As a kid, I dreamed of living with lions or tigers. Perhaps this attraction to animals both soft and powerful is my earliest example of â€œcat-personâ€ leanings, but adulthood revealed ethical and legal concerns woven into this dangerous childhood fantasy.
Laws which define and restrict â€œexoticâ€ and/or â€œwildâ€ pets vary by states, counties and localities. News topics are just as diverse, ranging from people upset over ferret bans to a boy killed in North Carolina by a pet tiger in 2003, leading to a federal ban on interstate sale of lions, tigers and more. Itchmo articles include Paris Hiltonâ€™s menagerie plus zookeeper and a woman mourning for her pet monkey. A Maryland community newspaper covering the same pet monkey situation quoted Humane Society estimates that 15,000 nonhuman primates and 10,000 lions and tigers are kept as pets in the United States.
The Animal Protection Institute offered another monkey story in July 2007 â€“ this one about a Japanese macaque attacking an IRS agent in Mississippi. The monkeyâ€™s teeth had been removed, apparently as an attempt to keep it from expressing its wild nature. The blog for Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle recently featured more monkey anecdotes and the Captive Primate Safety act, a federal bill.
Itchmo also mentioned the story of a family who saved, rehabilitated and raised a deer only to have it seized by authorities. I was relieved when Newsweek reported Snowball would not be euthanized and thought it interesting the anonymous tip to authorities came, not from a neighbor concerned with nuisance or animal welfare, but from â€œan estranged relative.â€
At a glance, the reasons behind exotic/wild pet restrictions are generally concern for public safety, animal welfare or ecosystem stability since some animals are lost or intentionally released. A friend of mine cares for two small conures, one an owner give-up and the other obviously tame bird recovered from an outdoor feeder. An Alabama regulation banned possession, sale or release of â€œnon-indigenous venomous snakesâ€ after a spitting cobra went missing in Moody, Ala. in 2001 (see point 7). The Birmingham News reported the five-foot snake, owned by a man who tied snake handling to his religious beliefs, was capable of spitting venom up to 15 feet. He kept the reptile in a fish tank until its disappearance. I see no record the cobra was ever found.
A Stokes County, N.C., ordinance identifies both non-exotic and exotic (prohibited or restricted) animals while Daviess County, Ken., lists â€œAll felines (other than the domestic house cat), non-human primates, bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes, and venomous reptiles, and any crossbreed of such animals which have similar characteristics of the animals specified hereinâ€ as non-domestic animals which are prohibited. Daviess County also allows people to keep existing animals if they can prove the animals arrived before the ordinance was enacted. As I write, the state of Ohio is considering an exotic pet bill. The Animal Protection Institute is one of several online resources for those who wish to learn more about laws at the state level. Running Internet searches, visiting town and wildlife conservation Web sites or contacting local authorities can reveal other laws and ordinances.
Like so many animal issues, exotic or wild pets are a â€œhotâ€ topic, with passionate opinions and generally good intentions running in multiple directions. Once again, I reveal my affection for disclaimers by stating such a multi-faceted subject cannot be fully explored in 1,000 words, and this entry is admittedly more a reflection of my own mental gymnastics than every point of view on this issue. We can hunt these animals, but we cannot help them? Where should a legislative line be drawn? At what point does Good Samaritanism become potentially harmful to the animals, their caregivers or the public? Is it better for a wildlife rehabilitation center to handle recovery, instead of a local family? The questions in my head go on and on.
At times human life helps wildlife in a way that offers insight into their world. When I read Providence of a Sparrow by Chris Chester, I looked at the house sparrows at my feeder with new eyes. After finding a baby sparrow, Chester cared for the bird for years, turning his home into an aviary, with the help of his girlfriend and a vet tech. The journey of Chester and the bird, nicknamed â€œB,â€ is an experience rich with facts, opinions, ideas and friendship.
A fellow bird-watcher was less enthusiastic. Each attempt I made to discuss the book was met with, â€œI do NOT agree with keeping wild birds as pets.â€ Keeping wild birds as pets was not my point or, I felt, that of the author, but I changed the subject after a few rounds of interruptions. I am in unspoken agreement with her, actually, a contradiction to my instinct that, also, Chester did the right thing by saving B and other birds.
More than ten years ago my sister and I took the family dogs to a photo opportunity with â€œSantaâ€ to raise money for a local humane charity. As we waited in line, we saw all kinds of pets â€“ mostly canine. A woman behind us carried an animal in a blanket, and I expected a pug until I noticed a thick bald tail. She told us she found the cross-eyed opossum wandering around on her porch years earlier, its eyesight seemed compromised, and she raised it indoors. As she talked, I still remember the way the animal turned toward the sound of her voice, looking up at her caregiver with what I could only interpret as affection.
Who can help us identify when animals are more likely harmed than helped? An article on wolf-dog hybrids by Dr. Michael W. Fox, former vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, includes questions which could apply to a variety of â€œwildâ€ or â€œexoticâ€ pet situations. Fox recommends local governments target hybrid breeding and trading, while allowing existing hybrids to remain in their current homes if the environments are suitable.
Our lives are enriched by spending time with other species, and I believe companion animalsâ€™ lives are enriched as well. The two little cats I love have non-domestic ancestors in a distant family tree. But my own ancestors did not have modern knowledge to fuel their ethics during domestication or an Internet to offer them a monkey or lynx by mail. Even sincere interest, assistance or affection by some can lead to exploitation or abuse by others, a sad reality which should be considered.
I flinch at a photo of a large kitten crying out at the end of a leash, perhaps at the home of the Web siteâ€™s owner who sells wildlife born in captivity. Iâ€™ve heard a Chicago-area store has monkeys, foxes and more. And although no â€œBuy a Bambiâ€ operation was involved, even the Oregon deer story felt exponentially more complicated when another wild animal was born into the family.
Ask if a tiger makes a good pet (or a good neighbor) and youâ€™ll probably get a quick â€œNo!â€ Lines often blur when defining â€œwildâ€ and â€œexoticâ€ in the court of public opinion regarding birds, reptiles, ferrets and so on. May legislators and others trying to create such definitions choose wisely. For now, I return to the research that may firm up the boundaries of my own opinions.
Photo: greenstreet software