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Heavy petting

2012-02-08 08:50 Global Times     Web Editor: Xu Rui comment
Rare spiders, lizards, snakes, rats, cockroaches and ants are among the favored pets for some young people. [Photo: CFP]

Rare spiders, lizards, snakes, rats, cockroaches and ants are among the favored pets for some young people. [Photo: CFP]

Xu Jian shares his apartment with "Big S" who has become very dependent on his friend. Xu has never left "Big S" alone for more than one day. He feeds his friend, plays with him and even bathes him. "I probably treat him better than I will my future son," the 27-year-old said.

"Big S" is a 5-year-old gold Burmese python who stretches to 4 meters and weighs 40 kilograms. Xu bought the rare subspecies of the Indian python for 3,000 yuan ($475) when he was newly hatched and little bigger than a worm.

On cold nights, Xu wakes up regularly to check whether the heating system of the python's glass cage is working - the species can only survive in a temperature above 20 C. Once he had to try to catch baby rats in alleys when the store which supplied baby rats closed down. Baby rats are the only food the python eats. He also has to put up with the snake's bad temper, his flickering tongue and the occasional nip.

"Big S is worth it all. Nothing makes me happier than when he shows his affection by curling around my neck and arms," Xu said.

A shared passion

If this was true love then Xu's previous dates had been spiders and lizards. These days he shares stories with other lovers of rare pets through the Internet. In a forum dedicated to looking after rare pets Xu chats with thousands of fellow Shanghai enthusiasts. "Some of us love them, others adopt them because it is fashionable," Xu said.

It's fashion that promotes the market in rare spiders, lizards, snakes, rats, and even cockroaches and ants. They can be found in many of Shanghai's pet stores and on the Internet. According to insiders, there can be a profit margin of up to 90 percent for supplying the right creature.

But there are problems in the rare pet market which lacks regulation and supervision. Problems include illegally trading protected species and threats to ecological systems caused by harmful exotic species that have been abandoned by their owners. According to Shanghai media reports, an estimated 1 million people in China own exotic pets and many of these are protected species.

Last month the body of a 2-meter crocodile was found under the Zhaojia Bridge in Pudong New Area. Three years ago a 1.50-meter long crocodile was found alive in the construction areas of subway Line 10 at the Siping Road Station in Yangpu district. They were estuarine crocodiles which were not thought to be local - experts say the species has long been extinct in Shanghai.

It is thought the crocodiles came from specialty restaurants or had been abandoned by pet owners. These beasts are listed as grade-two State protection animals which means an owner has to have a government license.

Most people enjoy pets but they need something more when the pet is ugly, cannot interact with anyone and can be lethal or poisonous.

Bonding with a fish

Wang is a middle-aged businessman who owns a red arowana, a carnivorous air breathing fish. Wang is amazed at how he and the fish have bonded. "You can build an emotional link with it by petting and stroking it when you feed it," he said.

He bought the fish for 30,000 yuan and has grown accustomed to sharing his good and bad moments with it as it swims in its aquarium tank. "I feel that gradually he has come to understand me. When I'm sad he stops swimming as if he is comforting me," Wang said.

One incident made him believe there really is a connection between them. "I suddenly woke up at midnight a few months ago for no reason. I got dressed and went to the living room. There I saw the fish lying on the floor, gasping for oxygen (the arowana are prodigious jumpers). I quickly got him back into the aquarium. Later I learned that if an arowana is out of water for more than 30 minutes, it will die. It was amazing - the fish sent a cry for help and I responded," Wang said.

Python owner Xu said there was nothing strange about loving reptiles. "If you like them, you like them. If you need a reason to own these pets, then you do not truly love them," Xu said.

What attracts him is the independence snakes have. "Snakes are very independent, unlike cats and dogs that constantly pester their owners. I feel relaxed when I see it wriggling quietly along the floor or climbing up the tree branches in its cage," Xu said. "Snakes stay the same no matter how their surroundings change and how they are treated. This is the kind of person I want to become."

Psychologist Liu Tiegang said that everyone has the characteristics of some animal, and people can get a sense of identity from owning pets. "By owning dangerous or uncommon pets, people get a sense of accomplishment as if they have tamed a dangerous animal. People who love rare pets are usually those who value their own personality and individuality. They own rare pets as a sign that they stand out from the crowd and they are different from everyone else."

Xu said he disapproves of people who buy rare pets to show off or follow a fashion trend. "Pets are living creatures - they are not pieces of clothing that you can throw away if you stop liking them. It is irresponsible to own a pet just out of curiosity. Some reptiles can live for several decades, but curiosity will never last that long," Xu said. "If these animals are abandoned, they are more miserable than stray cats and dogs and it is less likely that they will find another owner. Not many people truly love these species, not like cats and dogs."

Attractive webs

Where there is a demand someone will find a way to profit from it. Gong runs a shop that stocks spiders of all sizes and colors on Xizang Road South. "Most of my customers are young people. For one thing, raising a spider makes them special among their peers. For the other, it is relatively easy to raise them - they need very little space and food, and you don't have to spend time walking them," Gong said.

Gong's original business plan was to run a firm that extracted spider venom which would then be sold to laboratories, hospitals and clinics. But then he saw the profits in the live trade. He can sell a pet spider for 150 yuan. One female spider can lay 200 to 300 eggs in a year and feeding the spider families is very cheap. "You don't have to worry about the customer base. It is easy for a 20-square-meter shop to take 10,000 yuan a month," he said.

He sells Chilean rose tarantulas, Brazilian white-knee tarantulas and Mexican red-rump tarantulas which all grow to a considerable size (as large as a large hand). They are not poisonous although if someone is allergic to them, their bites can cause some suffering.

On, China's largest online shopping platform, there are 38 sites offering rare pets which they can post to their customers. The owners of a Beijing-based online shop said they could deliver a baby crocodile for 1,000 yuan. "They are very easy to keep. They just need a large tank and some small fish to eat," said one of the owners who offered to send a baby crocodile by express delivery, in an undercover interview with the Global Times.

However He Weiguang, the keeper of carnivorous animals in Shanghai Zoo, said it was very difficult for ordinary people to look after crocodiles. "Crocodiles need to hibernate and they need to be kept at the correct temperature when they do this," he said. "In the zoo the minimum temperature for crocodiles is set at 10 C." He said the dead crocodile found last month had frozen to death. "It could be dangerous owning a crocodile without specialist knowledge."

What is certainly dangerous is abandoning these pets. Pets such as spiders, rats and scorpions can breed rapidly, upset the eco-balance and spread disease.


Last year the Shanghai Wildlife Conservation Association found more than 100 red-eared terrapins abandoned. This terrapin species has been listed as one of the most dangerous exotic species by world environment protection organizations. "They have no natural enemies in China and breed rapidly. They hijack natural resources and threaten the survival of any similar species," said an association officer.

If protected animals are involved in any business deal, it becomes a crime. According to the laws for the protection of wildlife, a domestication and breeding license is required for wildlife protected by the State. Anyone convicted of illegally buying, transporting or selling protected species or products can be jailed for up to 10 years.

Last December, two men were charged with illegally selling endangered wildlife - Chinese crocodile lizards - on the Internet and three other men were accused of illegally buying the endangered creatures. The crocodile lizard is listed as a first-class protected species in China. Prosecutors said the accused had broken China's Criminal Law regardless of whether they planned to keep them as pets or sell the animals.

However people sometimes escape the weight of the law. Last month a man who smuggled 11 baby crocodiles into Shanghai on a train last year had the charges against him dismissed after the court accepted that he was unaware he was supposed to apply for a license to transport them.

Python lover Xu admitted that he had no idea that his companion was first-grade protected species and that to keep it he should be licensed by the government. "As long as I keep it at home, no one will know."


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