Dragon in an HDB flat

Meet some of HDB's exotic and illegal tenants

Exotic pets are finding homes and thriving in high-rise Singapore, despite strict laws and stiff fines against ownership. Insight examines the scene here.

(Clockwise) A bearded dragon, baby spectacled caiman and a hedgehog. PHOTO: AQIL HAZIQ MAHMUD / MATTHEW MOHAN
Undergraduate Nina has owned Fatty, a bearded dragon, for three years. Under the local law, she could face a maximum fine of S$1,000 per animal for keeping Fatty and four other geckos, and have them confiscated.

Fatty the bearded dragon crawls around a Housing Board executive flat on its stubby legs. The blotchy orange beast belongs to a species of lizards named for its "beard" - the underside of its throat that turns black when it is stressed.

Four leopard geckos curl up nearby under plastic rocks in tanks.

"Fatty's very docile," says their owner, 23-year-old undergraduate Nina, as she strokes the scaly animal. (All names of exotic pet owners, smugglers and sellers have been withheld owing to the illicit nature of the industry.)

The half-metre-long bearded dragon is so well behaved that even Nina's mother can handle it.

However, under the Wild Animals and Birds Act, it is illegal to keep, trap or kill wild animals such as Fatty without a licence. If found guilty, Nina could face a fine of $1,000 per animal and have her five reptiles confiscated.

If the animals are protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (Cites), offenders without a Cites permit can be fined up to $50,000 per specimen (up to $500,000 in total), and/or be jailed for up to two years.

On Wednesday, Tai Qi Hui, 32, was fined $6,900 for having illegal wildlife in her possession, including 14 exotic lizards, a snake, an ornate horned frog and an endangered veiled chameleon.

The only live animals allowed for sale and possession in Singapore are dogs, cats, small rodents, licensed fish and birds, as well as three species of reptiles and amphibians - red-eared terrapins, green tree frogs and Malayan box turtles - and land hermit crabs.

However, the keeping of exotic animals as pets, and the trade in them, is on the rise. The number of cases involving their possession or sale doubled from 10 in 2014 to 20 in 2015, says the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

Cases involving illegal live wildlife seized in Singapore have also gone up. The number more than doubled from 12 in 2014 to 25 in 2015, according to news reports. Last year, 31 cases were reported.

And it can be a lucrative trade. One Singapore dealer says he sold a tiger for $40,000 and a clouded leopard for $12,000.

The AVA notes that animals such as reptiles, amphibians and primates are unsuitable as pets because they disrupt the ecosystem and affect Singapore's biodiversity if released into the wild.

Yet, some are calling for the laws to be relaxed, claiming that the authorities are lax in enforcing them. The AVA could not immediately be reached for comment.

Others say the high demand in the region for the exotic animals is driving them to extinction, and want enforcement stepped up.


Rachel (above) with one of her snakes. She keeps them in plastic boxes on top of her bedroom cabinet, away from her mother. PHOTOS: MATTHEW MOHAN

Wildlife trade monitoring network Traffic has ranked Singapore among the world's top 10 wildlife smuggling hubs. Traders exploit the Republic's efficient transport links and strategic geographical location to fuel the desire for exotic pets in the region.

This is in spite of the country being a signatory to Cites - an international agreement signed in 1986 to ensure that trade does not threaten wildlife species with extinction.

What's more, exotic pet ownership among Singaporeans means the Republic is more than just a conduit for illegal exotic animals, say wildlife activists.

"A lot of the animals are stopping here," says Mr Kalai Vanan, deputy chief executive of wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres).

Last year, Acres handled 133 wildlife trade cases, including those involving live animals and animal parts. It also receives two to three illegal exotic pet-related calls per week. In cases where exotic pets are abandoned, the non-profit group houses them at its Wildlife Rescue Centre before repatriating them to their countries of origin.

"It's definitely a problem," says Mr Kalai. "We've no idea how many out there are being owned. The numbers are probably staggering."


Above: Jo's hedgehog, which was a gift from a friend. PHOTOS: AQIL HAZIQ MAHMUD, MATTHEW MOHAN

Sneaked across the Causeway last year, Tako the hedgehog was a surprise gift for 24-year-old barista Jo, who keeps the eight-month-old creature in her HDB flat.

"I just made a random comment like, 'I wish I had a hedgehog'. Then, I went overseas and came back, and my friend was like, 'I bought you one'," she says.

Experts note that people are motivated to own the animals by a variety of psychological factors. These include the prestige factor, or the desire to be different, says Dr Michael Gumert, a psychology professor at Nanyang Technological University.

"If you have something that is rare and unique, that's more valuable than something common," he says."(Also) some people like exotic things more than others. They want something cool."

This resonates with owners such as Dut, 41, who has been keeping exotic pets for the past 15 years.

"If you look at the people who keep reptiles, there's a certain type. It is because they don't like the mainstream," notes the graphic designer, who owns two bearded dragons and a black tarantula from Brazil.


James' Indian star tortoises (above) were a gift from his late grandfather. PHOTO: MATTHEW MOHAN

The welfare of exotic pets in captivity is a concern that the authorities and animal rights groups share.

According to the AVA, exotic pets are likely to be subjected to "unsuitable living conditions, poor diet and pet owners' lack of knowledge of proper care".

Acres founder and Member of Parliament Louis Ng agrees. "In the vast majority of cases we see, these animals are housed in appalling conditions."

But Nina insists: "Reptiles die easily because of irresponsible people. You have to be disciplined as an owner."

Fatty swivels its chunky head to stare at her as she explains how she paid close to $1,000 for it: "Its former owner was about to emigrate, and if I didn't take Fatty, he would have let it go in the wild."

However, the AVA points out on its website that there is the risk that exotic pets might sneak out and traumatise neighbours.

Indeed, a metre-long ball python owned by Li, who is in his 60s, escaped. "I forgot to put the weight on top of its tank, and the snake came out and caused my talking mynah bird to have a heart attack."

According to Moses, the 25-year-old owner of three snakes and a baby caiman, ball pythons are "escape artists". Just three years ago, his juvenile pastel ball python, which he had kept in a plastic box, slithered out of his flat.

Residents in his estate say they are wary of such pets. One said she would be concerned if her neighbour owned a pet snake that might threaten her daughter's well-being.

But Nina's 15-year-old neighbour has no qualms about visiting Fatty. The secondary school student says: "Reptiles are cool."


Above: Moses' baby spectacled caiman that he bought for $800. PHOTOS: AQIL HAZIQ MAHMUD, MATTHEW MOHAN

So is the current ban on keeping exotic pets necessary?

Acres thinks it is. "Somewhere along the line, they were all wild caught, bred in horrible conditions just to cater to those people trying to make money," says Mr Kalai.

Some say more could be done to enforce the ban. They claim that the AVA does not prioritise clamping down on the illegal pet industry.

"Because the pet trade is one of our big industries, the AVA doesn't want to rock the boat," says wildlife consultant Subaraj Rajathurai. "So, they are not as efficient in the enforcement as they should be."

Traffic South-east Asia's regional director Chris Shepherd, meanwhile, says the local authorities "have been doing a lot more than other countries in the region, but still could do more".

"We really need to see these wildlife traders put in jail," he adds, urging enforcement agencies to impose stricter penalties and conduct more thorough investigations.

When it comes to enforcement, the AVA works with Acres to conduct raids in illegal wildlife cases, especially after receiving tip-offs.

During raids, AVA officers can also seize laptops and mobile phones belonging to those suspected of operating large-scale illegal wildlife businesses.

In 2014, Acres called for harsher reprisals against a man who illegally kept 32 wild animals. He was fined $41,000, an amount Acres said was less than a tenth of the maximum he was facing.

A year later, Acres also proposed tackling the trade by using sniffer dogs at border checkpoints, but the AVA said it was less cost-effective than existing methods like routine or random checks.

Mr Bernard Harrison, who was executive director of the Singapore Zoo for nearly two decades, says the authorities could do better: "If they felt it was important, they would."

Addressing the problem will take more than just a change in mentality, though. Mr Ng says the AVA's wildlife section does not send a "very strong deterrent message to would-be offenders or traders" because it has insufficient resources.

"I want to increase the number of enforcement officers - there are only three senior inspectors to manage the entire wildlife trade in Singapore," he says, adding that he will take the issue to Parliament.


Above: Nina feeds Fatty crickets and meal worms. PHOTOS: AQIL HAZIQ MAHMUD, MATTHEW MOHAN.

Despite the argument against keeping exotic pets, however, some experts feel that it is time to review the current wide-ranging ban.

Dr Fred Chua, a veterinarian who has treated exotic pets for more than a decade, wants exceptions for certain animals like Indian star tortoises. He explains that reptiles like tortoises are not big eaters, so they will not affect local biodiversity if released. They also have little chance of survival in the wild because of Singapore's tropical environment, he adds.

Sugar gliders, too, can be kept at home, provided they are given ample space, says Mr Harrison. "You can keep exotic animals pretty well in captivity, and if you treat them well, there isn't a problem with the animal welfare side."

He calls for serious exotic pet enthusiasts to lobby for legalisation. "If they worked out some strategies that would allow them to abide by certain protocol, and breed these pets so they'd be disease-free, I'm sure it could be done."

Together with the National Parks Board, the AVA studies how an escaped pet would affect native wildlife before permitting an animal to be kept. Nearly a decade ago, the green tree frog and Malayan box turtle, both previously banned, were legalised as pets.


Until efforts are stepped up, illegal pet dealers and owners continue to be one step ahead of the authorities.

Retired army commando Freddy, 50, once whisked seven African helmeted turtles from under the noses of three AVA officers.

His friend, who kept the turtles illegally, called him for help and stalled the officers. Before they could return later that evening, Freddy went to his friend's flat and stuffed the turtles into a bag. The AVA officers returned that evening to find nothing illegal. "I was puzzled. If the AVA really wanted to check, they would have stayed."

Some owners show off their illegal pets on social media without fear of getting caught. Marketing executives Charlotte and Rachel, both 24, own a Mexican kingsnake, corn snake and two ball pythons. The close friends have no qualms about sharing photos of their serpents on Snapchat and Instagram.

Charlotte says: "There are friends who ask if I'm scared of getting caught, but I can say that I'm in Malaysia or at my friend's house."

She suggests introducing a permit system that requires exotic pet owners to pass a rigorous course on handling such animals. After permits are issued, she says, the authorities could conduct routine checks on the pets.

"Then again," she concedes, "this is not exactly a 'must-have'."

This feature is adapted from a final-year project by three journalism students from Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 04, 2017, with the headline Meet some of HDB's exotic and illegal tenants. Subscribe