December 14, 2009 3:23 PM ET
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.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at http://bigcatrescue.org