Wild at Home: Exotic Animals as Pets

Video highlights from Animal Intervention

By Jodi Kendall Published Oct. 3, 2012

By Jodi Kendall

Published Oct. 3, 2012

One year ago, Zanesville, Ohio. Four deputies arrive at a private 46-acre farm just before dusk. They patrol the scene and discover owner Terry Thompson dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. The doors of dozens of exotic animal cages – including lions, tigers, cheetahs, wolves, and bears – are wide open.

More than 50 law enforcement officers take to the streets and staffers from the Columbus Zoo head to the Thompson property, all hoping to recapture the 50-plus escaped exotics before daybreak and keep the public safe. Three school districts are shut down, motorists warned to stay in their vehicles, and residents told to remain inside. In total, 48 animals – 39 of them big cats – are deemed a serious threat to public safety and shot and killed by officials.

A Controversial Issue Ignited

The horrific incident in Zanesville last fall fueled a rebirth of the controversial issue of regulating exotic pet ownership. At present, laws differ state-to-state on which exotic animals are legal to privately own and under what kind of license restriction, if any. But trading, selling, and breeding of exotics often crosses state lines and is difficult to regulate. It's estimated that between 10-20,000 big cats are currently in private hands in the United States – more tigers than in the wild – but no one, not even the USDA, knows for sure how many.

Animals that fall under the "exotic" category include honey bears, black panthers, leopards, poison dart frogs, bearded dragons, chimpanzees, and tigers. Tim Harrison, Public Safety Officer for the City of Oakwood, says that privately-owned alligators are one of the most common animals he's dealt with in his career. Other exotic pets on-the-loose that Harrison has rescued include an aggressive cougar and a poisonous Gaboon viper.

Wild Animals, Unique Needs

Does the average person have the necessary training, financial reserves, medical care insight, and animal know-how required to properly care for an exotic pet? Tigers living in the wild, for example, roam a large territory. Will a walk on a leash or an afternoon pacing an enclosure provide them with the natural behavioral needs they require? Animal welfare activists say no, while some exotic owners argue that big cats ¬– such as lions – are often lazy animals, sleeping as much as 20 hours per day.

Dangerous exotics require skilled handling. A venomous Monocled cobra – legal to own in some states, costing as little as a hundred bucks – will repeatedly strike when threatened. The typical 25-pound bobcat can take down prey eight times its size with ease. And mountain lions are known to kill prey just for the sake of killing.

These animals need secure housing structures, a point highlighted in the media earlier this year when two chimpanzees escaped from a private home and attacked cars in Las Vegas. Some exotics are excellent climbers and jumpers, requiring tall, sturdy fencing, like the red kangaroo that can jump six feet high.

Exotic pet ownership can also be expensive. On average, it costs up to $6,000 a year to care for an adult tiger in captivity. A mountain lion needs to eat 8-10 pounds of meat per day in order to survive. And buying an exotic pet can be a long-time commitment. A zebra can live 25 years, an American alligator up to 50 years, and a chimpanzee as long as a human. That's a long time to have a pet, especially one with unique needs and an unpredictable nature. 

If an exotic pet owner becomes overwhelmed with the care required for an animal, they may find there's nowhere to turn for help – zoos won't take them in, exotic dealers don't take them back, and sanctuaries can be strapped for cash and over tapped on space.

The Human-Animal Bond

Like one might bond with a domestic cat or dog, people who own exotic animals may feel a strong attachment to their pet, perhaps even a sense of mutual trust. Is this a false sense of security, or a human-animal connection that outsiders just can't understand

Tracy Coppola, Campaigns Officer for International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), contends that exotic animals should not be pets, and federal legislation should enforce this fact. "There's a disconnect," she says. "Many people don't realize these are wild animals that can never be domesticated, and as beautiful as they are, [they] can end human life.

"A few years ago a Connecticut woman, who had raised a chimpanzee since his birth, witnessed her pet attack and nearly kill her long-time friend. Animal behavior expert Nicolas Dodman told ABC News at the time that "most people with wild animals, they can do quite well for a period of time, but then something suddenly seems to go wrong... This particular chimp was 200 pounds. You're dealing with a 200-pound super strong athlete, and that's potentially a dangerous weapon." Also in 2009, a woman was killed by her pet 350-pound black bear while she cleaned his cage, and then in 2010, a man was attacked by his deer, an animal he had raised since it was a buck.

To some, these instances are terrifying examples of why exotic pets living in homes are ticking time bombs. To others, they're sensationalized incidents, few and far between. In the documentary The Elephant in the Living Room, REXANO co-founder Kukol states that "It seems like no matter how responsible we [exotic pet owners] are, no matter how much we prove in our statistics that we are not a public safety issue, the hysteria takes over and the government and extreme animal rights groups want to ban us."

Animal Intervention, a new show on Nat Geo Wild, dives into the complex, controversial world of exotic pet ownership, and follows three animal advocates as they investigate cases of wild animals living in peril in private homes, roadside zoos, ranches, and magic shows.

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