Lions on Leashes

The Dangers of the Exotic Pet Trade

By Rebecca Twinney; illustrations by John Jennings

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On the evening of Oct. 18, 2011, a retired Zanesville, Ohio resident, Sam Kopchak, went to check on his new horse. Reaching the small paddock behind the house, Kopchak noticed that something was wrong. His neighbor’s horses were more skittish than usual, running in circles around a dark mass. Squinting, Kopchak recognized the figure as a small black bear, rare, but not unheard of in Muskingum County. Fearing for his own horse, Kopchak turned to bring his horse into the barn. As he passed his neighbor’s property line, he spotted something even more terrifying and unusual—a male African lion pacing on the other side of the fence. The lion was full-grown and could easily scale the fence at anytime.

Taking cover in the barn, Kopchak called his mother, who reported the incident to authorities. Within the next 24 hours, sheriff’s deputies would find 18 critically endangered Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, three mountain lions, two gray wolves and one baboon roaming the highways and backyards of urban Zanesville. As the deputies attempted to track down each individual, an electronic sign on the side of the road warned, “Caution: Exotic Animals.” The yellow words blared in the fog as deputies realized they would be unable to safely subdue the wild animals. While miraculously no humans were harmed, all 47 animals perished in the ensuing carnage, killed by the authorities to protect the community. By the next evening, only one macaque monkey was still at large. While authorities reported that the monkey likely carried a virus lethal to humans, they later presumed it had been eaten by one of the big cats. These animals, along with six more exotics still in cages, had been housed in local resident Terry Thompson’s private menagerie. Before taking his own life that morning, Thompson opened the enclosures, releasing 48 dangerous animals onto the neighboring properties and highways. Images of the muddied and piled animal carcasses during the ensuing coverage of the Zanesville Massacre raised vital questions about the costs of exotic pet ownership.

To put this seemingly isolated incident in perspective, Big Cat Rescue estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 big cats are currently held by private owners in the United States. Tigers account for between 5,000 and 7,000 of these exotic felines, with pet tigers outnumbering those in the wild. In the past two decades, incidents involving big cats in the United States have resulted in 246 maulings and the deaths of 20 humans and 143 big cats. Previous to the Zanesville Massacre, Ohio was one of the few states that allowed private ownership of wild animals without a license. While the state has since enacted a ban on exotic pets, its previously lax laws failed to prevent this incident, as well as the mistreatment of legal exotic pets. In fact, Thompson’s menagerie had been repeatedly reported for unsafe housing and insufficient animal care. Although exotic pet advocates argue that this situation unfairly represents exotic pet owners, the majority of Thompsons’ animals came from previous owners who could not care for them either.

This pattern of mistreating or abandoning wild pets is too often replicated, as most exotic species grow too large or unmanageable for their owners. While tiger and lion cubs may seem playful and cuddly, they quickly grow into large adults with territorial and carnivorous instincts. Even wild, hand-raised animals that seem tame in infancy will likely revert to the skittish and aggressive behavior associated with their species. This unpredictable behavior is the most important distinction between exotic and domesticated pets. Adam Roberts, vice president of the animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA, defines exotic pets as “animals that have not been domesticated over centuries for human companionship.” The Humane Society states that although a wild animal may be bornin captivity or hand-raised, its species, unlike dogs and cats, lacks thousands of years of selective breeding for desired traits. While domesticated animals rely on humans for basic needs and socialization, wild animals are instinctually self-sufficient and may become stressed and aggressive around people.

Colorado College Professor of Anthropology, Krista Fish, describes the domestication of dogs as co-evolution. Because humans and dogs influenced each other over a potentially 30,000 year-long period, “dogs are attuned to reading our body language and gestures and can even pick up on our emotions.” However, she says that primates do not share this history, so they are more likely to misinterpret human expressions. Fish warns, “If you smile at a primate, they will likely perceive this expression as a threat. You could spend a large part of your time thinking that you are having fun with your pet, but it’s actually incredibly stressed because it thinks that you are threatening it.” Because stress triggers a fight or flight response in an animal, these types of misunderstandings may lead to aggressive or destructive displays by undomesticated species, posing another threat to human welfare.

However, exotic pet advocates maintain that smaller exotic species pose no threat to public safety. While the pint-sized spotted genet and the Chihuahua-like fennec fox may not seem quite as menacing as 600-pound tigers, it is important to consider the potential negative impacts outside of a species’ physical threat.

In addition to sharp teeth and claws, the spreading of disease is another major hazard of keeping wild and exotic animals as pets. As previously mentioned, Thompson’s missing macaque could have spread a potentially fatal strain of Herpes to surrounding humans. In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 80% of all macaques test positive for the disease. Although not fatal to its primate host, the virus, transferred through bites and scratches, can be lethal to humans. Because adult macaques often bite regardless of hand-raising, the CDC labels this species unsuitable for private ownership. While this example is only one of many diseases that pet primates can pass on to humans, at least 17 states currently allow the private ownership of some species of primates.

Likewise, over 25 states allow the possession of another major vector of disease: raccoons. In addition to the species’ potential to transmit the lethal rabies virus, the CDC says a high percentage of raccoons also harbor a species of roundworm in their intestinal tracts. Research has revealed that kinkajous, a relative of raccoons and an increasingly popular exotic pet, also possess the parasites. While the roundworms’ larvae do not impact their raccoon or kinkajou hosts, they can prove devastating to humans. Transmitted through an infected animal’s feces, these larvae do not remain in the human gut. Instead, they migrate to the eyes and brain, damaging those vital organs. Because children are more likely to ingest the feces of these wild pets, they are at the highest risk of becoming infected. Unfortunately, this significant threat is too often neglected in debates about wild pets. 

Exotic pets are not just a potential threat to public safety—the exotic pet market also leads to devastating environmental impacts. Because exotic species are “non-native” by definition, they have few natural predators in their new area. Therefore, if purposefully or accidentally released into the wild, these animals may become invasive species. The National Wildlife Federation closely monitors invasive species that originated entirely or partially from the pet trade. While the list is too long to share here, two particularly problematic species include the lion fish and the African land snail. Both of these species entered the United States through the exotic pet trade. The former diminishes native fish along the entire east coast, while the latter reproduces so rapidly it is listed as one of the world’s top 100 invasive species.   

Along with fostering the dispersal of nonnative and invasive species, the exotic pet trade also contributes to the decline of endangered wild populations. Due to the increasing demand for exotic pets and the United Nations’ regulations regarding the trade of endangered animals, a massive wildlife black market operates throughout the world. Exotic pet specialist and veterinarian, Lianne McLeod, says that this wildlife black market is worth billions of dollars, second only to illegal drug trafficking. Unfortunately, because this lucrative market runs outside of the law, animal rights violations are rampant. Professor Fish says that because the most desired pets are infants, smugglers often kill the mother in order to take her child. According to Fish, “In a species with a large social group in which multiple group members mob predators, a smuggler’s attempt to isolate an infant may become a massacre.” Additionally, Fish describes how this “removal of infants and females of reproductive age from the wild limits the ability of a species to recover from population declines.” Because one out of every four mammal species and one out of every two primate species is currently endangered, this devastating practice is a serious conservation concern.

One Green Planet, a wildlife advocacy group, describes how millions of wild birds suffer from the exotic pet trade. Parrots have been found shoved into everything from glove compartments to toothpaste tubes. They are often given alcohol or drugs to keep them quiet, and some birds have even been found with their beaks taped shut. While roughly 40 percent of these birds live to become someone’s pet, the other 60 percent die from a cruel combination of dehydration, starvation and suffocation. Since over half of these parrots never reach their intended destination, smugglers must remove even higher numbers of birds from their native location. Because of this destructive practice, coupled with other environmental factors, almost one-third of parrot species are endangered. In effect, by keeping these brightly colored birds in their living rooms, exotic pet owners are rapidly erasing them from the wild.

Although you might feel comfortable in your cozy, well-lit living room, chances are most wild animals won’t. If you’ve ever seen wildlife in their natural habitat or even in a reputable zoo, you’ll understand why a couch will not suffice. However, images of leashed cougars and coddled squirrel monkeys are currently playing out across the United States to the delight of viewers. And, as exotic pet enthusiasts forcibly separate infant wallabies from their mothers and proceed to carry them around in pillow cases, they fail to consider arguably the most important aspect of the wild pet controversy: the health and wellbeing of the exotic pets themselves.

Many exotic pet owners may discard or harm the animal as it grows and becomes less manageable or less desirable. An individual that feeds a cuddly baby lion a bottle of milk likely does not realize that the cub will require between 30 and 50 pounds of meat a day when it matures. Likewise, owners of illegally kept slow lorises (you may recognize this species from popular YouTube videos) are often unable to provide the animals the fruit and insect diet to which they have adapted. While the wide-eyed primate may look adorable as he slowly reaches for a rice ball in the video, the owner disregards the fact that the species would never eat sticky rice in the wild. This failure to meet the species’ nutritional requirements increases the chances of health problems such as pneumonia, diabetes and metabolic bone disease. Because of these specific or expensive nutritional requirements for wild species, many exotic pets suffer from malnutrition and related physiological and psychological stress.

In 2014, PETA’s investigation of an exotic pet company called U.S. Global Exotics led to the seizure of more than 26,000 animals in a Texas warehouse. Initially surprised at the sheer number of animals, Texas SPCA was soon horrified by tubs filled with carcasses. In addition to overcrowding, these exotic species had been subjected to minimal ventilation, extreme temperatures and a lack of basic care. Volunteers and veterinarians from all over the country poured in to find thousands of animals lying in their own waste. Starving and weak, some animals had eaten one another to survive. 200 endangered iguanas were found dead after having been left with 300 other iguanas in a shipping crate for two weeks without food or water. Tiny frogs were packed inside plastic soda bottles and unopened crates of live hamsters and gerbils lay scattered around the filthy warehouse. A pair of terrified ring-tailed lemurs huddled together in a wire cage where they had spent the last five years of their lives. The SPCA later discovered that the Arlington-based company had taken three of the pair’s infants, selling them to unknowing buyers. Despite rehabilitative treatment, over 6,000 of the animals succumbed to illness after the raid.

Unfortunately, this case is not an isolated incident. In fact, South Africa’s Western Cape Environmental Crime Investigation unit reports that about 90 percent of exotic reptiles will die within a year of their capture or breeding. Even animals that do survive captivity will not possess behaviors normal to their own species. Without other members of their species to act as behavioral examples, captive wildlife will often display distorted courtship and aggressive behaviors, as well as self-mutilation not observed in wild individuals. These behavioral defects are most often seen in pet primates. According to Professor Krista Fish, “Without other members of their species present, primates will likely develop a host of disturbed behavior that can become especially violent and troublesome at puberty.” In addition to this violent behavior, because they were hand-raised, these animals lack the social skills required to function with other members of their species. Therefore, even if an owner is no longer able to provide proper care for an exotic pet, it cannot safely live in sanctuaries or zoos with other animals. According to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, exotic ex-pets are almost always euthanized, further contributing to the growing death toll.

Despite this range of issues associated with the trading and keeping of exotic pets, most states continue to allow private ownership of dangerous and ecologically complex exotic species. For instance, Colorado law currently allows the ownership of various nonnative species without a license. Some of these “unregulated” species include camels, ostriches, emus, wallabies, kangaroos and reindeer. Arizona’s laws are even less strict. You can purchase and own gray wolves even though they are considered endangered in most parts of the United States. While regulations still remain unchanged for the less vulnerable species involved in the exotic pet trade, there may be hope for endangered species. The United Nations’ Conventions on the Trade of Endangered Species will meet this September to discuss the fates of at least 54 vulnerable species. Fortunately, this meeting will continue to focus on American furbearers like the gray wolf and brown bear, in addition to many species of big cats. While not every popular exotic pet will be represented at the meeting, more stringent regulations on the trade of endangered species would still work to undercut the exotic pet trade. Ultimately, only time will tell whether or not countries and states will choose to ban the private ownership of exotics. Regardless, the expanding wildlife black market illustrates that laws alone cannot prevent the trade and mistreatment of wild animals. Instead, it is up to individuals to place the welfare of these animals and public safety above their own desire for a unique pet. It is up to potential owners to consider the thousands left dead by the exotic pet trade. It is up to us to keep wildlife in the wild, where it belongs.