Friday, October 21, 2011

Thoughts About Exotic Pets

The newspapers and TV news shows (and undoubtedly the blogs) are abuzz with talk about the latest incident in Zanesville, OH, involving the suicide of a man who owned exotic pets, and his release of his pets. USA Today has covered the story, and that same paper has used the story as an opportunity to publicize the ongoing debate between those who think that people should be free to own such pets, and those who disagree.

In what seems to be one of the biggest ironies concerning that debate, the paper says that an organization called Born Free USA has long endorsed stronger laws against the ownership of such pets.

Has everyone at that organization developed amnesia? Have they even seen the movie Born Free, or read the book?

I remember the movie Born Free. As a 10 year old kid, it made a big impression on me back in the sixties, to the point that I fantasized about the possibility of owning my own lion cubs, or maybe even multiple lions, just as Joy Adamson had once done. That lovely theme song, which was later re-recorded by Andy Williams, only served to increase the appeal. Land Rover sales took off, I suspect, after the release of the movie. (Here in the USA, there were almost no Land Rovers at that time, since Land Rovers were less well known than Jeeps, and later on, Humvees.) Of course, I wasn't content to merely watch the movie. I eventually also read the book on which the movie was based. The fact that the movie was based on the true story of a white woman from the "civilized" island of the United Kingdom only served to increase my conviction that it might be feasible for me to own such creatures as my own pets.

Part of the appeal, I admit, came from the undeniable cuteness of those lion cubs! If they'd been as ugly as African warthogs or hyenas, or even hippos, who knows?

Right after seeing the movie (and discovering a liking for the jujubes candies they sold in the lobby), I crawled around my grandmother's St. Louis house, making baby lion sounds and occasionally rubbing my head against my mother's lower legs, and pretending to be a lion cub and undoubtedly annoying my mother and grandmother (though they might have also thought it was cute).

I never became an owner of exotic pets, but I think it likely that numerous others eventually did after seeing that movie and reading the book. I wonder how much of the current fashion for owning exotic pets could be traced to the popularity of that movie. Quite a bit, I suspect.

Therefore, it seems strange to me that the aforementioned organization would name itself after a movie which helped to plant the idea of exotic animal ownership in many folks' minds in the first place. (They certainly didn't get the idea from watching another movie, named "The Night of The Grizzly", starring Clint Walker.)

Those who actually read the book Born Free know that Joy Adamson found those lion cubs in the wild (which is very unlikely to happen anywhere in the United States). Later, she decided that the lions should be set free. Or rather, that decision was forced on her, by villagers who understandably weren't fond of Elsa after Elsa caused an elephant stampede!

To be sure, there can sometimes be a downside when one chooses to own "exotic animals" as pets. But the same thing can be said with regard to ostensibly "domesticated" pets.

When hearing from those who now oppose the practice of adopting "exotic" animals, we often hear phrases such as "wild animals are not pets". Really? You could have fooled me. Dogs, after all, started out as wild animals, just as cats did (a little bit later than dogs). The process of domestication did not happen overnight, or so the scientists and anthropologists tell us. If humans back in those days had taken the attitude that "wild animals are not pets", we would have no ostensibly "safe" and "domesticated" pet dogs or cats now. Someone had to be the first one to take a wild dog into his or her own home or cave, so that numerous generations of that dog's offspring could eventually become domesticated.

Anyone who's ever been disturbed by cats' prediliction for decimating the bird population knows that they still exhibit traits which might be describe accurately as "wild". The main reason most people aren't bothered by that prediliction is that cats do not normally see us as prey, due to the obvious size difference. (If you've ever seen the movie "The Incredible Shrinking Man", you may have gotten an idea of the extent to which that size difference changes the balance of power in the average pet-owning household.)

In fact, it's arguable that that process was and still is less than complete, considering that fatalities caused by dog attacks are hardly an unknown phenomenon. In fact, I knew a Chicago woman whose young (and very cute) niece was killed that way. is a web site which focuses on such attacks.

  • 33 U.S. fatal dog attacks occurred in 2010. Despite being regulated in Military Housing areas and over 650 U.S. cities, pit bulls led these attacks accounting for 67% (22). Pit bulls make up approximately 5% of the total U.S. dog population.2
  • In 2010, the combination of pit bulls (22) and rottweilers (4) accounted for 79% of all fatal attacks. In the 6-year period from 2005 to 2010, this same combination accounted for 71% (129) of the total recorded deaths (181).
Oh, but that's much different. At least they were "domestic" pit bulls and rottweilers! That knowledge must have been quite comforting to the relatives of the deceased, don't you think? (Needless to say, I jest.)

Some defenders of those dog breeds would point out that they aren't all bad or dangerous, and that may be true on a dog by dog basis; but the fact remains that they were bred specifically to be fighters. There's a reason why they are so popular in inner city neighborhoods which, not coincidentally in my opinion, also "happen" to be dominated by gangbangers (who are almost certainly more dangerous than any of their dogs, if not necessarily any smarter than their dogs).

I'd like to know: How many human  fatalities can be accurately attributed in the US to ownership of "exotic" animals? More to the point, how does that number compare to the number of deaths caused by so-called "domestic animals" such as the aforementioned dog breeds.

Visit, if you want to get an idea of how likely it is that a human being would die after being mauled by a bear of any kind. Not very likely, apparently, and while a very small number of the specific attacks were in fact connected with people who owned "exotic pets" (specifically, bears), the vast majority were not. Most bear attacks took place in, or near, the wilderness.

It can also be helpful to acquaint one's self with the specifics of each bear attack. For instance, one guy named Ken Cates, was attacked in Alaska by a bear in 1999. The article says, "Troopers found Cates' rifle, spent shell casings, and blood nearby which suggested that Cates may have shot the bear." Gosh, do you suppose that the bear might have attacked after being shot? Maybe it was just trying to defend itself? Of course, it could have been the other way around, and Cates might have shot the bear while trying to defend himself. The fact of the matter is that there just isn't enough in the way of actual facts to draw any conclusions from that particular story (or at least not enough in the Wikipedia article, at any rate).

However, based on objective numbers alone, it would seem that the so-called "domestic" animals are actual far more likely to kill people (based on an objective statistical analysis) than the so-called "wild" animals. So of what relevance is the degree of "wildness" or "domestication"?

And, oh, by the way, a macaw or a salamander could be accurately described as "wild". Using the term "wild animals" in a manner which neglects to mention that some wild animals aren't necessarily dangerous predators demonstrates a tendency to cherry pick one's facts in an effort to distort the issue. (Maybe some salamanders have gummed people to death, perhaps? Somehow I doubt it!)

I guess that that is what really bothers me about this debate. Debates should be settled, it seems to me, by referring to the known facts, not by appealing to paranoid primordial fears. Legislation ought to similarly be based on rationality and defensible principles.

I have no particular vested interest in the issue. I've never owned exotic pets, unless one counts the salamander I once found near our house, or unless one counts the little snake I found out in the woods during a scouting campout. (I kept that snake in an aquarium, where I fed it with mice I got at the pet store. He refused to eat, probably because he was so depressed by his captivity. When I saw that he was in jeopardy of dying from starvation, I took him down to the nearest pond, where I threw him into the pond and watched him happily swim away.)

It does seem to me that ownership of exotic animals, and particularly those which may grow up to be very powerful animals, often has a lot less to do with "love" (despite the protestations of the owners) than it has to do with the psychological needs of the owners. "Oooh, look at me; I'm so cool that I can even control a powerful predator."

On one level, I understand that motive. Frankly, when I was a little kid, I felt pretty powerless, and in hindsight, that was one of the reasons for the appeal of the idea to me. But watching that snake starve to death made me realize that I regretted my selfish motives for wanting to keep the snake.

While I do think that it's bogus to automatically assume that "domestic" animals are all safe, and equally bogus to assume that exotic animals are all dangerous, I will concede that it is generally much smarter to focus on animals proven over long periods of time to work well as pets for people who aren't prepared to deal with the special challenges which exotic pets are more likely to pose.

I once read a book about a guy who owned and raised a canine which was part wolf. Boy, can you imagine his cleaning bills, if that canine had been an "indoor pet"? Can you imagine trying to house train a wolf? Maybe if one started very early; otherwise, no.

I do think that the distinction between "wild" and "domestic" is a pretty irrational distinction to have to make, once one has examined the actual facts. The number of "domestic" dogs which have killed people would seem to suggest that we should reexamine our assumptions about the benefits of domestication.

Therefore, if someone REALLY likes owning "exotic" pets, then I say, go for it, provided that you believe yourself to be capable of being a responsible pet owner, and provided that you believe that you are in fact such an owner. Just know what you're getting into, and be prepared to deal with it.

And for crying out loud, if you do decide to commit suicide, do NOT let full-grown predatorial animals loose on the general population, unless your intention is to start a panic and generally doom your "pets" to premature deaths. If your"liberated" pets are lucky, they might be shot by guys armed with guns loaded with tranquilizer darts, but don't count on it.

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