The perfect small pet might be right under your nose

I can’t remember exactly how this pet came into my life, but I distinctly remember it being one of the coolest, most interesting, and easiest critters I’d ever had.

And grew up with a lot of pets.

Dogs and cats, yes. But also chinchillas, cockatiels, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, gerbils, fish, a rabbit, a hedgehog, and an assortment of frogs/toads. Oh, and a leopard gecko. And a bunch of hermit crabs. And one impulse-adopted escape-artist shrimp.

(Despite all indications to the contrary, I did not grow up on a farm or a zoo.)

I loved all those pets, in one way or another. Some were friendlier than others, some were challenging to keep, and some became my best friends. No matter the species, all of my many pets had the best home I could give them at the time, and were all special to me.

But one tiny pet made a big mark on my memory.

The stick bug.

aka stick insect, aka walking stick, aka phasmid

Now, I am not a bug lover. Insects play a vital role in the ecosystem, sure, but I wouldn’t be too upset if I never saw another spider in my house ever again. Yuck.

So for me to keep an insect as a pet was a pretty big deal.

The stick bug – which, sadly, I never named – was highly cool. It was about 8 inches long, greenish-brown, skinny, and a dead ringer for an actual stick. When I could spot it, that is.

There’s more than one in here! How many do you see? Image: Phasmid Study Group

There are a lot of ‘pros’ for keeping a walking stick insect as a pet.

  • Walking sticks are surprisingly friendly. When handled slowly and gently, they don’t seem to mind being picked up. It’s hard to tell, but they might even like it, since they’ll crawl onto your hand quite readily. Like any animal, they can bite when handled roughly, but it’s extremely unlikely.
  • They’re super chill. They don’t scurry, dart, scuttle, jump, or fly. All they do is walk slowly in a non-creepy way. They have no interest (or ability) to infest your home if they escape.
  • They eat romaine lettuce. In nature, stick insects eat whatever plants are outside, but in captivity, a leaf of lettuce is all they need. Now, this is species-dependent, so you really must do some googling to make sure you’re feeding yours correctly.
  • They’re silent, odorless, and clean. Your landlord will have nothing to complain about.
  • They’re low maintenance. A stick insect will live quite happily in a well-ventilated 10-15 gallon aquarium decked out with twigs and leaves. Room temperature is just right for them, and a gentle daily misting provides all the water they need. Of course, you’ll need to remember to clean up wilted lettuce and refresh the environments once in awhile, but other than that, there’s not a lot of care. Arguably, walking sticks are the easiest exotic pet there is.
  • They don’t have long lifespans. Time to get real. If you’re not sure how much of a commitment you want to make to small pet ownership, you’re in luck. Stick bugs only live about a year.

If you can’t (or don’t want to) care for a cat, dog, or hamster, walking sticks might be just the ticket.

Best of all, they live wherever you do.

Stick insects live on every continent except Antarctica, and if you have a keen eye, you can probably find one in your backyard right now.

I did once. I have no idea how I managed to see this little fella walking in the grass outside my home, but I did. 

Do you see it?

Sounds awesome right? Read this fine print before you bring one home.

  • Stick insects are just as fragile as they look. Only careful adults should pick them up, and even then only as gently as possible.
  • Make sure there’s enough room for your bug’s environment, because they can get quite large. They like to hang upside down, too, so the top of the aquarium/terrarium should be mesh.
  • Purchase your insect from a reputable company. It’s not nice to take wild animals from their natural environment. On the other hand, non-native stick insects are illegal to keep as pets in the US, so do some research either way.
  • Important: If you have a pet stick bug, do not let it outside. Depending on the species you’ve adopted, it could be an invasive ecological pest.

If you do decide to get a pet walking stick insect, be a responsible pet parent (because it is a pet) and do your homework. There are over 3,000 phasmid species to explore!

But if you aren’t ready for that kind of commitment, just take another look in your backyard! You might be in for a surprise.

Harness the power of social media to fight illegal animal trafficking

You love animals. Of course you do! That’s why you love seeing adorable animal pictures on social media.

But if you really truly love animals, you’ll learn the signs of trafficking on social media and use those same tools to fight back.

Photo by dole777 on Unsplash

I know, baby tigers are cuter than anything, and you’ve always wanted to hug a monkey. Cheetahs riding in the back of Lamborghinis is the stuff of your most envious 1%er dreams.

That’s why Instagram shows it to you.

You can’t help but see perfectly-posed animals sharing our human space, and want to keep one as a pet. It’s science.

So whether it was intentional or not, social media has become the biggest driver for international animal trafficking, abuse, and the illegal wildlife trade.

That’s right. Black market animal trafficking doesn’t just happen on the darkweb anymore. You don’t even need to turn on incognito mode because happens right in front of our eyes.

And we “love” it.

A recent study of YouTube videos showed that when people see human-exotic animal interactions, the reactions are overwhelmingly positive.

Today, there are efforts in place on most social media platforms to slow pet sales. In 2017, Facebook and Instagram banned the sale of all animals: exotic or domestic. Their seemingly-robust algorithms frequently flag harmless products that reference threatened animals in any way. (Try posting an innocuous item on the Facebook marketplace and describe the color as “ivory” or “mink,” I dare you.) This might make you think what you’re seeing has been vetted by the algorithm and isn’t abuse.

But it can be.

Photo by Bisakha Datta on Unsplash

Animal traffickers are smarter than the platforms’ AI. They’ll phrase things a certain way, use specific terms, or use posed photos that don’t tell the whole story. This is how they list wild animals for sale to unsuspecting people like you and me.

You’ve seen this practice, I’m sure. Don’t we all have some relative who talks about the pandemic as “c0v1d” or types “wax seen” instead of vaccine? The idea is to trick the AI into thinking you’re talking about something else. And it often works!

Many of these practices are just as easy to spot. If you see the phrase “baby tiger for sale” along with a WhatsApp number, you can be pretty confident that illegal endangered animal trafficking is going on.

Facebook is one of the biggest drivers for sales, but Instagram is where people get the idea of owning these pets in the first place.

Most of us feel like Instagram is the most picture-perfect aspirational social media platform out there. So when we see our favorite influencer snuggling with their ultra-exotic pet, we want to do that, too.

Instagram knows about this.

If you search a specific hashtag like #slothselfie or #petcheetah, you’ll get a popup telling you that animal exploitation is wrong. But it’s a one-click bypass to see hundreds of jealousy-inducing photos. Try it in another language — particularly Arabic, because the majority of cheetah trafficking takes place in Saudi Arabia — and you’ll see even more posts and NO warning popup.

Photo by Ahmed Galal on Unsplash

Cheetahs are in especially hot water right now. They’ve come to symbolize extreme wealth, so owning one has become the ultimate status symbol, driving demand for this fragile species up. Way up.

In 2018, The Cheetah Conservation Fund found that 1,367 documented cheetahs went up for sale between 2012 and 2018.

That’s 20% of the entire cheetah population. In the world.

One fifth of all cheetahs were for sale, and most of them on social media.

And that’s just the ones that survived trafficking long enough to get posted.

Yeah.

The ACCO found that most wildlife trading takes place in broad daylight for everyone to see. No cloak and dagger, just public social media posts.

So here’s what we need to do.

  • Don’t like, share, or comment on any images that you think portray an illegal exotic pet or trafficked wild animal. Instead, like, share, or comment on images of animals living free in the wild or being cared for by reputable organizations. AZA-accredited zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, and reputable wildlife accounts that promote positive conservation and education get the green light.
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on touristy images of people snuggling with wild or endangered animals. It looks like an amazing bucket list experience, but it is abuse. This one can be hard to spot, since some of the hashtags and organizations putting them on look legit. These “encounter” experiences are often billed as humane or even as a conservation project, so many of us have fallen for this trap. But there are loads of humane wildlife tourism alternatives out there — support them instead!
  • Don’t like, share, or comment on anything that makes you think the animal (or a part of it) is for sale. Sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s not. Instead, report these crimes whenever you see them. If you think you’ve seen wildlife trafficking — including wild animals for sale, ivory or animal parts for sale, or abusive videos — report it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

But by reporting what we see and refusing to support abuse, we can do our small parts to reduce the demand on trafficked animals.

Photo by Waldemar Brandt on Unsplash

Top 5 Most Beautiful Pet Finches

previously published on Medium

Finches are lovely pets, inside and out.

They’re mild-mannered, stay small, eat a steady diet of seeds, and tend to be lower-maintenance as far as birds go. Give them plenty of space to hop around and socialize, and a handful of finches will reward you with a light, chirpy song.

Best of all, domestic finches are available in a rainbow of colors, from drab gray to a technicolor explosion. Not that you’d pick a pet based solely on looks, but it sure doesn’t hurt that these bouncy little birds are among the most striking pets on the market.

Here are five of the prettiest finches you can add to your aviary.

5. Zebra Finch

Look how cute these preppy little guys are!

Go to any pet store and it’s hard to miss the requisite flock of zebra finches popping around the cage, honking like they’ve swallowed tiny trumpets. They’re easy to find, inexpensive, and hardy. Even better, zebra finches stand out among ginches because they actually enjoy playing with humans, which makes them perfect for families and beginners.

I do, however, question their fashion choice of blending spots with stripes and wearing brown and black together.

4. Owl Finch

If you want a bird that makes even other bird owners go, “Wow, what kind of bird is that?” then you’re looking for an owl finch. Also known as the double-barred finch, clown finch, and Bicheno’s finch, these distinguished birds are best identified by their barn owl-like face and bold black band. Okay, so he’s not all that colorful, but he does make an impact. And the females look almost as bold!

Owl finches are less common birds can be pricy, but they do make decent pets and don’t mind having cage mates. They’re chatty, but not as boisterous as other finches. There’s a lot to love here.

3. Parrotfinch

There are many kinds of parrotfinches: blue-faced, red-headed, short-tailed, red-throated… and several other ‘adjective-body-part’ varieties. If you like the aesthetic of parrots but don’t want a pet who eats the woodwork, consider a showstopper like the parrotfinch.

Make sure they have plenty of space, though: parrotfinches belong in the wild or else in a humongous aviary. They don’t always do well as pets and are exorbitantly expensive, but they sure are head-turners. This bird is only for the experienced aviculturalist.

2. Strawberry Finch

Do you like strawberries? Would you like to see one in a cage? The male strawberry finch is named because, well, that’s exactly what he looks exactly like.

What’s cool about strawberry finches is that they actually change color! Males wear bright red, black, and white-spotted duing the mating season and drab plumage otherwise. Females are pretty cute, too, with their brown bodies, yellow bellies, and Maybelline-red beaks. Keep their cages large and full of greenery to prevent permanent color loss.

They have a lovely singing voice, too: not too loud, not too annoying. Just a sweet twittering song.

1. Gouldian Finch

yowza!

C’mon, you knew this was number one. Even the female is a riot of color. Green! Red! Purple! Yellow! Black! They look like a shaken-up jigsaw puzzle.

Gouldian finches are almost too pretty. You’ll want to pick it up and play with it, but they absolutely hate that. Gouldian finches are cage-only birds who are exceptionally fragile, quiet, and tricky to breed. They’re fussy but omg so gorgeous. Definitely not for beginners, but ideal for a large aviary with other finches.

Only seek out these handsome devils if you know for sure that they’re coming from a reputable breeder or are in a rehoming situation. Gouldian finches are near-threatened and facing endangerment in their native habitat, thanks to the booming pet industry.

Actually, that goes for all pet birds. Aviculture has only increased in popularity, and this has done no favors for the wild bird population, so do your homework and be a responsible pet owner.

Do skunks stink as pets?

Everyone knows a friend of a friend of a friend who has a pet skunk.

But I have a confession. I’ve always kind of wanted to be that friend with a skunk.

Can you blame me? They look so soft and cuddly. And I mean, just look at this adorable face!

those nails tho

But the only skunks I’ve ever encountered have been huddled under my front porch, lumbering across the lawn, or eternally resting on the side of the road. I’ve never had the chance to pet that luscious black and white fur.

I wonder what it’d be like to cut out those degrees of separation and actually pet a skunk. Thankfully, real life skunk owners do exist and they’ve shared their thoughts on the topic.

Do they stink?

Alright, let’s just get this one out of the way. We’re all wondering it. It’s the first thing anyone asks when the topic of pet skunks comes up. Heck, it’s the first thing anyone mentions when the topic of skunks in general comes up. Their smell is so iconic, it’s synonymous with their name.

Do pet skunks deserve that level of infamy?

Short answer

No. Well, maybe.

Long answer

Did you know that skunks don’t always smell? They spray their odor from a scent gland near their tail (I’m putting it mildly here) and otherwise smell no stronger than any other pet. If you can tolerate ferrets, you’ll have no problem with skunks.

Pet skunks that were born and bred in captivity (as all legally obtained pet skunks are) often have their stink glands removed in a process called descenting. Like declawing a cat, this is a controversial procedure since it takes away the animal’s entire self-defense system. But like declawing a cat, if it’s an indoor-only animal that might otherwise be surrendered after using its defense mechanism, it’s something to consider.

But…

The legality of owning a skunk is surprisingly snarly and one state actually prohibits the practice of descenting on the grounds of unnecessary mutilation akin to debarking a dog. So if you live in Wisconsin, your skunk’s gonna stink.

Another but…

Skunks only spray when they feel threatened. If skunkie was raised right, has no predators, and has gentle and loving human companions, it’ll probably keep its stink to itself for the vast majority of its life. But if your animal is sick, injured, or startled, you’ll need to get out the tomato juice.

Anyway, it’s just smell. It’s not like the odor can kill or even injure you.

So do pet skunks smell? No. Well, maybe.

Are pet skunks nice?

They’re as sweet as they look! They’re cuddly, curious, and very playful. Also sneaky — if you’ve lost your favorite teddy bear or guest towel, check the skunk cage. They like to line their “den” with soft squishiness.

If you start with a baby skunk, the best way to bond is to keep it tucked into your shirt or sweatshirt pocket. I can’t even. There’s nothing cuter.

Photo by Bryan Padron on Unsplash

They enjoy tug of war, roughhousing, and puzzles. Got a mysterious stain? Have a particularly interesting hiding place? Your skunk will find it!

This only applies to domesticated skunks, of course. The ones that live under my porch will never make good pets.

And like all pets — especially exotics — YMMV. You absolutely cannot predict your pet’s temperament. I had a hedgehog once and everyone on the internet swore up and down it would be a lovable, snuggly little pincushion, but he wasn’t. All he wanted to do was ignore me, run in his wheel, and eat hamburger meat.

Are they smart?

As a matter of fact, they are!

Skunks are scavengers, as you may have noticed when late-night wildlife gets into your garbage. They’re curious little critters, always looking for novelty and/or bugs. Skunk-proof your house or make a special playpen full of toys, blankets, and treat puzzles like those made for dogs.

They don’t make much sound, either, so that’s a plus if you know what it’s like to live with a yappy dog.

They can learn basic tricks and yes! They can be litterbox trained!

What do they eat?

Skunk food! Who knew, right?

If not skunk chow, feed your stinky pet human-grade fresh food like vegetables, cooked chicken, nuts, grains, and crickets. The Skunk Haven website has a full meal plan worked out and honestly? It looks more nutritionally complete than mine.

Skunks love bugs. If you have a spider problem in your home, get a skunk and boom. No more spiders.

How hard is it to care for a pet skunk?

Skunks can weigh between 15 and 20 pounds, live up to 10 years, and grow to 35 inches in length. They’re like large cats that way.

Not many vets want to work with skunks, but it’s important that you find one who will. Aside from distemper shots and flea/tick treatment, you’ll want to get your skunk neutered or spayed (hah! almost wrote sprayed) because they can get pretty riled up when the female is in heat, resulting in more than just more skunks. I’m talking about scratches, bites, and property damage. They get rowdy.

Keep your skunk in the biggest dog kennel you can find. They’ll need some room to move around in there since they’re crepuscular animals, meaning they are most active at dawn and twilight. You’re probably not.

They do not like being in their cages and will need toys, things to dig, and plenty of stuff to play with. Ideally, you’d devote a corner of your garden to your little stinker’s digging habits. Those nails are no joke, and if they don’t have the opportunity to use them for foraging, well…

Can pet skunks live outside?

Nope. Without their stinkiness, they have no way to defend themselves from predators, making them a juicy morsel for your local coyote population.

But what if it still has its stink glands?

It still shouldn’t be kept outside. Pet skunks are accustomed to people and will gladly approach a smiling human face… and that might not go over well. Imagine Pepe le Pew going in for cuddles from your local cat lady. Or worse, your varmint-hating neighbor with a 12-gauge. Not going to end well.

Also, they can really move if they want! It’s no problem for skunks to wander for miles at a time and no, they don’t have a good sense of direction. Your descented and domesticated skunk is a goner if it gets lost.

What about rabies?

Ah yes. Rabies.

Wild skunks are vectors and you really don’t want to get bitten. Unfortunately, there are no approved vaccines for pet skunks, so if your pet bites a human or another animal, it will be euthanized on suspicion of rabies. You definitely don’t want that to happen, so it is absolutely vital that your skunk is not aggressive and has been properly socialized. Eliminate all chances of skunk bites and you’ll be fine.

Is it even legal to own a pet skunk?

Depends on where you live. In the United States, only 17 states permit pet skunks and only two provinces in Canada. And it absolutely must come from a licensed breeder, pet store, etc. There are permits and legalities all over the place.

Bottom line. Should I get a skunk?

Skunks are basically cats but stinkier, pickier, and higher maintenance, somehow. But they’re cuddly, curious and just a lot of fun to own — if your expectations remain low. Not to mention the phrase “I have a pet skunk” is an incredible icebreaker.

So should you get a pet skunk? Probably not. Just see if you can track down that friend of a friend of a friend who has one and get your stinky fix that way.