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Beijing's pets go exotic

2012-08-06 10:24 Global Times     Web Editor: Wang YuXia comment

For the last five years, Zhan Guobing has kept a ball python. He first bought it in 2006 in Guanyuan, a market in Xicheng district that features all sorts of pets, both commonplace and exotic.

"I have a small child at home, so I couldn't get a very fierce snake. I decided on a snake with a relatively docile temperament," he said.

The ball python, the smallest of the African pythons, is popular among the pet-owners market, Zhan said. The name "ball python" refers to its tendency to curl up into a ball when alone due to its timid nature.

Zhan had friends that kept snakes, even as large as the boa constrictor, which could sell for over 10,000 yuan ($1,569). He said he and his friends often gather to show off their latest acquisitions.

In recent years, keeping exotic pets has become increasingly popular in Beijing.

In Guanyuan, Sanliqiao and a few other pet markets, many stores now cater to this niche by selling snakes, scorpions or lizards.

However, more and more news reports about exotic pets have been surfacing. On July 25, the Legal Mirror reported that a three-meter boa constrictor had been found in a residential compound in Tongzhou district. It was eventually captured by firefighters.

Alluring and exciting

On a Friday afternoon at underground Xinguanyuan market in Xicheng district, Cao Rui sits inside her 10-square-meter store, surrounded by shelves of lizards, spiders, snakes, scorpions and turtles.

She has been tending this store for over three years, jumping at the chance of tapping into these animals' popularity. 

Her spiders rest in plastic containers, stacked up on shelves by the door. Curious customers wander outside her door, whispering and daring each other to look at the big spiders as they pass by. 

"Take spiders, for example," Cao explains. "Young people might think it's cool or dare each other to hold a big, furry spider on your palm."

Another store owner, surnamed Huang, said another reason people are starting to like these exotic animals is they are so much less trouble for their owners.

Snakes and lizards can eat crickets, which can be easily bought at pet stores. They do not need much attention and usually stay in their own cages.

"The pets are not expensive either," she said. "Smaller ones are a couple hundred yuan, and the bigger lizards I sell for about 400."

For the buyers, their love for exotic pets is spontaneous and stems from their own experiences.

Zhan said his love of snakes came from childhood. He grew up in Northwest China's Shaanxi Province where snakes are common. He kept grass snakes as a kid and grew fond of them.

Sun Zhixin bought a scorpion from Cao's store.

He said he grew up with his grandfather, who kept all kinds of pets including pigeons, fish, crickets, cats and dogs.

Furthermore, when he was in the military, he used to go into the mountains with his squad and capture scorpions for fun.

Sun also said he visits what he calls a linglei (unusual) online pet forum called Paxing Tianxia, which gave him lots of tips on what linglei pets to get and how to raise them.

Upkeep and safety issues

Both the stores and pet owners say they are safety-conscious.

"Ball pythons are very gentle and never actively attack people," Zhan said.

"Unless you just touched a rat, its favorite food, and your hands have that smell. But even so, they don't bite."

Zhan also expressed that those ball pythons can only grow to 180 centimeters in length and this is also one of the reasons why he didn't buy the more beautiful but ferocious snakes.

Sun said he learned from Paxing Tianxia to put a small plastic tube over his scorpions' stingers to stop them from hurting anyone. 

"Even if these types of scorpions sting you, it doesn't hurt that much. It's just like a bee sting," Cao said.

The scorpions and spiders she sells are usually not poisonous and the snakes don't bite unless agitated.

"Even if customers wanted to buy poisonous ones, we wouldn't dare to stock such animals," she said.

However, even though more and more people are keeping exotic pets, the lack of regulation is becoming a growing concern.

Lack of legal framework

The Beijing Animal Health Inspection Bureau told the Global Times by e-mail that it inspects pet farms, transportation chains and medical facilities.

There are specific laws concerning animal management and epidemic prevention but none tackling pet control after animals are sold.

Tang Chunlin, a lawyer who specializes in cases concerning pets, said if pets hurt people, the owner should take full legal responsibility.

"As of now, there's no specific law regarding animals hurting people, let alone exotic animals. We usually treat them as liability cases," he said.

Not many people would choose to sue if they are hurt by pets; they usually solve conflicts privately.

The government does have strict laws regarding protected wild animals, Tang said. It's almost impossible to find a loophole as the government has made a list of what animals cannot enter the market and enforces this law very strictly.

However, black markets and illegal production chains still exist, he said. Exotic animals such as piranhas or boas can be smuggled into the country or captured in the wild.

"It is easy for the police to distinguish between wild and tame animals, but not for the public," he said. He also recommends that anyone who owns or plans to buy exotic pets educate themselves properly before doing so.

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