Keeping Exotic Animals in the Wild
November 1, 2011

This time of year, when the weather starts to get nasty or a bit too chilly to stay outside for long, I like to spend some of my down-time cuddled up with a cozy blanket reading a good book or watching some television. When I finally figure out how to work all of those remote controls on my coffee table, I scan for a good wildlife show that transports me to some magical rain forest, savannah, or ocean and allows me to see, close-up, an amazing array of animals living in their natural habitats. Because of time, cost, and distance, most of us aren’t fortunate enough to see all of the world’s wildlife in the wild, so we rely on books, movies, and TV to bring these exotic creatures to us. Sadly, though, there are some people who believe that it is acceptable to keep exotic animals as pets, a mistake that often ends badly for the animals involved.

Exotic animals are not like typical domestic pets that can be kept in a house or barn to live peacefully alongside people and other animals. They are usually non-native, wild animals, used to living outdoors in specific habitats that support their well-being. In other words, in most circumstances, they don’t belong in captivity; they require specialized care, including food and specific living conditions, such as temperature and surrounding environment. They cannot be fully domesticated to live safely with people. Their special care requires knowledgeable and dedicated guardians.

In a few special cases, keeping wild or exotic animals might be acceptable. Wild animals that are endangered or threatened might need people’s help in order to recover normal population numbers. Other times, sick, injured, and orphaned animals who might not survive on their own in the wild need a place where humans can rehabilitate them or, if they’ll never be able to survive on their own again, can provide them with quality care for life. Still another exception that is, at best, controversial is when exotic animals are homed or bred in zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries for educational purposes.

Christian the lion is one example of why keeping exotics as pets doesn’t work. The lion cub was purchased in a London department store back in the ‘60’s, when it was legal to do such a crazy thing. Two young men raised the cub in the urban environment until they realized what they were actually dealing with: a large exotic cat who needed to be in the wild with others of his kind. With much heartache for the men, they eventually gave Christian up and sent him to Africa to learn to live with other lions. After much time, energy, and money, things seemingly turned out well for the lion.

But, more recently, a disturbing case involving exotic animals was plastered on our daily news…and sadly, as is more often the case, it didn’t end well for the animals involved. A small city in Ohio shouldn’t be home to baboons, grizzly bears, lions, tigers, leopards, and other exotic animals, but it was. A man with a criminal record and allegations of animal abuse kept 56 exotic animals in horrific conditions on his property. One day last month, without leaving any explanation or note, he opened most of the cages, releasing the animals into Zanesville area, and then he took his own life. Left with little choice, the local police, who were surely untrained and unequipped for this type of emergency, made the decision to shoot the animals before they harmed anyone or harmed themselves. Sadly, all but a few animals were killed, and the six or so who did not die were sent to local zoos for assessment and possible rehabilitation.

Many people acquire exotic animals solely because these animals make unique pets who appear to be cool status symbols.  Across the U.S., including in our own area of New England, animal control officers and shelters routinely experience the seizures and surrenders of exotic animals, both acquired legally and illegally. These animals often include reptiles, amphibians, birds, and small mammals. Many people who take on these animals aren’t prepared to provide for their pet’s physical and behavioral needs, ultimately resulting in trauma to the animals and potential danger to people and other animals. Additionally, many of these animals are obtained from the wild and suffer much distress from capture, confinement, and transport. In many cases, these animals arrive in the hands of animal control officers or shelter workers after suffering negligence and abuse; other times, the surrenders are from guardians who simply grew tired of caring for high-maintenance and often long-living pets. As you can imagine, it is not always easy to find new guardians for animals with so many specific needs.

The sad and traumatic events in Ohio have ignited the need for more legislation to monitor and ban the sale and keeping of exotic animals. Many more laws need to be implemented. The lives of animals should never be sacrificed to satisfy people’s whimsical desires. Exotic, wild animals belong where nature intended them to be.

Three things YOU can do:
1.    READ!  Learn more about wildlife—their behaviors, habitats, and issues that affect them—by reading as much information as you can. Share your knowledge with others.
2.    WRITE!  Investigate the laws in your area regarding the purchase and keeping of exotic animals. Write to your legislators and ask them to help toughen regulations for acquiring and keeping exotic animals. Writing to your local newspaper will also help bring attention to your cause!
3.    SPEAK UP!  If you hear of someone considering an exotic, let them know your concerns for the animal’s well-being. Encourage them to read about the specialized care of these animals, laws regarding the animal’s acquisition and keep, and issues that threaten the species both in captivity and in the wild. And if anyone you know is looking to give up an exotic animal, encourage them to bring the animal to a shelter, wildlife rehabilitation center, or an animal control officer. Releasing an exotic in the wild can be deadly for the animal and a threat to the public’s welfare. 

Read more:
MSPCA
HSUS
ASPCA
Christian the Lion on Discovery and Christian the Lion on Daily Mail
Zanesville, Ohio on Dispatch and Zanesville, Ohio on USA Today