They Make Great Pets?

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

They Make Great Pets?

The late Sandra Herold with her chimp Travis, who was killed by police after he viciously attacked Charla Nash.

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.

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