#bioPGH Blog: When Thinking About a New Pet, Wild Animals are Best Left in the Wild
Apr 25

#bioPGH Blog: When Thinking About a New Pet, Wild Animals are Best Left in the Wild

By Dr. Maria Wheeler-Dubas, Research and Science Education Outreach Manager

Biophilia NetworkA resource of Biophilia: Pittsburgh, #bioPGH is a weekly blog and social media series that aims to encourage both children and adults to reconnect with nature and enjoy what each of our distinctive seasons has to offer. 

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Last week, my husband and I discovered something odd on our back porch: a box turtle. The fact that it was a box turtle wasn’t the odd part; it was the fact that our porch is 6-7 feet above ground level, and the steps going up are quite high. We also live in a neighborhood of steep hills and minimal green space, not ideal for a species that generally prefers woodlands and bogs. This particular little male also had blue paint splatters on his top shell (his carapace). We were left to wonder how on Earth he had landed on our porch and why was he dotted with blue? Was he someone’s pet that was being discarded now that the weather was warm? Was he on his way to breeding grounds? Would he be safe without our intervention? Then…that common temptation crossed my mind…what if I kept him as a pet? I love animals, and turtles are adorable plus easy to take care of, right?

This encounter with that box turtle reminded me, though: wild animals are best left in the wild. YouTube may be full of cute videos of wild animals as pets, and who wouldn’t love a good bear cub snuggle? As idyllic or adventurous as it sounds, it is very important that we don’t need them as pets, and we hurt them when we keep them. This time of year, when there are so many baby animals and sluggish critters are emerging from hibernation, it is important to remind ourselves that even though they may be cute, wild animals (both native and exotic) are best left in the wild. Let’s examine why that is.

Each species in a given habitat plays an important role in that habitat, and removing an animal from that role affects overall ecosystem functions. Keeping just that one turtle or baby squirrel may not seem problematic, but it quickly becomes an ecological concern when too many humans get the same idea. And remember, when we keep one animal from the wild, we not only keep that one individual, but we also deprive the habitat of that animal’s future offspring.

We humans have long demonstrated a tendency to overharvest natural resources, and animals are no exception. As abundant as white-tailed deer and turkey are now, it’s incredible to think we once overhunted them nearly to extinction and their existence now comes from decades of work and protection. Other species, like the passenger pigeon, were less fortunate. The wild animal pet trade is a legacy that continues this  extractive behavior. When considering different options for pets, always avoid animals that came from the wild—whether you’re looking at birds, reptiles, fish, mammals, etc. (In fact, keeping the box turtle would have been illegal since Eastern box turtles are a threatened species in Pennsylvania!)

Wild, Domesticated, or Habituated?
Let’s say we didn’t need to consider the ecological or conservation impacts of wild animals as pets—they still are a troubling addition to the home because wild animals are wild and cannot be domesticated during their own lifetime. The word domestication refers to a slow, multi-generational process that ultimately changes the genetics and usually the brain anatomy of a lineage of animals. The word domesticated is colloquially used in a looser sense, but it’s a very specific word. Zoo animals, for example, are not domesticated; and a wild animal that has been raised as a pet is still not domesticated.

Dogs have lived alongside humans for thousands of years and are great example of domestication. We’ve bred them for the behaviors and abilities that interest us—starting with decreased wariness and low reactivity to startling situations, and eventually breeding them for traits like herding abilities in farm dogs or docility in companion animals. Over the centuries, they have even learned to understand us and our body language and gestures in ways other species can’t.  Dogs have been domesticated.

However, zoo animals and wild animals that are used to people have been habituated to our presence. They have learned through some form of conditioning to be relatively comfortable with human activity and presence—but it’s a very distinct and important difference from domestication. An animal that is habituated to humans, rather than domesticated, will still always have much stronger wild instincts and tendencies towards fear and aggression than a domesticated animal; and it will experience more stress living as a pet than it would in the wild.

Wild Animals Can Take Care of Themselves
Unless they are injured, wild animals usually don’t need us to interfere with their activities, even when the weather is rough or if two wild animals are displaying over a potential mate. By interfering, we are likely to stress these animals, which can cause more problems than they were facing to begin with. Nature can handle matters in its own way. If you do find an animal you are concerned about, though, follow this advice from our local Humane Animal Rescue.

And What of our Box Turtle?
Going back to the box turtle we found, we called the wildlife center, who confirmed what we had thought: he was probably fine, but the paint on him was disconcerting—he possibly had had a negative encounter with humans. We took him to Humane Animal Rescue in Verona, and they will give him a check-up and either treat or release him. Importantly, when released, he will be taken back to the same place where we found him.

In the end, the most difficult part about loving wild animals is knowing that the best thing for them is usually space from us. That doesn’t mean you can’t be a huge help to them, though! Western Pennsylvania has fantastic state parks, land trusts, and city parks that all could use your support through visits, participation in programs, volunteer time, and sometimes financial support. Protecting the land means protecting the wildlife that lives there. It’s almost like having hundreds of pets at once!

Connecting to the Outdoors Tip: Enjoy our local biodiversity in their native wild! Check out birding walks with the Audubon Society, nature walks with the Parks Conservancy, or bring the whole family to Phipps’ BioBlitz on June 2 to learn more about local wildlife, fungal life, plant life, microbial life—everything!

Continue the Conversation:  Share your nature discoveries with our community by posting to Twitter and Instagram with hashtag #bioPGH, and R.S.V.P. to attend our next Biophilia: Pittsburgh meeting.

Photo Credits: Katja Schulz CC-BY-2.0 and Pixabay CC0



Great article.  That was a good explanation of the difference between a domestic animal and one that is just used to people.  Never thought of it like that!

By Leo on May 6, 2019