They Make Great Pets?

Keeping exotic pets often has tragic consequences—for owner and animal alike.

No doubt you’ve heard how Roy Horn (of Siegfried and Roy) was mauled by one of his tigers, how a two-year-old Florida girl was strangled by a twelve-foot Burmese python, and how Travis—a chimpanzee owned by the late Sandra Herold—literally ripped Charla Nash’s face off. What you probably haven’t heard is how common exotic pet ownership is these days, despite the myriad challenges of caring for creatures that aren’t well suited to living in a cage on Main Street USA. 

Hoping to gain insight into why some people feel compelled to keep exotic pets, I interviewed Peter Laufer, author of “Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets” (Lyons Press), an eye-opening new book that goes beyond the headline-making attacks and addresses the less obvious considerations surrounding ownership of tigers, pythons, and chimpanzees, as well as other dangerous animals. Among other things, I learned that Travis wasn’t the only member of his immediate family to threaten the life of a human being. In fact, his mother, Suzy, also died as a result of gunshot wounds—and the teen-aged boy she encountered is still suffering the consequences.  

Considering the subject matter, it’s apropos that Laufer spoke with me from his home in Bodega Bay, California—the town where Alfred Hitchcock filmed his 1963 masterpiece, The Birds.

Why don’t people think about the future when they choose exotic pets?
Two things are at work. When something is so compellingly cuddly and intriguing and cute, it’s hard to distance oneself from wanting to wrap one’s arms around the thing and take it home. The other thing is that people have a propensity to believe they are exceptional and singular. They say, “Yes, that was a problem for the guy down the street but it will be different with me, because I will love this animal in a way that will make it realize we can live happily ever after.” I have heard that many times.

What type of person wants a big cat, great ape, or giant snake?
There are a few types. One is the controlling type, which is why exotic pets seem to be popular with drug dealers and the rich and celebrated—from [the late drug kingpin] Pablo Escobar to Paris Hilton. There’s another type that wants them to instill fear in others. There’s an overlay there with the drug dealer who wants a tiger sitting next to him when he’s talking to his lieutenants.

Finally, there are those who want to impress, and the Burmese python is a typical “chick magnet” kind of an animal, where you unbutton your shirt to your navel, show off your gold chains, wrap your two- or three-foot Burmese python around your neck and walk down South Beach. Apparently there are some women who would be interested in you because of that snake who wouldn’t be interested in you otherwise. However, when that snake becomes twenty feet long and 200 pounds, then it becomes problematic and probably not all that intriguing.

Why do exotic animal owners excuse their pet’s behavior when they bite or attack?
They don’t want to admit that they’re wrong in their assessment of the relationship. They don’t want to believe that they are unsuccessful at transcending the wildness of the animal.

What does an owner do with an exotic animal when he or she wants to get rid of it?
There are zoos—one in Miami [MetroZoo] and a second one [Beardsley Zoo] in Connecticut—that offer amnesty. But there’s concern that if it’s known that there is amnesty with no questions asked, then people might be less reticent about getting an exotic pet. One can also seek a new home for the animal at a refuge, but most of the refuges are booked up. Some owners abandon them, which is what led to the Burmese python problem in the Everglades.

Everyone has heard about what Travis did to Charla Nash. But not many people know what happened to Travis’s mother Suzy. Can you talk about that?
Travis was bred in a facility in Missouri [Chimparty] where chimpanzees are bred for sale and profit. Travis’s mother lived in this compound and one day she got over the fence and onto a neighbor’s property. The neighbor [Jason Coats], who was then a teenager, shot her dead. He claimed that his life was threatened by Suzy and a couple of other chimpanzees that got loose that day. The owner claims that Suzy had already been sedated by a tranquilizer gun and was posing no threat. Notably, the young man was charged [with destruction of property and animal abuse] and successfully prosecuted for killing the chimpanzee. [He served thirty days in jail] and now has a felony conviction on his record. 

Since Travis ran amuck and ravaged Charla Nash, he has filed with the governor’s office seeking for his record to be cleared—[arguing that the Nash incident] shows that he was correct in making the decision he made. The case is still pending.

What’s your sense of Coats? Did he deserve the penalty he received?
It’s hard to say. The two sides are strong when they tell the story. He was considered a bad seed by Suzy’s owner, but I met with him and found him to be an engaging fellow. He’s thoughtful and knows a lot about chimpanzees at this point, and feels confident that he did the right thing. I think it’s a little odd that he was found guilty being that he killed the animal on his own property. I feel sympathy for him, but I’m not quite ready to say, “He was right, and she’s wrong.”

Which states are laissez faire in regards to regulating trade and ownership of exotic animals?
The trend is toward more regulation, but things are still wide open in Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin. There are places where there are overlays of municipal and local laws, and animal abuse laws play into how the trade is regulated, as does interstate trade law. But there are places where you can still do pretty much anything you want in terms of exotic animals.

Which states have the strictest laws?
I’d say California, Connecticut, New Jersey and Florida. The poster-child problems like Travis tend to draw attention to the locale where the problem occurred and the result is a frantic effort by politicians to change the laws. Still, there seems to be a pervasive attitude that we ought to be able to do whatever we want with animals because they are property.

Peter Laufer’s Web site