The CATalyst: The Case Against Keeping Exotic Cats

Steve Dale, CAT FANCY writer and syndicated newspaper pet columnist, provides a weekly cat news roundup.

What are people thinking who keep exotic animals? They’re not thinking about what’s beneficial for the animals, as individuals or a species.

Several recent cases in the news prompted this piece, beginning with the high profile story of Terry Thompson in Zanesville, Ohio, who freed lions, tigers, bears and wolves on his property before killing himself. In all, the sheriff’s department killed 48 innocent animals.

Only days later, Oct. 20, in Crystal Lake, Ill., McHenry County Animal Control and Illinois State Conservation Police confiscated reptiles including a 10-foot-long alligator, a 5-foot-long alligator, 12-foot-long reticulated python, 5-foot-long carpet python, seven turtles, along with parrots and what appeared to be an Arctic fox from the home of Anthony Bonfiglio.

Some of these animals are legal to maintain as pets, but others are not; Bonfiglio was cited with a misdemeanor for possession of dangerous animals and also possession of an animal on the endangered list.

Just a few days prior, McHenry County Animal Control confiscated another alligator under even more peculiar circumstances. It seems a 5-foot-long alligator was a guard gator, security to protect Nicholas Cosmano’s collection of cannabis plants. The alligator and the marijuana plants were confiscated; and Cosmano was cited with misdemeanor possession of a dangerous animal and procession of as well as intent to deliver cannabis.

At least in Illinois there are laws that allow law enforcement to arrest those who keep dangerous animals, but legal or not they’re being kept all over the United States. Texas, in particular, is known for the lions and tigers kept on ranches.

After several unusual exotic pets were confiscated a few years back, a police officer at an Illinois sheriff’s office told me, “The people who keep monkeys, giant rats [African Gambia Rat] and whatnot aren’t like you or me — they’re not quite right.”
It’s not exactly a professional psychological analysis — but he’s probably right. But it’s not about the people so much as the animals.

Estimates suggest that today fewer than 500 Siberian tigers remain in the wild. There are likely at one-third to half that number living outside zoos in the United States. It’s tragic. Well-meaning or not, this only contributes to the species rapid decline.

In my opinion, there is absolutely no excuse to maintain these wild animals. It’s potentially dangerous for the community should animals get loose, as we saw in Ohio. Caretakers have been seriously injured by keeping wild animals. And a lesson from an arguably trigger-happy Ohio sheriff’s office: the animals are the ultimate loser.

I suggest that of all possible writers for or CAT FANCY, I’m the best writer to reflect on this issue. That’s because I am guilty of keeping an exotic pet myself. She’s a Northern Blue-Tongue Skink.

To me, there’s a distinction here. While a Northern Blue-Tongue Skink grows large enough to be impressive, they don’t exceed much over 2 feet. They’re omnivores, who in the wild munch on berries, plants, worms and various small insects. Their blunt teeth aren’t much of a threat to people.

Arguably most important, our skink, her mother and several generations before her were all born in captivity. Though I concede at some point, it all began with taking a Northern Blue-Tongue Skink from the wild. I don’t defend this. But I do note that this species is common in Australia, and nearby islands, nowhere near endangered and sometimes even considered a backyard annoyance.  

I argue this is vastly different than having a Bengal tiger or chimpanzee in captivity, larger and far more dangerous – and also rare or endangered in the wild.

I admit, though, knowing where to draw the line can be murky. The law may do it for you. For example, in Illinois keeping any of the above — tiger species, chimpanzee or alligator — are illegal. Or common sense may help, it seems obvious that even if it happens to be legal in your state — maintaining a venomous snake “pet” doesn’t seem like a good idea. The problem is that the people who keep these animals have no common sense.

I truly do understand the allure of bring bringing some of the wild world and delivering nature into our concrete world. But it’s one thing to keep a corn snake (bred for years now for color and temperament, they are likely on their way to domestication … and for sure differ than wild-caught corn snakes), and another think to keep a rare and or dangerous species such as a spitting cobra or rattlesnake.

Sadly, the Internet makes it possible to get anything from an African lion to a Wallaby.
So, for starters, how to do you think these animals become available in the first place? Few are bred for this purpose. Many are removed from their mothers in the wild. Some survive and some do not. Because mothers tend to protect their young to the death — some are killed.

Once in the United States, loved or not, how many truly have the expertise to maintain these wild animals under optimal conditions, providing appropriate husbandry, diet and enrichment? How adept are they at keeping themselves safe? And if anything goes wrong, it’s the animals who pay a price – with their lives.   
A handful who keep wild animals themselves were so appalled by Thompson in Ohio, they came out of their closets to go public.

If he was sensible, he would have realized that letting all his animal out before committing suicide would also mean the death of his beloved collection. However, by all accounts, he simply wasn’t sensible.

Still, with zoo officials, who were available and willing to attempt tranquilizing animals, it’s unclear as to why that option wasn’t given more a chance.

Of course, the tragedy for these innocent animals would have been averted all together if they weren’t there in the first place.

At some point, I really do believe that if you want to work with lions or tigers – go study them in Africa, India or Siberia or get a job a zoo, wild animal park or aquarium.

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