returned to its owner in Zapopan, Jalisco, after escaping from a gated community. The year before, firefighters were called in to seize an escaped jaguar which was leaping from roof to roof in the Guadalajara suburb of Tonala.
Maria Jose Lozano is a representative of the civil association Animal Justice and Dignity. She warns that big cat species pose a threat to their owners. “Even when an animal is very familiar with the person who cleans or gives it food, it might attack … This is especially likely when animals are suffering from high levels of stress because they lack the space to move freely.”
Lozano believes that existing international legislation is partly responsible for the trade in exotic animals, as specimens bred in captivity are not afforded the same protection as wild animals.
“Unfortunately, the sale of exotic animals is legally permitted because Mexico is signed up to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) which permits the sale of exotic animals as a way of avoiding the contraband of native species between different countries.”
A nationwide law prohibiting the use of wild circus animals came into effect last year, freeing more than 2,000 animals from performing. Yet it has been widely reported that as an unintended consequence of the ban, the market was flooded with lions, elephants and other exotic animals that zoos had been unable to accommodate.
Lozano supported the ban and denies the legislative change has worsened the situation of the animals.
“Circuses only charge 20 pesos ($1.10), the place only fits 300 people, there are no events during the week and they employ 80 people … where does the money come from? The circuses always had an internal black market of animals because they always trafficked among themselves.”
According to Lozano, a significant portion of circus profits were made renting and selling animals illegally. The new law has only brought the problem out into the open.
“The trafficking of animals and the black market has not risen as the result of the new law. It’s the same. It has always been there. The circus was only a front for the black market.”
Lozano hopes for an end to the exotic animal trade, whether legal or illegal. She believes the government should take a more active role in discouraging people from buying these animals.
“Wild animals are not pets. Wild animals are not domestic animals. Wild animals are not objects. They do not enjoy human contact nor lose their natural wild instincts. Keeping wild animals is cruel, it is unethical and it endangers the environment.”