Tammie Mittie cites a fascination with reptiles and amphibians as the reason behind the number of exotic pets in her family’s Lodi home, such as this Australian tree frog.
Credit: Michael McCollum/The Record
STOCKTON – Like any responsible dog owner, Annette Lawson regularly takes her beloved pet out for a bit of fresh air and exercise. Except, that dog on the end of Lawson’s leash seems a little green. And slow. And boy, is it low to the ground.
"We have people stare at us," Lawson said. "One of the police officers that comes through here … thought it was an alligator."
Pretty Girl is no alligator. She’s 100 percent Savannah monitor lizard, all 41/2 feet of her.
Out on the streets of Stockton, she’s also symbolic of the growing profile of exotic pets locally and nationwide, thanks to the Internet and, at least in part, to several tragedies.
Recent surveys place the total number of exotic pets in the United States in the millions. Many of them, such as Pretty Girl and the two other lizards in Lawson’s home, are legal to keep and relatively safe. But others aren’t.
Earlier this year, the Wildlife Conservation Society, a naturalist group, estimated the size of the illegal exotic pet trade at $6billion per year. In the Valley, the California Department of Fish and Game has confiscated everything from alligators, deer, mountain lions and even bears being kept as pets.
"These are animals that obviously, when they’re fairly young, can be managed," spokesman Pat Foy said. "But within a year, they’re far too big and powerful."
Last month, a 500-pound Bengal tiger killed its owner, a wildlife filmmaker, in Minnesota. In separate incidents last year, big cats being kept as pets mauled a 10-year-old in Minnesota, severed a 12-year-old boy’s spine in Kentucky and killed a 17-year-old girl in Kansas, according to the Animal Protection Institute, a Sacramento-based animal rights group.
Experts attribute much of the growth of exotic-pet ownership to the Internet; a growing cadre of Web sites offers everything from exotic-pet advice to actual jungle cats.
"If you want a tiger, you can buy a tiger," said Richard Turner, a Lodi veterinarian who treats exotic and zoo animals. "You may have to pay big bucks for them, but you can buy them."
Turner recalls treating a cougar cub that had been shipped from Arkansas to a customer in California. The ride apparently had injured the young cat’s legs so badly it couldn’t walk off the plane.
"They don’t consider the welfare of the animals," Turner said. "If you got the bucks, they’ll sell them to you."
In Northern California, alligators seem to have become particularly popular.
Last year, wildlife officials confiscated several alligators from a plane that were ordered by a Vacaville man. And two months ago, they permanently removed several more from a house near Lodi.
The owner of the property, Darin Augustin, is awaiting misdemeanor charges for possessing the critters.
But he says he only took the animals from people who no longer could care for them, because they grew too big.
Justin Mittie, 15, asked his mom for a pet snake a few years ago. Now all sorts of creatures have slithered and hopped their way into the Mitties’ hearts, including geckos, toads, pythons even a Madagascar hissing cockroach.
"Somebody has got to be able to deal with them, and nobody is stepping up and taking responsibility," he said. "Whether or not it was a good idea, they’re here."
Augustin said he doesn’t even think of alligators as pets, because they show little to no emotion.
"They’re not cute and cuddly," he said. "Unless you enjoy watching them, you don’t get a lot of enjoyment out of them. And just because it hasn’t bit you doesn’t mean it loves you."
Yet reptiles and amphibians are by far the most popular type of exotic pet.
On craigslist, a popular online bulletin board, there are dozens of posts from people looking to buy or sell geckos, lizards, even pythons, as well as animals used as live pet food.
In some cases, owning such critters is becoming a family affair.
When Tammie Mittie’s 15-year-old son asked for a snake several years ago, she said yes. Now their Stockton home contains a legally acquired menagerie of red-tailed boas, ball pythons, corn snakes, geckos, green tree frogs and fire-bellied toads. Oh, and one Madagascar hissing cockroach.
"I really don’t know," Mittie said. "I’ve always had an interest in snakes and reptiles. I find them fascinating."
Waldo Holt, conservation chairman for the San Joaquin Audubon Society, finds exotic-pet ownership worrisome.
As the number of exotic pets grows, so does the risk that they will escape, reproduce in the wild and disrupt ecosystems, he said. But he admitted the trend is hard to stop.
"You got an economic interest," Holt said. "You got the pet trade, which doesn’t want any restrictions on it. And you got the pet owner. They love their little ferret."
Others think that when it comes to exotic animals, the world should be their oyster toadfish.
"I think any animal should be able to be owned by anybody who can afford to keep it in a safe, healthy environment," said Augustin, who plans to apply for permits to keep alligators legally.
Yet even he favors some level of control.
"If I want an elephant, fine," he said. "But I should apply for the permit. If I lived in a one bedroom apartment, that shouldn’t work out very well."
Contact reporter Warren Lutz at (209) 546-8295 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Record Staff Writer
Published Monday, May 8, 2006
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