An invasive species colonizing southern Taiwan was headline news again this week, with images spreading in national media and online of bound green iguanas lined up on their backs in Chiayi County, set to be euthanized.
The Council of Agriculture said that there has been a dramatic 27-fold escalation in the number of the reptiles captured in the wild over the past five years, reaching 14,536 so far this year.
The problem is that many of the people who bought green iguanas after their import and sale was legalized in 2001 released them into the wild when the creatures got too big, the council said.
However, the problem is two-pronged: One, the council should never have authorized the importation of the reptiles and, two, people should have done some research before getting caught up in such a pet fad — the iguanas can grow to 1.5m, which is not an apartment-friendly size.
The Forestry Bureau’s decision to stop approving applications for the importation of green iguanas from June 2015 was a classic example of shutting the stable door after the horses have bolted — as was the move in September to classify the reptiles as dangerous exotic wildlife with a requirement for owners to register their green iguanas by Nov. 30.
The bureau said that 653 green iguanas were registered by the deadline, but one does not have to be a cynic to doubt whether that figure reflects the actual total or to question if the requirement caused more pets to be dumped in the wild.
There are likely to be renewed calls for amendments to the Animal Protection Act (動物保護法), which took effect in January 2015, and other laws to halt the importation of other exotic creatures as pets. There should be — but what is also badly needed, albeit an admittedly quixotic remedy, is a licensing or registration system for all would-be pet owners.
At the very least the council should consider launching a multi-year public education campaign on the proper care of pets and the duties of responsible pet ownership, which would be far cheaper than the long-term costs of a reptile-eradication effort or similar measures for other creatures that were approved and then blacklisted.
A public education campaign might reduce a host of problems caused by people who irresponsibly buy animals because they want that cute kitten, puppy, iguana or snake, but are not prepared to deal with a fully grown Norwegian forest cat, Siberian husky, green iguana or Burmese python — or even worse, people who purchase animals just to put them on display at animal cafes, petting zoos or leisure farms.
The owner of a popular Taipei coffee shop was in July forced to relinquish his four raccoons after a video emerged showing him using a dog to force one of them into a cage and other reports of his mistreatment of the animals.
However, even when there is not such clear physical abuse, why are central and local governments allowing animals to be put on display like that?
Why is a coffee shop/cafe in New Taipei City allowed to keep six alpacas as a tourism draw, even if selfie-seeking customers are allowed to feed them carrots?
A coalition of animal rights advocates earlier this year called on the government to enshrine the protection of animals in the Constitution on the grounds that existing legislation is insufficient to stop animal abuse.
While their plea drew criticism that there are more important issues for officials and lawmakers to deal with, it is clear that more needs to be done to protect animals and to protect the nation from irresponsible pet buyers.
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