It’s 1994 and a hunter has just killed the mother Mountain Lion in Colorado so that he can steal her young cubs and sell them into the pet trade. One of the cubs is purchased by an ill advised woman who tries to make a pet of her, and flees the state to end up in Maine a year later. The cub, named Dolly, is outgrowing the woman’s ability to restrain her though, as she approaches 100 lbs in her first year.
When the authorities found out they confiscated the illegally kept cub and placed her in a little roadside zoo in Lincoln, Maine, owned by Walt Libby.
Dolly lived in this reportedly substandard facility for the next 11 years. People who knew Dolly said that she was kept in a basement like environment with no windows and was never allowed to go outside. When Maine finally began to crack down on these sleazy little roadside zoos, Libby decided it wasn’t worth it to upgrade his place so he sent a bear and mountain lion named Dolly to the Howell Rehab Center in Amity, Maine. It only got worse from there.
The A E Howell Wildlife Conservation Center is located in northern Maine, where winters are extremely cold. Because of the life that Dolly has been forced to live, she suffers from arthritis, and as a result, this northern climate is very painful and debilitating to her. Former volunteers, who spent 14 years working at the wildlife center shared horrific stories; these are just a few:
“The facility was well known in the community for rehabbing and releasing bears and donations came in because the public thought these bears were being released into protected habitat. What was later discovered was that the bears were being released into a hunting area where the “sportsmen” were known to bait the bears with food to insure an easy kill. Turns out this was the same sportsman’s center where A E Howell would cart Dolly, in a small circus wagon, for three day stints in the gymnasium, where she would be poked and prodded at my those who get their jollies killing animals for fun.”
“During one of these shows a three year old boy walked up to the mountain lion and asked the elderly volunteer a question. When she leaned over to hear the boy, A E Howell poked Dolly with his cane so that she lunged toward the docent; all teeth and claws and barely missed grabbing her from behind. All the while the owner laughed uproariously.”
“A coyote was frozen in place last winter because the facilities offer such poor shelter from the cold. Rather than taking the effort to free the coyote he was shot in the head by the owner.”
“When animals died they were sold to a local taxidermist for hundreds of dollars. Rehab animals were often kept in cages, even after they had healed and were ready to be released because they were more valuable as exhibit pieces and for their dead bodies when they succumbed to the relentless winters. Some of the rehab animals were bred when it was discovered that inbreeding caused color morphs that the owner found curious.”
Dolly had been moved from one appalling place to another. She spent the next 7 years in a small shack, 15 feet x 20 feet, made of particle board, with no insulation or heat. There was just one window at the end of the room, where visitors would stand and gawk at her misery. She lies on filthy straw on a dirt floor because no one can enter the room to clean it or change the bedding. She has an outside enclosure 7 x 15, but she needs to jump up 3 feet through an elevated guillotine door leading outside. Because she is debilitated with arthritis, she cannot jump the three feet, and therefore has no no way to get out into her small outside enclosure.
Visitors might shake their head, and think, “what a pity,” but no one ever spoke up for her, except for her caregivers, and they had nearly given up after years of being ignored. Not one person ever took the time to post a review on TripAdvisor about the dismal conditions at the Howell Wildlife Conservation Center. From viewing the inspection reports at USDA, not one inspector ever bothered to document her miserable life. In all the years that Dolly spent in dark, dank, freezing cold cages, not one government official ever stepped forward to end her suffering until now. Not once, in the past 19 years had anyone called Big Cat Rescue to tell us about this precious, captive cougar. Caregivers were told that A E Howell had powerful political connections and that is why his USDA reports were always compliant and his rehab license had never been revoked, despite the many violations they had reported, such as breeding and selling the wildlife in his possession.
Last winter Dolly almost died of dehydration as her water froze because of the sub-standard care and housing. Caregivers say that this is common for the animals there. The volunteers wear picks on their boots to make it across the frozen, snow covered grounds. They have to break the ice off the water bowls with a hammer for the animals to drink, but the water quickly freezes back over during days of prolonged, sub zero weather. A E Howell is reported to be elderly, ill and irresponsible when it comes to making sure the animals are cleaned, watered and fed properly.
On January 30, 2012 Big Cat Rescue was alerted that the Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Department wanted to send Dolly to a real sanctuary. Big Cat Rescue contacted Geri Vistein, a Conservation Biologist and Richard Hoppe, Regional Biologist for Maine Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, to let them know that Dolly was welcome here in Tampa for her final years. We scrambled into high gear to make arrangements for a vet to take a look at her and issue a health certificate and we obtained the Florida import permit in less than 24 hours because her situation was so heartbreaking and dire.
We had a beautiful enclosure all ready for Dolly; with an underground den, a big hill from which she would be able to survey her cougar neighbors, and platforms, trees, bushes and grass. It had been Missouri Cougar’s cat-a-tat until she had died from bone cancer. We told Cody, Missouri’s life long mate, that there would soon be a new “girl” in town next door.
It is a common misconception to think that if someone is abusing a big cat in the U.S. that the government can or will do anything about it. If the government does anything, it usually takes six years or more to slowly wind through the judicial process. Richard Hoppe knew that Dolly didn’t have that much time and said he felt certain he could get A E Howell to sign our contract releasing Dolly to Big Cat Rescue.
We found a local vet, Dr. Coville, who corresponded with our vet, Dr. Liz Wynn, to make sure that we would have the right drugs and a licensed practitioner in Maine to oversee the rescue. We would also need a health certificate for Dolly to enter Florida so Dr. Coville was preparing to obtain that for us as well. Geri Vistein put us in touch with the two long time caregivers to have them describe the doors, access ways and other issues we would encounter so that we would be sure to have everything necessary to try and load her without tranquilization. In order to accomodate the schedules of the wildlife officers, the Maine vet and the owner, we set a date of February 16 to have our rescue crew arrive in Amity, Maine. Three Big Cat Rescuers would leave Tampa on Valentine’s Day to make the 1,700 mile trip, by switching drivers pretty much straight through to Maine.
Richard Hoppe drove our contract to the rehab center on February 6 and was disgusted and dismayed at what he found.
Dolly could not walk. She could barely stand, and when she did she was so feeble, shaking in the cold, that all she could do was fall back over into her own waste. Richard Hoppe called the rehab center’s primary vet to ask when she had been seen last. Dr. Arnott said that he had prescribed Glucosamine in mid December for her advanced arthritis and the staff swore that they had been giving it to her, but her condition had only continued to deteriorate. The Regional Biologist was told by the vet that Dolly had reached the end and that it would be cruel to make her hang on for help to come. He felt certain the move would kill her, if she didn’t die on her own before we could get there. The temperature was 3 degrees that day.
Not ready to concede defeat I relayed a few cases (see video below) where cats were at the very end of their rope when we arrived and yet managed to have some very good years here once we brought them back to Easy Street. I sense that Mr. Hoppe is a compassionate man, and that he wanted to believe that Dolly could survive until we arrived, but he was committed to do as the vet had suggested. These are the experts that he has to deal with every day and I can understand why he feels compelled to do as they say. I think the vet has the best interest of Dolly in his heart. He doesn’t want to see her suffer any further and it certainly isn’t up to us to second guess his opinion. She’s 19 and that’s very old for a mountain lion.
On the very day that her death was determined, Texas introduced a bill that would ban the private possession of big cats. Last year Ohio did so. The worst states in the country for allowing the rampant trade in big cats have always been, FL, OH and TX in that order. Since the day that Dolly’s mom was killed and Dolly and her litter mates sold into the exotic pet trade back in 1994, nearly a dozen states have passed bans or partial bans. In 2003 the Captive Wildlife Safety Act passed unanimously in Congress, making it illegal to sell or transport a big cat, like Dolly, across state lines as a pet. There is a strong trend toward ending the abuses that Dolly suffered. The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act would put an end to this sort of abuse. That would be a federal ban on the private possession of big cats.
While we are heartbroken to not be able to give Dolly those final days, weeks, months or years of quiet warmth in the Florida sunshine we have been forever touched by this mountain lion named Dolly. Somewhere out there her siblings have likely endured similar fates. She had a story to tell and we want to be sure that you heard it. Now that you have, we hope that you will be the voice for the thousands of wild cats, like Dolly, who continue to be bred for life in cages, exploited, abandoned and abused. Speak up for them at CatLaws.com
Note: No one knows for sure how Dolly was taken from the wild or how many siblings survived, if any. What we do know is that her first owner had obtained her from the wild in Colorado and the rest is based on witness accounts of Dolly’s life. Photos are from this Mountain Lion rescue in 2005. We have offered to have Dolly cremated and her ashes sent to Florida so that she will not be sold to a taxidermist to be made into a den decoration.
Update June 16, 2013: We were startled to hear that Popcorn Park announced in their June newsletter that they had rescued Dolly the mountain lion on Mar 8, 2013, nearly a month after we had been told that she had been euthanized. When her former caregiver found out, she asked to send a donation to Popcorn Park for Dolly on June 4, 2013 but was told that the cat had already died on June 1st from bloat.
Cougar Puma or Mountain Lion Attacks Are Likely Discarded Pets
“I don’t think that attack was by a wild-reared puma at all.
I think that puma was a dumped former pet, or a puma bred from a mother kept to produce urine to be sold as “puma lure” to be sold to houndsmen, or perhaps even a puma who was “returned to the wild” by a financially struggling sanctuary, of which there have been many in Texas in recent years.
First, take another look at what was reported, to refresh your memory:”
Mountain Lion Attacks Boy in Texas Park
A 6-year-old boy is recovering after a mountain lion “clamped” on to his face at Big Bend National Park in Texas.
Jason Hobbs said his family’s vacation became a nightmare when the big cat attacked his son Rivers on a sidewalk Sunday near the Chisos Mountain Lodge.
“It had a hold of his face…the cat was clamped on his face,” Hobbs told West Texas TV station CBS 7.
The Austin dad said the mountain lion didn’t let go until he stabbed it with his pocketknife.
Rivers Hobbs told CBS 7 the mountain lion “snuck up on me.”
Despite being shown on TV with fresh stiches across his gashed face, Rivers claimed he never shed a tear before or after the encounter.
Asked about his injuries, Rivers said they did not hurt “that bad.”
Big Ben spokesman David Elkowitz described the mountain lion that attacked the 6-year-old as a “young lion in very poor condition,” The Associated Press reported.
Assuming that every word reported is entirely accurate, and I see no reason to suspect otherwise, what’s wrong with this picture?
First sentence: instead of tearing the victim’s throat out, the puma clamped onto the child’s face. This is a puma who does not have the faintest idea how to effect a kill.
Second sentence: the puma attacked on a sidewalk near a lodge — clearly within human habitation, not a place where a puma would normally hunt or even find prey.
Fourth sentence: a man with just one jackknife was able to fend off a puma, who in effect has five jackknives on each paw, plus teeth. This is a puma who not only does not know how to hunt, but does not know how to fight.
Most pumas learn how to fight as kittens. As adults, the leading killers of pumas, other than human hunters, are other pumas. Pumas tolerate pumas of opposite gender in their habitat only during mating season. Otherwise, puma meeting puma in the wild often results in a fight to the death. A young male puma who does not know how to fight is unlikely to survive for any length of time at all, especially in an area containing as many pumas as Big Bend National Park.
Last sentence: we are talking about a “young lion in very poor condition.” That can happen, if a mother abandons her last year’s offspring & goes off to mate again before the cub has learned to hunt and fight. But that leaves open the question of what the mother and cub were doing throughout the preceding summer, fall, and winter. Truly wild pumas learn to hunt. Young male pumas who are the offspring of pumas raised in connection with urine collection don’t — but they are dumped, while their sisters are kept to produce more urine in captivity.
Hardly anyone recognizes this, but there are two major “wild” puma populations in North America. One is the fully wild population. They rarely get into trouble with people, and when they do, it is in quite remote habitat.
Truly wild pumas have a very stereotyped and distinctive method of killing: virtually always from above, behind, at dawn; less often, at dusk. They break the victim’s neck immediately, at first pounce. That’s because they are usually hunting deer, elk, moose, pronghorn, and other animals (sheep, wild horses, wild burros, occasionally cattle) who most often outweigh them and/or can outrun them. If they don’t kill almost instantly, the victim either gets away or may kill/cripple the puma.
Of recent human victims (within the past 20 years), Barbara Schoner of California, Scott Lancaster of Colorado, and Irene Davis of California were all clearly victims of authentic wild pumas. They all were in known puma habitat alone, at dawn, and passed under ledges where they were pounced. It isn’t likely that any of them ever knew what hit them.
The other puma population is the really dangerous one. It consists of pumas who were either bred in captivity or captured as kittens, held until they got too big to handle, and then were dumped by the same class of folks who dump pit bulls, unneutered housecats, etc.
There are thousands of pumas in private captivity around the U.S., every sanctuary that accepts them has a long waiting list for space, and a lot of the people who have them are not exactly good citizens. Before the pit bull vogue, pumas were popular, among drug dealers, bike gang members, militia folks, and people who home-brew “lure” for hunting packs, as described above.
There are far fewer pumas in private hands now than there were before the passage of the 2003 Captive Wildlife Safety Act cut off legal interstate sales, but private possession is still a problem — probably more so in Texas than anywhere else.
When captive pumas are dumped or just escape, they don’t know how to hunt. They come up on people’s porches and knock on the glass like tabbies, hoping to be fed. They ineptly pounce little kids on their swing-sets, who live to tell the tale. They play with balls in back yards. They walk in open doors and flop down on the couch. They eat dogs and cats in yards. They walk down busy streets in broad daylight. They don’t know whether they are coming or going, and in the 33 years that I have tracked puma incidents, they have accounted for about two-thirds of all the puma incidents that make news.
Sometimes probable former captive pumas kill a person–like Cindy Parolin, in British Columbia in 1996. That was an extremely sad and tragic case. Someone apparently dumped a whole puma family. The two kittens were shot. The male, on the verge of starving to death, killed Parolin in one of the most inept attacks on record. What became of the female is anyone’s guess. She may have been kept for urine.
The male, by the way, was starving right in the midst of abundant rabbits and deer. He just didn’t know how to catch them. Instead, he tried to pull the riding boot off of Parolin’s six-year-old son, as the family rode past on horseback. Parolin leaped from the saddle on top of the puma, trying to save the boy, and suffered injuries from which she eventually bled to death, while the hungry puma, having ceased the attack, just sat down beside her. That’s where he was shot, an hour later. The puma did not even try to eat Parolin: he didn’t know she might be food. The boy’s riding boot, however, apparently smelled to the puma like food from a bag.
People coming face-to-face with such a screwed-up puma usually have little choice but to shoot the critter, if they can, because the puma can in fact kill them, or their children, and recapturing a puma isn ot particularly easy even with tranquilizer guns and nets.
People often make a big mistake, however, in blaming the abundance of screwed-up ex-captives around big cities, and in national parks etc. where they get dumped, on an alleged overpopulation of genuinely wild pumas who have purportedly “lost their fear” of people. It’s the ex-captives who have lost their fear. And they’re the ones I really worry about.
This is not the first such incident in Big Bend National Park. In 1998 a puma approached a mother and three children in Big Bend National Park in an incident very similar to the one this week. Everything about the 1998 puma’s behavior, as described by media accounts, said “big kitty approaching people looking for a handout.”
Then the mother pulled a jackknife on the puma and rushed him. He scooted–just like a housecat being shooed from a counter.
Apart from the absurdity of a genuinely wild puma being afraid of a jackknife, especially since he had no way of knowing what it was, it bears mention that this guy had the advantage of being above and behind when he first approached, but gave up his opportunity to make a stealthy kill in favor of coming down to sniff the group.
I don’t blame the mother. Like Cindy Parolin, she did what any good mother will, defending her young. Then she of course told the story as she saw it and remembered it. I do blame some people who amplified the case without looking further into why the puma behaved as he did, and the real reason why the mother and children survived without injury.
I can also recall a couple of recent campground puma cases, where there were several pumas in each instance, apparently hanging out together–like a litter of kittens, only they were no longer kittens.
In each case, that’s probably where someone pushed them out of the back of a van. Wild pumas just don’t behave like that, and certainly wouldn’t be hanging around a park latrine for days on end, as occurred in one case
The attraction of the park latrine was most likely that it smelled like the spare bathroom where the litter probably spent their younger days.
What annoys me is that I suspect some houndsmen may dump “surplus” tom kittens whose mothers & sisters are kept for urine, & then get paid to go track & shoot the very pumas they dumped. And then they will cite these cases as part of their argument for keeping hounding legal, or re-legalizing it in the states (like Washington) where it has been banned.
Editor, ANIMAL PEOPLE
P.O. Box 960
Clinton, WA 98236
Carole’s Note: This was reprinted with permission because Mr. Clifton is the first person that I have heard clearly argue the obvious. We had been reporting that we thought that most of the attacks attributed to wild cougars, mountain lions or pumas (all the same) were really released pets and devoted a page of our website to it in 2006 called Why So Many Cougar Attacks and Sightings? Merritt Clifton just said it a lot better than I did and with his typical sense of irony. What I had not considered before, and was eye opening to me, was the notion that the females may be used for producing urine for “hunters” to lure male cougars into shooting range. As awful as most captive cougar pet situations are, I can only shudder at the conditions that must exist for these poor creatures as Clifton describes the way they are housed as follows:
Foxes and bobcats kept for urine collection are often kept on wire floors, but pumas could tear right through wire.
Pumas kept for urine collection are usually kept in concrete-floored structures the size of dog pound run, with chain link sides and top. The floors are tiled just enough for the urine to run off into gutters that drain out to collection points a safe distance from the cages. The usual routine is to collect the piss first, then hose out the excrement.
Help end the suffering by visiting CatLaws.com and ask for laws that prohibit the keeping of wild animals in cages.
Seeing Wild Animals in Ads Leads to People Wanting as Pets
DURHAM, NC – Television ads featuring cute chimpanzees wearing human clothes are likely to distort the public’s perception of the endangered animals and hinder conservation efforts, according to a team of primatologists and a marketing professor at Duke University.
The researchers showed 165 study participants three different collections of television ads for products like toothpaste and soft drinks and then surveyed them to see whether attitudes toward conservation changed. One group saw a serious conservation message from Jane Goodall in the collection of ads. A second saw footage of chimps in the wild. And a third group saw chimps dressed as humans in ads for Career Builder, E*trade and Spirit Bank that were intended to be humorous.
“We were testing the argument that the entertainment industry has made that exposure to chimpanzees in human settings makes people more sympathetic to their plight,” said Brian Hare, an assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at Duke. “In fact, the opposite is true. We found people became less concerned about the risks chimpanzees face after they’d seen the entertainment clips.”
Part of the issue also is that entertainment chimps tend to be younger, smaller animals, not adult animals who become dangerous pets, Hare said. “We can’t say it enough: chimpanzees are not pets.”
The perception that chimpanzees can be pets, and possibly the appearance of these ads in African media, may help create a market for young animals destined for the pet trade, Hare said.
In addition to the survey of their attitudes, participants were also given the opportunity to purchase one of the products they had seen or to contribute a part of their compensation for the experiment to a conservation charity. Those who watched the entertainment chimpanzees were least likely to donate.
“Nobody has measured this sort of thing before, but it clearly shows that the portrayal of endangered species on television can alter viewers’ behaviors and decrease one’s willingness to donate,” said graduate student Kara Schroepfer. “This is a clear indication that we need to reevaluate media practices and conservation priorities.”
CITATION — “Use of ‘entertainment’ chimpanzees in commercials distorts public perception regarding their conservation status,” Kara K. Schroepfer, Alexandra G. Rosati, Tanya Chartrand & Brian Hare. PLoS ONE, Oct. 12, 2011.
By Shannon Winslow-Claunch, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
Released : Sunday, December 20, 2009 12:41 PM
Dec. 20–Don’t know what to get little Johnny for Christmas? In an age of commercialism and numbness to the mundane, some parents might be tempted to wow their kids this year with the gift of an exotic pet.
Pet stores encourage consumers to do their own research when it comes to adding any pet to the family. But with easy access to baby turtles and parakeets at mall kiosks, impulse buys at Christmas for all sorts of animals have become commonplace.
Katrina Workman, who works at PetSmart on 23rd Street in Panama City, owns a variety of animals, including snakes, which have been a key concern in Florida for some time. A mother of three girls, she said her snakes, guinea pigs, parakeets, lizards, dogs and cats all add joy to her household.
“The warm-blooded mammals associate with family members in the same way that they relate to their own kind, and the reptiles get so excited when we feed them little meal worms,” Workman said. “Each one really has its own personality.”
Any pet is considered exotic if it is not native to the area, according to Jeremy Hainus, manger of PetSupermarket on 23rd Street. He advises customers to find out what their children want for Christmas, because parents will need to take care of the pet if the child does not take responsibility for the animal.
PetSmart’s Leah Owens has worked the Christmas rush before, as the store often is busy Dec. 23 and Christmas Eve with parents buying pets for their children. Many parents might opt to buy a tank habitat and gift card to leave under the Christmas tree, according to Hainush. When the children are participants in choosing the gift, they tend to be more responsible caregivers, he said.
Ferrets, naturally inquisitive and playful, and guinea pigs are some of the top sellers this year. According to Hainush, the Disney film “G-Force” inspired many consumers to opt for small mammals as additions to their family.
In the movie, a specially trained squad of guinea pigs is dispatched to stop a diabolical billionaire from taking over the world. Real ferrets and guinea pigs don’t wear night vision goggles or carry heavy artillery however, so parents may find their well-intentioned gifts soon lose their appeal.
PetSmart manager Tara Butler showed off some of the birds for sale. Parakeets and conures fluttered about and chirped wildly. She said some consumers get them home and don’t realize how loud they are in a home setting.
And buyer beware, as store warranties vary from one to two weeks depending on place of purchase.
Stephanie Willard, the director of education at ZooWorld, said that while the staff all adores the exotics they take care of, they absolutely do not make good gifts.
Parrots can live 50 years, and that is not an average commitment people usually want to make.
Lions, tigers and iguanas
A tiger or mountain lion might not be on most Christmas lists, but some Bay County residents have welcomed predatory big cats into their lives. Stan Kirkland, spokesman for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said several Bay Countians are registered owners of tigers and mountain lions, and a number of Southport residents have permits for cougars, and even a Siberian tiger, said Kirkland.
Willard said big cats do not make good pets in any situation, citing the danger from a large predators. Zoos serve to educate and breed, but as a pet in someone’s home, the novelty wears off and the cats become unmanageable. Willard said pet owners rely on zoos as sanctuary for their unwanted cats and there isn’t always room — then the animals must be euthanized.
As an alternative to purchasing a big cat, the nonprofit ZooWorld offers the Adopt a Wild Child Program. “If you want to ‘adopt a lion,’ a person can donate to their care,” Willard said.
While the state restricts public access in zoos to predatory cats, there are some levels of donation that allow close encounters, such as with serval kittens.
Even iguanas have served as pets. Kirkland knows a Panama City homeowner with a large one.
“All that separates the animal from passersby is a patio screen,” he said.
Iguanas can make good pets, but there are health risks the animal might face if its habitat is not conducive to its natural needs, according to avianexoticanimalhospital.com. Serious health concerns for captive iguanas include metabolic bone disease, kidney disease, broken tails, nose rubbing, egg binding and male aggression.
Hainush said if parents want to try their hand at lizards, a good start is the bearded dragon, which is sometimes called the puppydog lizard. But, he reiterated, animals of any breed should never be an impulse buy. Any pet’s habitat should mimic their natural environment to keep the pet healthy and happy
“If consumers are not willing to make that commitment, we discourage them from making a purchase,” he said.
Dogs and cats end up at area shelters, but the agencies are not equipped to care for reptiles, birds and small mammals that become castoffs.
Amy Cox runs “Odd Animal Rescue” and considers herself an advocate for pets that are no longer wanted. She places them with families who will properly care for them and keeps many hard-to-place animals at her Panama City home. To contact Cox about adopting or relinquishing ownership of an animal, call 628-1502.
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Copyright (c) 2009, The News Herald, Panama City, Fla.
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Growing up, the only pet I wanted to own was a Mogwai.
The adorable singing, baby-squawking, furry little star of Gremlins had everything I could want in a pet — a cuddly and unique alternative to the average cat or dog that I was sure I could manage, even with all those pesky rules to keep my little guy from birthing or turning into, literally, a monster.
Of course, my dream wasn’t a reality, but it fell in line with the concept of owning a pet monkey or playing with tigers and even alligators. Movies and television shows dedicated to the alien and unusual species of animals around the world brought these creatures directly into our local Cineplex and living rooms, romanticizing the idea of calling these animals our own. And who doesn’t recall that indelible image of Michael Jackson and his beloved chimp, Bubbles?
It’s that idea that helped spur the market for exotic animals as pets. From the “Sugar Glider” Joey and badgers to literally lions and tigers and bears, the market for exotic pets is wide open and business is booming. You may not find these critters at Petsmart (PETM) or PetCo (CENTA), but here’s where you can hunt them down.
Where the Wild Things Are
The exotic and wild animal trade industry in the United States is conservatively estimated to be worth $15 billion annually, according to the Humane Society. The trade in wild animals worldwide is worth many billions of dollars.
And the variety of species is astounding. Interested in a hedgehog (around $125), hyena (roughly $5,000), or kangaroo (about $1,800)? No problem. Looking for a serval — described by one seller as an unusually small wildcat (males get up to 45 pounds) adapted for hunting prey in African tall grass that feeds chiefly on large rodents or birds? It’s available (for just $2,500!).
Besides reptiles and birds, monkeys have become one of the more popular exotic pets of choice.
“Monkeys are probably what I sell the most of,” said Mac Stoutz, owner and operator of exoticpetco.com. “Capuchins, spider monkeys, squirrel monkeys, and Macaques … there is a very wide variety of clientele, from families that have several kids to those who can’t have kids. I’ve sold them to couples whose last child went off the college and they had the empty nest syndrome.”
An Unfriendly Pet
State laws vary greatly, but most people can easily find an exotic pets dealer like Stoutz via any quick online search. Animals can range in cost from a few hundred dollars to thousands for large breeds like tigers and baboons. Based on statistics from the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, estimates of such creatures currently here in the United States include at least 3,000 nonhuman great apes, 5,000 to 7,000 tigers, 10,000 to 20,000 large cats, 17.3 million birds, and 8.8 million reptiles.
Among those reptiles are Burmese pythons, which have become a serious problem in Florida. In July, 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare was strangled to death in her crib by a nine-foot Burmese python kept as a pet, illegally, in her house near Orlando. Since then, legislators and animal rights activists are trying to get a handle on the thousands of pythons that are pervading the Everglades.
“There are these huge yellow pythons that are too big to be handled, and they wreak havoc on the native wildlife,” said Don Anthony, communications director for Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. “The basic problem with exotics is that first of all, simply based on the word itself, they don’t belong here.” Providing the right care, housing, diet, and maintenance that exotic animals require can be overwhelming. Animals like pythons that prove too difficult for owners to care for have been known to languish in cages or small pens in backyards or are often abandoned or killed. Malnutrition, stress, trauma, and behavioral disorders are common, according to the ASPCA. Medical care can also be a problem in that not all veterinarians are like zoo vets and they don’t have the ability to handle exotic animals. And sometimes symptoms are difficult to detect.
There’s No Place Like Home
While many of these exotic animals are bred here (including Stoutz’s monkeys), those that aren’t usually hold on to the instincts they learned in their natural environments. According to the ASPCA, monkeys, birds, and wildcats normally travel several miles in a single day in their natural habitat and big cats like tigers need major territory to roam, something the average backyard can’t provide.
“People see these animals when they’re small and just a few inches long and then they get bigger and bigger and they don’t know how to take care of them or feed them,” Anthony said. “It’s not fair to owners or the animals themselves.”
A lot of states, including Florida and Michigan, will offer exotic pet amnesty days throughout the year, where owners who can no longer handle their rare animals can drop them off with authorities, who turn them over to professional caretakers.
And that’s also why Stoutz is careful about what he sells to whom.
“I’ve had someone offer me $12,000 for a tiger and I wouldn’t sell it to them,” Stoutz said. “Larger animals like a lion or a tiger, if I get it from a zoo, it’ll go to another zoo, because I just don’t feel like someone should have a lion. It’s just an accident waiting to happen. And most people don’t have what it takes to take care of an animal that size.”
Stoutz also says that although he tries to stay on top of state laws, most potential buyers need to do the same. “A Capuchin monkey is $7,000. Nobody wants to buy a monkey, bring it home, fall in love with it, and three months later have authorities come and take it away from you and now that agency has to find a home for it.”
Beyond a state’s requirements, one also has to consider the possible risk of disease, as most animal organizations point out. Many exotic animals can carry diseases, such as hepatitis B, salmonella, monkeypox, and rabies, which are communicable — and can be fatal — to humans, according to the national animal advocacy nonprofit Born Free USA.
Still, the fact remains that proper channels are in place in states all across the country for those looking to own an exotic pet, so the trade goes on. Stoutz lauds Florida laws that essentially require a specific class of permit depending on what animal a person has, which allows the state to basically document every exotic pet in its vicinity. And yet, everyone seems to agree that there are still people that own these animals illegally.
“I’m sure there are plenty of people in California who have monkeys that aren’t supposed to,” Stoutz said. California is among states with the strictest rules against exotic pet ownership. “I’m sure there are plenty of monkeys in places they shouldn’t be. But if somebody wants something bad enough, they’re going to get it.”
This story was written by Danielle Samaniego for Divine Caroline.