When I was a little girl, I wanted a pet tiger – a desire I attribute entirely to Princess Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin. Her large feline companion, Raja, seemed to be perfect. He was exciting, cuddly, cute, protective, empathetic, and sweet. The ideal animal friend.
However, Raja was also a fictional cartoon character. I grew out of it. No matter how many Animal Planet specials I see with adorable infant wild critters, I force myself to remember that they are, in fact, wild. I’m not equipped to take care of them, unless you count the fact that many of those beasties would probably make a good meal out of me.
Now, the extent of my pet-extravagance entails a cat (not a tiger) named Zip, two Australian shepherds named Foster and Wallaby, and a rescued West Highland terrier named Clover. They are certainly not as glamorous as a tiger. My cat may be fat and lazy and my dogs may love to howl themselves hoarse at passing ambulances, but at least they aren’t harboring a latent desire to rip my face off – that I know of.
Not everyone shares my contentment with plain old domestic pets. Some people don’t want to go all the way to the zoo or a wildlife preserve to see exotic animals. They would rather look out their windows from a safe distance to see bison, tropical birds, monkeys, and all manner of other creatures in their own backyard.
As exotic pet ownership continues to grow, so do my concerns for the animals being taken home.
Unfortunately, there is no concrete definition of “exotic pet,” which can make the issue even more muddled. Some interpretations are broad enough to include pet store staples such as Guinea pigs, ferrets, and rats. Others try to limit the meaning to animals that were more recently in the wild. Still others use “exotic” to mean any animal that hasn’t been fully domesticated, but complete domestication can take generations upon generations and there is no standard definition in this case either. Domestic dogs and cats as we own them now have taken thousands of years to get to this point. More commonly, the colloquial usage seems to basically refer to any animal you can’t readily buy at your local pet store.
Every state has its own exotic pet laws, which vary greatly in stringency and detail. Here in Oklahoma, for example, citizens can basically own any animal possible as long as the pet owner has a permit. Anyone who plans to sell animals must have a commercial breeder’s license, which only costs $48 annually, while any person who wants to raise or keep these animals as pets is required to have a non-commercial breeder’s license, which costs a measly $10 annually. Importing or exporting an exotic animal across state borders requires another permit at no extra cost.
Rhode Island is one of the few states in which prospective exotic pet owners must exhibit adequate knowledge about the care of the desired animal. Most states require some kind of permit and several ban large game or non-domestic animals outright, or restrict exotic animal ownership to the state’s native species. When governments only require an annual permit, exotic pet ownership seems to become more a question of financial resources rather than physical or emotional ability to care for a pet.
Animal care and service workers in zoos must undergo training to care for the animals. Many of these positions even require a college degree. These workers do the same thing any regular pet owner would, including cleaning, feeding, and ensuring the animal gets plenty of exercise. Exotic pet owners are not subject to these requirements, though. If you have the money, you can have a tiger, regardless of whether you have the space or the education in what it takes to keep a fully grown, wild animal healthy.
Each of these sectors may have similar animals, but your local zoos have more regulations than someone living in your own neighborhood. The only difference I can see between these two situations is that in a zoo animals are on display and accessible to more visitors, so there is a greater desire to protect the public. I don’t know about you, but I’m more worried about a coyote on a chain in my neighbor’s yard than I am about a lion in a zoo.
Besides matters pertaining to legal regulations and care of exotic animals, a whole host of health issues are associated with keeping exotic pets. Although most breeders have isolated their practices from the wild, they have not eliminated the risk of zoonotic diseases, which are any that can be transmitted between humans and animals – including rabies, salmonellosis, Monkey B virus, herpes simplex virus, and hemorrhagic fevers. Over 60% of the the nearly 1,400 pathogens known to affect humans are zoonotic. Traditionally domestic pets have also been linked to these diseases, but because many exotic animals are imported from foreign countries, they are often exposed to more diseases and the risk of infection increases.
Health risks extend beyond disease control, as well. For example, owners of large cats such as tigers, leopards, or lions may have the urge to de-claw them in an effort to make the cats safer to be around. However, de-clawing large cats removes the last bone in each toe, which can make it more difficult for the felines to walk and can even result in paralysis if done incorrectly. In addition, if an owner doesn’t give the proper care, keeps the animal in the wrong climate, or gives it the wrong food, the animal will likely act out, or may die. De-fanging isn’t a viable possibility either, and sharp teeth are just as dangerous as sprung claws.
With all these issues surrounding exotic pet ownership, what is the appeal of taking a tiger cub home and calling it Rajette?
In a word: status.
In the 1980s, Michael Jackson adopted a chimpanzee named Bubbles. In 2005, Sean “Diddy” Combs came under fire for having penguins at an event in Miami. In 2006, Paris Hilton made headlines when her pet kinkajou, Baby Luv, bit her. To this day, Hugh Hefner houses dozens of animals in the grounds of the Playboy Mansion, including spider monkeys, yellow tamarins, parrots, peacocks, and more.
Exotic animals are the celebrities of pets. However, animals can’t function to feed your own status. Only trained professionals should be allowed to work with non-domestic animals because professionals are the only people qualified to do so. So many species are on a one-way street to the endangered list that we need to focus more on helping them survive and keeping each true to its own nature. Besides, as the owner of plain old domestic pets, I can assure that they will keep you on your toes as much as any lion, tiger, or bear. Oh, my.