Questions and answers Positive List

There are several ways to regulate the trade and keeping of exotic pets, but after decades of first-hand experience AAP is convinced a Positive List is the most effective, efficient, transparent, precautionary, enforceable and economically feasible instrument.

This Q&A answers the most common questions from the public about this list. We divided the list in three segments:
  • 1 WHAT: where we explain the concept
  • 2 BUT: where we counter the most common critique
  • 3 HOW: going into detail on practical issues

What is a Positive List?

A Positive List is a list of animal species that have been determined (by experts) as safe and suitable to be kept as pets. This is done on the basis of comprehensive risk assessment that takes into account animal health and welfare, public health and safety, and(/or) biodiversity/species’ conservation. All animal species not included in the list are therefore not allowed to be traded or kept as pets by private owners.

There are four main reasons for implementing Positive Lists: 1) animal welfare. Non-domesticated, exotic species have complex needs, making it very difficult, if not impossible for the average owner to provide the specialized care (related to feed, enclosure, substrate, enrichments, housing with conspecifics etc.) to meet their needs. 2) public safety, to protect the public and exotic pet owners alike. 3) zoonotic disease risks. 4) biodiversity and the environment. If escaped or released, exotic pets could disrupt local ecosystems and become invasive for local fauna. Also, some species require for their breeding newly sourced conspecifics from the wild, which in turn endangers them in the wild.

Ideally, the possibility to develop a Positive List should be enshrined in the law. For this, one has to first assess which law (e.g. animal welfare law, animal health law, nature protection law, public health law) is most suitable. Which depends on the main objective of a Positive List for exotic pet possession in your country. It helps when the Animal Welfare Law acknowledges the intrinsic value of animals, and contains an obligation to take good care for a companion animal / or obligation to help an animal in need.

It is an asset if legislators in your country are used to working with preventive policies and acquainted with using the precautionary principle. The PL could in that case be referred to as the preventive set up of other legislation.

Petitions or manifestos from experts in favor of the positive list can help to give exotic pet possession the needed sense of urgency to take action. It also helps to conduct a stakeholder analysis on who should be on board to develop a Positive List system in your country / region.

Eurogroup for Animals’ folder Think Positive, contains all the arguments in favour of a Positive List as the most preferred policy instrument to regulate the trade and keeping of exotic animals as pets. Not all animals are suitable pets. There are animals with such specific needs, which are compromised when kept as pets in captivity, with dire consequences for animal welfare and animal health. Some animals are too dangerous and can inflict injuries to humans or other animals. Other animals are escape-masters and can pose a danger to the local ecosystems and biodiversity if they escape or are released into nature. Still other animals can transmit diseases to humans (zoonoses) and thus pose a threat to public health.

The Positive list is an indispensable instrument in countries with a booming exotic pet trade. But also, in countries where not many exotic animals are kept as pets (yet), the Positive List is still an important instrument to prevent the risks associated with the exotic pet trade from arising in the future.

EU legislation is very limited when it comes to the issue of exotic pet trade. The EU Commission has introduced a new regulation for the Invasive Alien Species (since 2015) and a new Animal Health regulation (health restrictions, obligation of registration for all commercial breeders). The EU also has Wildlife Trade Regulations that deals with the protection of species of wild fauna and flora by regulating trade therein, in accordance with CITES. However, for the moment, no legislation on the subject of exotic pets has been introduced at EU level. The animal welfare community in the EU is currently (from 2020 on) advocating for the implementation of a Positive List system at EU-level.

Answers to critical questions

  1. A Negative List is or gets complicated and unclear. There are an estimated 5,488 mammal species, so it’s much more effective to have a shorter list of permitted species, rather than a huge list of prohibited species.
  2. Negative Lists tend to focus on one particular type of risk (e.g. invasiveness or rate of extinction), which means there can be several Negative Lists, creating confusion for owners, the public and enforcers.
  3. A negative Lists is a reactive instrument. They need to be continually updated in a slow and costly bureaucratic process as new (or hybrid) species are observed being kept as pets, as the conservation status of a species becomes critical, or as incidents occur with a species threatening human and animal health and the environment.
  4. A long negative list requires that enforcers are able to not only identify, but also assess the welfare of hundreds of specific animal species, including possible crossbreeds.

We believe the conservation of species is a very important task that should be the responsibility of specialised zoos and sanctuaries worldwide. This should not be a task for individual breeders and keepers. The private keeping of wild non domesticated species make the animals or their offspring unsuitable to return to their natural habitat. Scientific findings indicate that exotic pet possession does not contribute to the conservation of species too. On the contrary, it is a threat for the conservation of species both in- and outside their natural habitat.

The life expectancy of animals in captivity could for some species indeed be longer, though the opposite is also true. Keeping exotic animal species that are unsuitable for captivity can also lead to serious animal health issues and premature death. A study from the UK has for example shown that most reptiles, with natural longevities ranging from 8 to 120 years according to species, die within just one year in the home. Even if certain species might live longer in captivity, longevity solely is not a sufficient indicator for animal welfare, the quality of life in the years lived is a more important indicator.

The average longevity of a group of the same animal species could be much shorter when considering the mortality rate during the entire chain of transport and selling. This article shows a mortality rate of 72% for amphibians, reptiles and mammals in just six weeks at wholesalers. Also, when an animal kept outlives the owner, or the owner is hospitalised and not able to take care of its pet, the pet might be deprived of proper care.

Scientists note that 60-75% of emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic (transferable from animals to humans) in nature and that the majority of zoonoses originate in wildlife. Most known zoonotic pathogens can be transferred by mammal species, particularly primates, bats and rodents, yet many of these animal species are still legally kept as pets in many EU countries. Previous research has found 70 different exotic-pet-related zoonotic diseases in the EU. Risks of zoonotic spill-over are higher with non-domesticated, exotic pets than domesticated pets. Read more in our rapport ‘threats from exotic mammal pets’. Between 2015 and 2019 AAP rescued exotic animals that were susceptible to more than 120 different zoonotic viruses, bacteria and parasites that can be dangerous and potentially lethal to humans. 1 in every 7 exotic pets rescued by AAP in the last 5 years, carried at least one zoonosis. Most of the pathogenic agents causing these zoonoses can be transmitted to other animals too. This is for instance the case with rabies, tuberculosis, leptospirosis, but also Q-fever and brucellosis.

Apart from known zoonoses, there is a clear lack of detection and knowledge of zoonoses in wildlife. An estimated 1.7 million currently undiscovered viruses are thought to exist in mammal and avian hosts. Of these, 631,000-827,000 could have the ability to infect humans (IPBES Pandemics Workshop Report). A compounding difficulty is that exotic animals can carry potentially dangerous pathogens without showing any signs of illness (which is a survival mechanism for wild animals), which leads pet owners to think their pet is disease-free.

This might sound like a good alternative, but it’s not. Firstly, quite some countries working with such requirements still face serious problems with exotic pet possession. The number of unsuitable pets kept did not necessarily decrease. Second: holding requirements need to be effectively enforced and many countries lack sufficient funds and enforcement capacity for animal welfare and no political willingness to increase this. Civilians are not able to help monitoring without profound knowledge of species-specific requirements. On top of this, holding requirements will not prevent the risks of zoonotic diseases jumping from animal to keeper or the other way around. Nor the risks to global and local biodiversity when species are taken from the wild and/or when they are released or escape into local ecosystems. For many species, especially non-domesticated wild animals that are not used to live in the vicinity of humans, private keeping will inevitably affect their welfare.
Domesticated pets like cats, dogs and rabbits might be assessed with risks indeed. Whether these risks are considered so high that the species cannot be kept by everyone, is ultimately to be decided by the government concerned. It is likely however that the risks will be less high with domesticated species than with exotic, non-domesticated species. So, the domestic dog ‘canis lupus familiaris’ might on basis of scientific literature be considered a low risk, although countries can and do take additional measures to prevent risks of for example biting incidents. The same goes for the house cat ‘felis silvestris catus’. The domesticated cat is considered a subspecies of the feral cat ‘felis silvestris’. In a Positive List on subspecies level, the ‘felis silvestris catus’ will be assessed separately. We recommend authorities to assess species on subspecies taxonomy level.
The vast majority of exotic species are not listed in the appendices of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES deals with trade in endangered species from a sustainability and species conservation perspective. Many of the species involved in the exotic pet trade are not endangered and therefore are not covered by the Convention. Additionally, elements such as animal welfare, public health and safety or invasiveness are not part of CITES. Although CITES regulates international wildlife trade on the basis of species conservation status, only a few countries use strict veterinary import controls, and there are no global regulations on pathogen screening associated with the international trade in wildlife.
There is no evidence whatsoever to support this claim. In fact, the experiences in Belgium, where the Positive List was first introduced in 2001, have shown no indications that the implementation of the Positive List has led to an increase in illegal trade. The Eurogroup for Animals report ‘Implementation of the Positive List for mammal pets in Belgium – A success story’ revealed – after conducting an analysis of trading sites, official confiscations data and rescue centre data – that between 2009 and 2014, there were only 22 confiscations (of 92 individual animals in total) of illegally kept animals in Belgium. This indicates that the Positive List has not led to any significant levels of illegal activity. The experiences in Belgium have also shown that enforcement against illegal activity has actually become easier with the Positive List, as it’s easier for citizens to know which species are allowed and to report the keeping of prohibited species to the authorities.
This has not been the case in Belgium, which has had the Positive List system in place the longest. For example, between 2006 and 2020, only 30 such requests have been submitted to the Flanders regional government for mammal species not included on the Positive List. The majority of those requests received a negative decision.

Practical issues

Yes, it is possible, and it often happens in practice. For instance, the European Regulation 1143 on Invasive Alien Species (IAS) prohibits in Art 7 the acquisition and private possession of some invasive animal species (after a set date), and is a Negative List. These invasive alien species are therefore already prohibited to be kept or traded and can never appear on a Positive List of suitable pets. In general, the species on existing negative lists for private possession don’t need to be assessed for the Positive List, decreasing the workload for assessors. In that way existing Negative Lists can exist alongside a newly designed and implemented Positive List. The Positive List then helps to fill the gaps that are left by existing Negative Lists.
Yes. As with many cases of new legislation, the Positive List regulations might include transitional measures for owners of animals not included on the Positive List. They are allowed to keep the animal as long as they can prove they already had it before the Positive List came into force. Only breeding is no longer allowed. Additionally, the animals must be identified and registered with the relevant authority, to ensure a feasible and cost-effective enforcement.

The risks of pets can be related to 1) animal health and welfare criteria; 2) public health and safety criteria; and 3) species’ conservation and biodiversity criteria.

Firstly, it is important to define what is high risk, an intermediate risk or a low risk. In the Netherlands the latest assessment framework is based on the animal welfare standards, as well as the threat to human and animal health that can arise when animals are kept in captivity as a companion animal. The Dutch government has chosen to focus on biological and behavioural characteristics (scientifically demonstrable) of the animal species that pose a significant danger to animal welfare or for human and/or animal health, when the animal is kept in captivity. Such characteristics are seen as risk factors.

As examples of relatively simple assessment criteria, these are the criteria in the Belgian royal decree.

  1. whether or not the animals of the species concerned are easy to keep and house, taking into account their essential physiological, ethological and ecological needs;
  2. the extent to which the animals of the species concerned are naturally aggressive and / or dangerous or pose another particular danger to human health;
  3. whether or not there are clear indications that the species can survive in nature when specimens escape from captivity, thereby posing an ecological threat;
  4. the availability of bibliographic data on the keeping of the species;
  5. in the event of conflicting information about the suitability of a species to be kept, one or more of the above criteria are considered not to be met.

In terms of weights of criteria: In the Netherlands, the criteria of risks to human will probably receive extra weight by the policy makers. So when a species carries a high zoonotic risk or a high risk of inflicting serious injury, it will automatically not be put on the Positive List. In Belgium, there were no differences in the weight given to the different risk-assessment criteria.

There are scientific publications about the physiological, ethological and ecological needs of many species in their natural environment. However scientific literature indicating that those needs cannot or only partially be respected in a domestic household environment, are likely more challenging to find. It will highly depend on the assessment criteria chosen, whether or not assessors are able to find reliable, state of the art scientific data to assess a species on those criteria. In case of insufficient or inconclusive scientific data, the precautionary principle can be applied. This ensures a “no, unless” approach. In the Belgian Positive List, this principle is enshrined in the fifth assessment criterion: in the event of conflicting data or information, the animal is given the benefit of the doubt and isn’t included in the Positive List.
You cannot blindly copy from other countries, but you can certainly learn from their experiences. Every country has its own legal framework, in which a Positive List has to fit. Decision-making processes, good governance principles and legal requirements differ per country, and therefore the context in which a Positive List has to be designed and implemented will also change per country. Even though each Positive List has the same objective – to only allow pet species that are suitable and safe to be kept by any individual – the assessed species, the assessment criteria and process, and the standard of acceptable risk, can differ per country.
Rescue centres usually have a rescue centre permit and/or a zoo permit because of their necessary role of caring for seized, confiscated or surrendered animals. This is a different permit than the one that can be granted to a specialized keeper. It is up to the authorities to design such an exemption-arrangement for specialist keepers. They will then be allowed to keep certain species with a higher risk profile , provided they are able to prove that they possess the required knowledge and have the proper facilities to take care of these species.

The possibility to request that a certain species is added to or removed from the Positive List is a mandatory requirement set by EU Law. This possibility to request a change to the list should be enshrined in the Law or a regulation, the decision-making should be done within a reasonable timeframe, and the decision should be open to appeal in court. It depends per country how this procedure is set up.

In Belgium, anyone can request that a species is added to or removed from the Positive List. They charge a fee of 60 EUR for each request to deter non-serious requests. A request has to be motivated and substantiated, by adding sufficient objective scientific data that indicates that the species concerned is suitable to be kept as pet by any layman. The Minister will take a decision on the request within six months. In the Netherlands, a similar procedure is expected.