Every year, countless people succumb to the temptation to purchase "exotic" animals such as monkeys, macaws, lizards-even tigers, lions and bears-to keep as "pets." Unbelievably, there is no federal law prohibiting the private ownership of wild or dangerous animals. But captivity is often a death sentence for exotics and, in too many cases, for the people who "had" to have them.
The ugly cycle begins when breeders remove newborn animals from their mothers within hours or days of birth so that they can be "hand-raised" and acclimated to human contact. Big cats, bears and primates all have close bonds with their offspring, and such traumatic separations leave both mother and infant emotionally scarred for life. Birds and alligators are extremely nurturing and will fight to the death to protect their babies. Being bred in captivity doesn't negate the instincts and desires of these animals.
Dealers market exotics as if they were little more than stuffed toys, and they downplay their extremely specialized needs. Because exotics are sold at flea markets and auctions, in classified ads and on the Internet, it's all too easy for people to buy them on a whim.
But exotic species have precise dietary needs and require specialized veterinary care that even zoos, with their vast resources, have a difficult time fulfilling. Reptiles need technical spectrum lighting, big cats require a specialized fortified diet or their bones become deformed and tropical birds need high levels of humidity in order to thrive. The thrill of owning a novelty pet can wear off before the check even clears, once the burdensome level of care becomes apparent. Many animals are quickly relegated to life at the end of a chain or in a tiny cage; others are passed from one owner to the next.
Many are simply dumped, left to succumb to hunger, terror and thirst. Some animals, such as pythons, adapt and overtake ecosystems in which they don't belong. Florida officials estimate that there may be as many as 150,000 Burmese pythons (snakes native to Southeast Asia) living in the Everglades-descendants of "pets" who were discarded and are now reproducing. The impact that these invaders have on native wildlife is staggering.
Denied everything that is important to them and forced into close contact with humans, stressed and agitated animals frequently lash out. Countless people have suffered devastating injuries, and many have lost limbs or their very lives. But why is anyone surprised when a wild animal behaves as nature intended? Tigers are genetically designed to hunt. Alligators have remained unchanged for 200 million years. Yet when wild animals follow their instincts, it's usually their death sentence: Most captive animals who cause injuries are killed.
Keeping tigers, reptiles and bears in cages is like lighting a fuse and pretending it won't go off. How many people and animals must pay with their lives before we acknowledge that exotic animals don't belong in private homes and backyard menageries?
Jennifer O'Connor is a captive exotic animal campaign writer with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.