On March 4, the animated feature film, Rango, starring Johnny Depp as the movie’s star–a pet chameleon who ditches his pet lizard tank and winds up in Dirt, a Mojave desert town–opens. While the movie may very well delight viewers, it may also spark a spike in sales of these exotic reptiles as pets.

Trends in pet ownership are often influenced by pop culture. According to EcoHealth AllianceThe Princess and the Frog, was related to increased amphibian sales in 2009 — and that year an outbreak of Salmonella typhimurium, which was linked to contact with infected pet frogs, sickened 85 people from 31 states. Similarly, the film Finding Nemo prompted increased demand for clownfish from tropical fish dealers.

The number of live animals imported into the United States for the pet trade is huge–about 2 billion animals each year. At the same time, this legal pet trade also spurs significant ILLEGAL wildlife trade, which may be worth as much as $20 billion a year.

While many animals in the pet trade are captive bred, huge numbers are taken from the wild and many die in the process. For example, for every one parrot that makes it to a pet owner, nine may perish. Aquarium fish suffer in transit, with a 5% mortality rate considered “acceptable” by the industry. In fact, industry experts expect that up to 99% will be dead within a year due to either “post traumatic shipping disorder” and ill health from poor conditions in transit that stresses the fish or else inadequate conditions by owners.

Exotic pets are often difficult to keep. Many owners get frustrated and can’t handle them. It’s common to hear stories of pet chimpanzees that are confined to small cages after they become adolescents (three to five years old) and are “unmanageable.”  For smaller species, like snakes, lizards or fish, owners often decide they’re too much trouble and release them to a nearby river or other environment, where they then may out-compete native species or else die. That was the case for an Amazonian pacu (related to piranha) that someone released in Otter Creek in Vermont and couldn’t survive the winter.

Rather than Rango prompting parents to go out an buy a pet chameleon, wouldn’t it be nice if it could instead prompt discussion on the problems of exotic pet ownership?