Off the Leash
In the exotic pet universe, it’s all about whose is weirder than whose.
By Jeff Stratton
Originally published by Broward-Palm Beach New Times 2006-11-02
Steve Burk wants to call his “dog.” So he starts growling, barking, and grunting. “SASHA!” he shouts, clapping his hands. “RRrrrrrrr! GRRRRRRRR!”
Sasha saunters around the corner. At 75 pounds, two-year old Sasha isn’t quite full-grown. He’s no ordinary dog: Even as an adolescent, Sasha is incredibly strong. He can leap 10 feet in an effortless glide. He can run up to 50 mph.
Actually he’s not a dog at all, except in Burk’s eyes: This is genus felis, not canis. Sasha is a Russian lynx living in Southwest Ranches.
Sasha sweeps nervously from room to room in Steve and Barbara Burk’s home. He never really closes his mouth — all the better to see his formidable teeth, including two intimidating fangs. With a bobcat’s half-tail, a leopard’s spots, a lion’s mane, and cold, impassive blue eyes, he looks sleek, beautiful, immensely dangerous.
It took a vet nearly three hours to declaw Sasha’s pot-holder sized front paws. Without the surgery, he’d be unmanageable as a house pet. “His claws were like razor blades,” Barbara says.
One small room in the house is devoted to Sasha’s litter box, which resembles a square kiddie pool filled with sand and his prodigious poops. “He always makes in there,” says Barbara Burk. “But sometimes he decides he wants to pee in different places.”
That might explain the off-odor in the Burks’ otherwise impressive home, which sits at the end of a long cobblestone driveway complete with a fountain and koi pond. The Burk residence often harbors a sharp, disturbing whiff of the wild.
Exotic animal lovers can be broken down into two basic camps. There are those in search of a cuddly companion animal to give and receive affection, but who also have a hankering for something out of the ordinary.
Then there are those seeking simply the novelty factor. At a recent reptile show at Flamingo Gardens in Davie, exhibitors were heard using the phrase, “Be the first on your block… ”
Those in the first camp will gravitate toward canines, felines, primates, and mammals like squirrels and hedgehogs. Those truly needing the novelty fix will tend toward any flavor of the month, and big pet trends come and go like ringtones. What’s big one year is often a trivia question the next. Remember the potbellied pig?
South Florida’s climate is perfect for cold-blooded reptiles, and the penchant for latching onto trends with ferocity (plastic surgery, McMansions, SUVs) give it a Mecca-like appeal.
Two years ago, cool-looking crested geckos and colorful leopard geckos were all the rage and fetched the highest prices. Albino boa constrictors that were going for $10,000 are now available for one-tenth that.
Evidence that the novelty is winning out exists in this season’s hottest item: ball pythons. Named for their ability to curl themselves into the tightest, most compact package possible, ball pythons are big because they’re a genetic tabula rasa for breeders. By breeding the snakes specifically for the brightest or oddest color combination, keepers select for specific traits and will breed siblings together or parents with offspring, just to bring about the wildest “color morph” possible.
“Whoever can do that can profit immensely from it for a few years,” says Michael Pata, who has owned Animal Mania pet store in Fort Lauderdale for a decade and a half.
Just as tattoos were for sailors and ex-cons 25 years ago, and body piercings were virtually unheard of, the realm of exotic pets is edging into the mainstream. In a nod to South Florida, perhaps, iguanas as pets were one of the first fads of pet-ownership-cum-shock-inducement.
“People get bored with one thing,” says Lt. Patrick Reynolds of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. His title is “wildlife inspector,” though he notes that the agency has found a new niche monitoring exotic pets. “Before iguanas were on the scene it was all kittycats and puppydogs. Maybe a canary.”
Now, animals that would have been unthinkable as house pets a decade or two ago are for sale in stores, even big pet supercenters. Exotic pet ownership now comes with all the trappings of a trend swayed by impulsivity, insecurity, and vanity. When one possesses more of an instinct for profiling (coupled with disposable income) than smarts, it’s usually the animal who suffers.
The inside of the Burks’ home, which is almost palatial in its airy spaciousness, overlooking a tranquil pool and acres of open space, is almost devoid of furniture. What remains, Sasha hasn’t been kind to. The living room, dining room, and foyer are nearly empty. In a swift, silent leap that seems to come from nowhere, Sasha soars from floor to bar stool to countertop in one fluid, impossibly graceful motion. He used to leap to the top of the kitchen cabinets, which eventually collapsed under his weight.
Big stuffed kid’s toys, like a yellow monkey, are chewed and wet on the floor.
Steve Burk — a retired bodybuilder who placed second in a Mr. USA competition years ago, and who still has a full-sized gym on his $1.3 million spread — picks up the massive cat with both arms and pulls it onto his lap. Sasha complies, sort of, the way a huge dog would. Burk starts teasing him, growling and tussling, trying to get Sasha in a riled-up mood.
At one point, his face is inches away from the animal’s near-snarling mouth. An almost sub-sonic growl emanates from somewhere in the big cat’s throat. It sounds like a garbage disposal gnawing on a steak knife, communicating an unmistakable “get away.”
That sound, the Burks admit, is what “petrifies people.” Last month, the couple hosted a dinner party for 18 guests. “Almost nobody wanted to come,” they concede. “Everyone is afraid of him.” It’s disappointing, they say, “but we have to respect that people have those fears.”
Sasha can put the fear into anyone: He paces constantly, looking like a tightly wound knot of tension with immense strength. It would be so easy for him to pounce and bring down prey up to three times his weight.
“He could kill me,” Barbara says matter-of-factly, like discussing today’s lunch. “He could get my neck and kill me.” But she believes that Sasha wouldn’t do anything like that, though acknowledging that even seemingly docile animals like horses can become vicious.
That concern may be behind the Burks’ recent move to Southwest Ranches. When the couple lived in South Beach, Sasha was a regular fixture in Lincoln Road, where Steve often walked him on a leash.
Some people, the Burks concede, would freak out a little.
“Their neighbors didn’t care for it,” says Reynolds, the Fish and Wildlife inspector.
Reynolds tried to quell the fears of those who complained. “I tried to tell ’em the animal is actually fairly nice, it’s pretty docile,” he says. “But they didn’t care.”
Interestingly, Sasha wasn’t the only large creature on a leash that the Burks used to elicit stares. “Ah, Barbara,” Steve says suddenly, “don’t bring that up.” He clutches his chest, brings his hand up to wipe his eyes.
“Luther… ” she begins, and Steve has to leave the room.
Luther was a huge water monitor, an Indonesian reptile that looks like a fat, red-and-black alligator with a big forked tongue. He swam in the Burks’ pool, slept in their room, and walked up and down South Beach with his owners. Neighbors complained to Fish and Wildlife about Luther, too.
One day, Luther got sick. The Burks took him to a vet, “but they don’t know what they’re doing,” Barbara says. The next day, their pet was dead. Barbara folds her hands and glances nervously into the kitchen. “Steve was — I’d never seen him like that. He was devastated. Inconsolable.”
After several minutes, Steve emerges with a photograph of himself struggling to hold Luther, whose long tongue protrudes like an anteater’s. “He was 75 pounds,” he sniffs. “So I had something to hold.”
After Luther’s demise, Barbara had a suggestion:
“Let’s get a dog. A regular dog like everyone else.”
But Steve Burk just couldn’t bring himself to do that.
“A dog wasn’t good enough,” he says, ruffling the mini-mane around Sasha’s neck. “Then we’d be just like everybody else. I wanted to take a killer and turn it into something people can enjoy.”
Coaxing an animal out of the wild and into your home can be a complicated process. “People don’t realize what it takes,” says Mary Vice, who takes in abandoned pet skunks and cares for them in her home. “They think they can throw down a bunch of cat food and be done with it.”
And that happens to be a problem.
“Obesity,” she says seriously, “is the number one killer of skunks.”
If it’s not fat skunks, it’s skunks left with their gonads intact (“very, very hard on their health,” says the skunk lady. “They’re cranky until they get altered.”)
The skunks have their scent glands removed at three to four weeks of age, even before they’re plucked from their mothers and den-mates. The first year of a young skunk’s life isn’t easy.
“We preach patience, because you’ll need more than most humans have,” Vice says. “Once they’re out of the baby stage, they’re fine, but lots of people can’t make it that long. Unfortunately, a lot of people just want a skunk purely for ‘the wow factor.’ ”
On the other hand, some odd critters are sought not for shock value but out of necessity. Maggie Lane, a Miami firefighter, loved cats but had asthma and severe animal allergies. While researching hypo-allergenic breeds on the Internet, she discovered the sphynx, a rare and unusual cat. “It worked out pretty good,” she says.
The sphynx was made possible only by manipulating its breeding and genetic make-up. Derived from the bloodline of five cats born in the 1970s, the sphynx is the product of a natural mutation; it’s almost completely hairless.
This has the effect of making the sphynx look absolutely odd. As an adult, the cats resemble a starved Chihuahua. As kittens, they look like shriveled, shaved rats with huge radar ears and a long, thin, hairless tail. They don’t even have whiskers.
“He’s cute,” adds Maggie. “But people can’t figure him out. They ask what kind of animal it is.”
Maggie paid $1,200 for Bacchus, her charcoal-gray Sphynx. Unlike most cats, Bacchus likes going out of the house, riding in the car, and being handled by strangers. “He lets anyone pick him up,” says Maggie. “When people meet him they fall in love and say they want one — until they hear the price.”
The “wow factor” certainly enters into Marco Zeno’s equation. To him, weird reptiles are an obsessive hobby, with a diligent search for weirdness and strangeness. Like kids poring through catalogs before Christmas in years past, Zeno muses about his fantasy pet.
“If I could have anything in the whole world?” he repeats. “Wow. That’s a good one.” He thinks for several moments. “A New Caledonia giant gecko.” Among the largest and rarest geckos on the planet, the New Caledonia isn’t available for pet adoption in the U.S., much less permitted in the Plantation home Zeno shares with his grandmother.
His small bedroom is already packed with cages and terrariums housing various varieties of boas, anacondas, pythons, and geckos.
But Zeno’s life — when he’s not performing as a clown or working on stage productions — revolves around “Snake,” the five-year-old, nine-foot-long male anaconda whose cage takes up nearly one wall of the room.
“I’m a big anaconda connoisseur,” says Zeno, who bought Snake at Animal Mania last year. Snake, who coils around his owner on the bed, swirling his rust-yellow-black body against Zeno’s arms and legs, is about as thick as a Mason jar. He’s exactly the type of snake known for occasionally strangling unwary pet enthusiasts. And he’s already shown there are limits to his docility. Zeno feeds Snake giant rats — “rats the size of a small cat,” he says — and recently Snake mistook his knee for one.
“Anacondas don’t see very well,” Zeno says. They aren’t poisonous, but they can still inflict a painful bite, though Snake’s 400 teeth only landed a glancing blow.
Snake, who once escaped (into Zeno’s closet) and does roam around the room with supervision, hasn’t tried to constrict the life out of his master, Zeno says.
“When I take him out to feed him,” he says, “he tightens his grip on me. If he’s excited, if he’s in food mode, he’ll naturally wrap around my arm.” As for the unthinkable, he says only, “I could unwrap him if he decided to constrict me… You just have to be strong, and know which way to unwrap it. Besides, snakes don’t eat people.”
Zeno can get a taste of that behavior from his Tokay gecko. “He hates me,” he laughs. Sliding a wooden panel, Zeno scoops a large speckled lizard from an enclosure near his bed. The gecko gives off a series of sharp, coughing barks, and plunges its teeth into Zeno’s intruding arm. He tosses it back down and tries again, and it wards him off with grunting, cackling, spitting, and hissing. After a tug-of-war Zeno’s arm is covered in bloody scratches.
“I just love it so much,” is all he can say.
In truth there’s not much emotion in a reptile relationship, experts say. “There’s no affection from a reptile. None,” says local zoologist and herpetology authority Jerry Marzec. “End of discussion. You’re just a big, warm, moving stump.”
Lauren Jeschonek, who runs reptile shows at places like Flamingo Gardens, used to think her iguanas loved her. “They’re primitive animals,” she realizes now. “We’re basically entertained by them, like fish.”
On the other hand, the extraordinary Burks say they felt genuine love from Luther. “He was affectionate in his own way,” Steve says, “as much as he could be.”
While mourning his water monitor, Steve Burk started reading up on big felines. He liked what he learned about the Eurasian lynx, a predator native to Siberia. In Europe, the breed was hunted to near extinction, and now is extremely rare.
At six weeks old, Sasha the kitten resembled a full-grown housecat, albeit with a dark, abbreviated tail and tufted cheeks. Next year he’ll hit 120 pounds, his full weight.
Tupperware containers in the Burk’s refrigerator contain the pulverized remains of rabbits and what-not from some mail-order slaughterhouse. It looks like gray, bloody hamburger. “Here, smell,” says Steve thrusting it forward. “Just to have this shipped here costs me $88.”
Sasha is surprisingly passive around the rest of the Burks’ animals. He walks past their horses and goats, disinterested. “In two seconds, he could kill one,” says Steve. Though he exhibits classic stalking behavior during play, he’s never caught an animal — yet.
He’s cornered Rio, the Burks’ strikingly beautiful hyacinth macaw, once or twice, but he hasn’t hurt the stressed-out bird. Steve leaves the room and comes back with their regular housecat, Peppy, whom he places on his lap. He wants to demonstrate that Peppy is completely comfortable around his macro-sized playmate. (Apparently he is, though Peppy acts about as happy as any cat picked up and held can be).
Next, Lucky Ducky undergoes the same lap treatment, but the duck seems considerably more agitated when Sasha gets near, and the experiment is called off.
When Sasha gets hungry, his hunting method involves sitting in front the refrigerator and waiting. Curbing his natural instinct might render Sasha less of a threat, but the Burks have discovered that most people find the cat’s open-mouthed prowl and icy stare unnerving. After the Burks moved from South Beach earlier this year, at least one of their new neighbors moved away; the couple speculates that those neighbors were uncomfortable with Sasha nearby.
Even family members balk at visiting the Burks. And anonymous complaints still bring police to the door.
“They think we’re keeping a lion or tiger in here!” bellows Steve.
Fish and Game officers stop by for unannounced visits.
“Mr. Burk still keeps [Sasha] indoors, and I don’t believe it should be so,” Rey-nolds laments. He believes people with big cats — ocelots, servals, and the like — should keep them on large lots in big enclosures. He’d let them keep their claws and live in a wilder situation. The enclosure, he says, would have a double-door safety entrance so human and wild animal never share the same space, and escape is unlikely.
“If you put it in the house, well, you just lost your safety entrance.”
When the Burks are outside, which is often, Sasha eyes them through the front door. Only once has he made a break for it, and he was quickly found, lounging in his own yard.
“We’ve been cautioned not to let him around kids under 100 pounds,” Barbara says. She concedes that it’s impossible to know what might look like prey to Sasha, what might “click in his brain” and make him attack. “We’re very careful.”
When a cat jumps onto the back of a couch you’re sitting on, it’s noticeable. When Sasha jumps behind you, it feels like a Rottweiler landed from a nearby rooftop. And when he playfully nuzzles against your neck, you can get just a hint of his gleaming incisor against an ear. You get a taste of what it must feel like to be a chew-toy.
“SASHA!” yells Barbara. “Down!”
Patrick Reynolds of the Fish and Wildlife Commission laughs, because he’s talking about a state agency that was never designed to monitor exotic pets and the people who love them. When he started 27 years ago, the Florida Fish and Game Commission, as it was known, had the task of policing Florida’s roadside zoos.
“They were everywhere,” he says. Before the Turnpike and the Interstate, rural roads were cluttered with mini-zoos and small circuses that would winter here. “These places had unsafe conditions for animals and were more or less cruel,” he says. Officers would find great apes, lions, tigers, bears, alligators, and more.
But outlawing the zoos produced another set of problems.
In Broward County, Reynolds says, at least two wild monkey colonies flourish as vestiges of old roadside zoos. One lives in the woods west of Dania Jai-Alai; another large group hangs out in the cypress swamp near the intersection of Route 441 and I-595.
“They will branch out,” he says. “They will go into neighborhoods next.”
That’s what happened with other non-native species, like iguanas, whose proliferation here can be traced back to pet owners. Current regulations allow anyone of any age to go into a pet shop and plunk down $10 for the lizard.
In a typical scenario, Reynolds says, little Johnny finds that keeping a huge reptile is too daunting a task, so his parents bring it back to the store. But it’s illegal for businessmen like Pata to buy it back.
“I can’t even give you an in-store credit for fish!” he laments. “You could donate the animal, give it to me for free, but that tends to rub people the wrong way. So what do they end up doing? They let it go. Into the wild.”
Luis Jimenez’s black eye is finally fading, but it still looks as if he’s taken a shot to the face recently. He did, courtesy of Yagui, his 4-month-old Arctic blue fox. The two were playing when Yagui slapped him — hard — with a paw that became pesky.
Jimenez works at a Wilton Manors pet shop called All My Critters, and when the store recently acquired four of the pups, he had to have one.
“I never had the usual pets.” Jimenez explains. Traveling through South and Central America with his European-born father, the first animal he cared for was a caiman. All My Critters makes for a perfect workplace, with its menagerie of weirdness. Jimenez feeds a tiny mouse to a $3,500 Swanson’s toucan from Central America. The black, red and green bird crushes the tiny creature in its enormous beak, softening it to mush, then sends it down his throat with a flick of the neck. A skittish coatimundi (a tiny South American relative of a raccoon) hides in a nylon hammock. And a pair of pygmy marmosets ($3,900 each) use hands the size of coffee spoons to climb up their cage bars and watch visitors with tiny, shiny primate eyes. Only a quarter-pound each, these miniature monkeys sleep in a tiny tent.
Yagui stays in a big cage during the day, but has the run of the whole place when Jimenez is there. His coat sparkles with shimmering shades of blue and gray, and his eyes gleam with the same frolicky intelligence as a dog.
“He doesn’t bark,” Jimenez says. When Yagui wants something — say some Carnation Instant Breakfast, or whatever Jimenez happens to be eating — he’ll emit a sort of wah-wah-wah whine. Anything that is of obvious interest to his owner — wallet, keys, cell phone — is fair game for hide-and-seek.
Though obviously a canine, the fox deviates from typical behavior in that he loves climbing — which has had a detrimental effect on Jimenez’s chaotic apartment. “And his tail wags up and down, not side-to-side.”
Jimenez had to go through the same licensing procedure the Burks did to get Sasha. A guy who bottle-feeds babies at All My Critters and clearly loves the animals he cares for, Jimenez is the kind of person Reynolds wants owning an animal that is probably best left in the wild.
“An Arctic fox?” he says. “Really? That’s kind of neat. People want really strange things like that, and you know what? I don’t care.”
He’d like to place the largest animals in a more restrictive class, so only exhibitors, not pet lovers, can keep them.
“Lions, tigers, and bears,” he explains, “stuff that will definitely eat you — I don’t want these things running around the Everglades!”
Yagui wouldn’t last long in the River of Grass. Even though he doesn’t have his full coat, he’s designed, right down to his fur-covered toe pads, to live in snow.
But invasive, non-native species that started off as pets are running rampant through the Everglades. Burmese pythons, for example. Starting off as small pets, Burmese pythons can grow up to 15 feet in length. They’re fat snakes — bigger around than a phone pole — and they find plenty to catch, constrict, and eat in the Everglades.
No permit is required to own a non-venomous snake in Florida, only the cash to purchase it.
“The pet shop just wants to make a buck,” Reynolds says. “They’re not going to sit there and educate you.”
Pet store owners like Pata disagree.
“If we have uneducated people, we have to curb their interest,” he says. “We have a right not to sell to someone who’s too lazy to read. Whenever we have a person who doesn’t want to invest anything in themselves, let alone an animal, I just think, ‘WalMart can have this customer.'”
One afternoon while Art Gibbons was shopping at Circuit City, employees started eyeing him suspiciously. Something was inside his shirt. Was he shoplifting? Finally a manager approached him. Gibbons revealed his secret — inside his T-shirt was a pouch, and in that slept one of his pet sugargliders. A small marsupial that can soar like a flying squirrel, the gliders are increasingly common as house pets.
“Oh, cool,” said the Circuit City employee. “We thought you had a colostomy bag.”
Gibbons and his wife Paulette have been breeding and raising sugargliders since 2000. That’s when the bottom fell out of the chameleon market. With decline of the public’s interest in chameleons, the Gibbonses took a big hit.
“I always liked flying squirrels,” Art Gibbons says. When a friend told him about sugargliders, he ended up buying one from a guy who kept his in a 10-gallon aquarium. “Way wrong for these guys,” Gibbons chides. His gliders live in large birdcages, and he’s even built a “glider-proof” room in his house in Port St Lucie.
“If you’re an animal lover, there’s a big draw to it,” Art explains. A nearly off-the-chart cute index renders them irresistible to the susceptible.
“Except, when you take ’em out of your pocket to show somebody, they have a tendency to pee and poo on you.” But that first impression isn’t so bad, he insists. “It’s not like a dog taking a dump on you. It’s a teeny little turd.”
Sugargliders have babies the marsupial way: infants are about as big as a grain of rice and must climb into the mother’s pouch, find a nipple in the darkness, latch on, or die.
As the babies grow, they become extremely attached to each other and any humans in the vicinity.
“If you have one, it’s going to be your shadow. It’s going to live on you, especially during the daytime. They own you, you don’t own them.”
Gibbons is never without a sugarglider in a pouch. “It doesn’t matter,” he says, “I’ve always got one on me.” Grocery store. Doctor’s office. Library. Even restaurants. Gibbons believes his animals accept him as a member of their colony. “When you’re bonded to them,” he says, “it’s like you’re a big giant glider.”
Caring for one of his pets requires round-the-clock vigilance. “Think of them as being like a two-year-old kid, only on a teeny scale,” Gibbons says. “You can’t leave them unattended. They can chew through a wire, or fall in the toilet. And they can’t swim.”
To the extent he’s able, Gibbons screens buyers (a sugarglider currently sells for $175). “But some people couldn’t take care of a pet rock. They can’t take care of themselves.”
Reynolds does worry about the influx of trend-based pets in South Florida, particularly when they’re so easy to obtain. “But we’re making it tough for people to dummy up and get a permit” for some of the most unusual critters. Even so, he isn’t against educated folks owning whatever they want, and bristles at too much government interference. “A political issue is what it is. I believe in total freedom.”
That said, he’s glad that, when 70 per cent of the fish found in the Everglades are exotic, non-native species, “Thank god piranhas haven’t got a foothold here.”
But strange animals are a South Florida legacy. When local celebrities want to throw parties in their mansions, Reynolds says, weird animals are expected to be on hand. “We have exotic people down here,” he notes. “Exotic music. Exotic drinks. Everything has to be exotic. Different. I guess that’s what exotic means.”