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Exotic Animal World


Esther van der Westhuizen

James Lawrence

Helani Briers

In the heart of the Winelands you will find a small town called Klapmuts. It is an old town. Started 300 years ago as an ox wagon rest stop for farmers from the area, taking their produce to Cape Town, it is slowly growing into an area that tourists and other travellers cannot ignore or shoot through to other popular destinations, such as Franschhoek, Paarl and Stellenbosch.

A stone’s throw from Klapmuts, on the busy Route 44, lies the popular Exotic Animal World. It is a space where visitors can have a feel-good and guilt-free animal encounter experience unlike many other places where animals are kept in prison-type cages. Virtually all the inhabitants of this facility were once pets; some much loved, but many from homes where they lived less than perfect and healthy lives.

The gardens inside the large, covered 1500m2 greenhouse provide a stunning and beautifully landscaped home to various exotic and wild animals, all previously pets. Here you will find almost every animal that is available in the South African pet trade – from parrots to tarantulas, lemurs to piranhas, pythons to marmosets, chinchillas to ferrets, and many more exotic species. Animals are donated by private owners, or confiscated by CapeNature and various animal welfare agencies. Exotic Animal World is certainly not a conventional “zoo”, but a place where positive stories are told about the species in their care. In this paradise, most animals are free-roaming and great care is taken not to put these animals back into small, cramped cages.

The Exotic Animal World started its life 26 years ago as Butterfly World, where the focus was exclusively on free flying exotic, tropical butterflies. Butterfly World was a destination for countless magical family outings for years, a trusted centre of education, hosting multiple school groups every year. In fact, every visitor that walks through the door is inspired and informed about the magic and beauty of nature.

As the years followed, many different kinds of animals started to trickle in as donations and surrenders of exotic pets, where owners try to secure a better life for their pets. The trickle became a storm and the facility became the sanctuary it is today; a safe place for exotic ex-pets. Many owners are heart-broken when they have to leave their beloved parrot, marmoset or even corn snake behind, for a variety of reasons including moving to retirement centres, emigration or declining health of the owner. Then there are those owners who, without a backward glance, could not wait to get rid of an animal that looked cute and cuddly as a young baby, but grown into an unmanageable adult. Exotic Animal World rescues, rehabilitates, treats wounds and diseases and gives a comfortable home to hundreds of exotic pets and occasionally to indigenous wildlife species that have been brought in. Exotic Animal World works with a network of other shelters, welfare organizations and farms to ensure that animals that end up with them do not get caught in a spiral of animal trade. The centre also cares for countless illegal animals confiscated by nature conservation authorities.

During January 2022, the Exotic Animal World received more than 120 animals, to be cared for and housed in the current collection. Many of these needed veterinary treatment, mainly due to malnourishment; exotic animals have specialist diets that are often difficult to serve. All arrivals go through a series of assessment checks and to ascertain how and where they can be housed. Much attention is given to animals that arrive with mental challenges, especially large parrots that had been confined to small cages for years and showing abnormal behaviour such as excessive screaming, feather plucking and aggression. Sometimes it can take months, but most animals are successfully integrated into the large and spacious enclosures.

During the Covid-19 lockdown restrictions of 2020 and 2021, the facility had to function every day and at no times did the care and welfare of the animals falter. Many other operations such as building projects and regular maintenance work had to be suspended to ensure that all species were fed and housed properly. During the first weeks of hard lockdown some of the inhabitants were as shocked as their human caretakers by the quietness and silence of the park. The parrots stayed eerily silent while the marmoset monkeys showed extreme stress behaviour. Special travel permits had to be issued for keepers and essential volunteers to come to the facility and assist in keeping the ex-pets calm and tranquil.

One of the challenges facing Exotic Animal World is the unplanned influx of exotic animals. Any day can bring a message of an animal in need or an animal keeper must provide a comforting shoulder to cry on for an owner having to give away a beloved pet. Recently a manager drove to Vredenburg to pick up a marmoset destined for euthanasia – a four-hour drive of mercy to give a second life to an exotic ex-pet. On another few occasions unusual animals were found roaming in the Cape Town Harbour – lizards, an iguana, birds and monkeys. Animal welfare and nature conservation authorities brought shipments of smuggled Madagascan reptiles destined for the pet market in Europe, dozens of illegal tarantulas found on O R Thambo airport, small antelope and other animals found at roadblocks and many more animals confiscated, being kept without the correct permits. The journey for most animals in the exotic pet trade is harsh and unforgiving.

Some of the most rewarding tasks at the EAW are the visits by school learners. A very comprehensive and systematically developed educational program brings a fun and interesting angle to the natural science subject kids have to learn at school. The variety of animals at the facility means that they are shown almost all the categories of animals they encounter in their biology books: from arachnids to amphibians, fish to insects, reptiles to crustaceans, birds to worms, mammals to molluscs, as well as live examples of interesting processes such as metamorphosis. An outing for children in nature is always enjoyable and a very valid process in teaching the young ones about respect for nature and its inhabitants.

What are the differences between domestic and exotic pets? Most domestic pets have been living with humans for centuries and even millennia – the breeding of these animals make them suitable for companionship with humans or being working partners. Domestic pets do not need specialist conditions and their food is easily accessible from supermarkets. Exotic pets in many cases are removed straight from nature or are bred from wild caught parentages. It takes many generations for an animal to be domesticated – time that exotic animals did not have. While Exotic Animal World acknowledges that many owners care and love their exotic companions, it is clear that many more do not have the same sentiments towards their specialist pets. Many owners do not have the relevant knowledge and skills to look after their pet, and incorrect feeding and husbandry often occur. Veterinarian care for exotic animals is very expensive due to its specialist nature

Exotic Animal World is open every day of the week, every week of the year. Christmas Day is the only day when the facility is closed to the public, but even on that day a skeleton crew makes sure the animals are fed and cared for. A normal day starts with a check on all animals’ health and condition, then the keepers and cleaners move in to collect food plates and clean enclosures. In the Animal Care Centre section, two animal food chef cut and prepare kilograms of the best quality fruit, vegetables, meat and variety of seeds. They know exactly which animal get what type of food and the plates they prepare can compete with the best restaurants for humans! The keepers start to line up and take the food to various parts of the facility, where their charges are waiting for their breakfasts. Water bowls are scrubbed and filled; where necessary crucial maintenance of the enclosures occur. Some animals need nutrition three times a day, others three times a week. Most are fed again in the afternoon. A late afternoon check ensures that the night will be comfortable and the next morning the process start all over again.

The marketing team of Exotic Animal Team believes that visitors need to have a space to relax, enjoy and experience a positive animal encounter. The stories told are uplifting – there is enough bad news in the world and it is not necessary to add to it. The famous quote from the Senegalese forest engineer: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.” (Baba Dioum, 1968) is used as the pillar of the vision of Exotic Animal World.

The facility needs visitors more than anything else – the entry fee and the sale of goods in the retail store have to cover the expenses of caring for the animals. Visitors also are informed of their mission to instil the motto: “Appreciate, don’t keep” to minimise and reduce the suffering of countless exotic and wild animals kept as pets.

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