Exotic Animals as Pets

As the New Year starts, a lot of families are probably getting used to caring for the new pets that came to their homes over the holidays. Holiday times are the top time for families bringing pets home. Puppies, kittens, baby bunnies and baby chicks are all common holiday adoptions. Unfortunately, as breeders and real animal lovers know, in January and February, too many of these pets end up dumped at shelters, and very few of them are re-adopted. These animals are often euthanized, with short, unhappy lives – all things that could be avoided with time, care and planning. Even more serious than the problem of unwanted common domestic pets at the holidays is the growing trend toward adoption of exotic animals, from exotic hybrid cats to chimpanzees to sugar gliders, a small Australian marsupial that is rapidly growing in popularity.

Sugarglider

I had a fairly large number of animals to take care of when I was growing up. I had a Shetland pony named Dapple, an English Setter named Freckles, a Siamese cat named D.C. and at one time, up to 25 ring-necked doves. When I was a baby and toddler, I learned to walk by hanging onto the head and ears of a very patient – one might say “saintly” – basset hound named Rebel. FYI, my pornstar name is Rebel Roberts. Not bad, huh? (To get your pornstar name, take the name of your first pet and use your mother’s maiden name).

At age 11 or 12, I remember having to save the doves from a marauding rattlesnake who was sucking their eggs one by one in their cage and terrorizing the birds, and like the cobra and Rikki Tikki Tavi, that snake had to go. I shot him about 8 times with my pellet gun, which I used because the .22 would have surely killed one or more of the doves, too. It was a horrible, long, slow, painful process – it probably only took a minute, but it seemed like he would never die. I took him out of the cage and, believe it or not, we actually knew a local dentist who collected and stuffed rattlers, who left his office to come get the dead 6-footer. I think he had 8 or 9 rattles. He seemed enormous to me at the time, but probably wasn’t that big a snake in reality.

Currently, since 2001, I have been the mother and caretaker of Badger, The World’s Best Dog ™. Badger is a Jack Russell Terrier, a little taller and rangier than most, but he has the total Jack Russell personality. Badger will gladly sit by my feet all day, perfectly calm, but when it’s time to go out, he springs into action – and I do mean “spring.” Although he is now officially a “senior dog” (sort of a joke in his case), he can still jump as high as my shoulders. I couldn’t love Badger any more than I do. He is my very best friend, and the most faithful, loving and wonderful companion anyone could ever have.

Badger – is perfect for me. But many pet owners might not be able to handle him. In fact, Badger is a Rescue Dog. He seems to have come originally from a puppy mill. His tall height and rangy limbs were not only off-standard for Jack Russells, he was obviously born at a time when they were breeding all the health and goodness out of these little dogs in favor of stubby legs, so much so that the short ones are now called “Parson Russell” Terriers and they even want regular Jack Russells to be short and stumpy. Badger was neutered when I got him, and his tail had been docked. I believe the puppy mill people neutered him in an effort to stunt his growth, and to calm his classic Jack Russell energetic, vigorous, curious and – tough to handle – personality. When these efforts failed and Badger didn’t “sell,” the puppy mill dumped him at an animal shelter. He stayed at the shelter for three months and was within one day of being euthanized when the animal rescue found him. He then stayed at the animal rescue for another three months, and was adopted by an older lady who lived in a single-wide mobile home.

After three days, she brought Badger back to the animal rescue, saying he had torn up every cushion and piece of furniture in her mobile home. Not long after that, Meredith and I attended their adoption fair, Badger was in his cage looking out with his mournful eyes of love, and it was “love at first sight.”

At the time, I had a large house, with plenty of room for adventure inside, and a very large back yard. We lived on a safe street, where Badger still managed to get in plenty of trouble, the most famous incident being chasing the tires of Meredith’s Vice Principal’s bicycle, barking loudly and “harrying” the poor guy until he finally ran off the sidewalk and landed in our neighbor’s ivy. We didn’t recognize him at first, and when he climbed out of the ivy, red-faced, let’s just say that was a “special” moment.

Badger peed in the house, though he was pretty much housebroken. He left “prizes” on the carpet when I was away from home too long. He nearly killed himself when, tied up outside in a futile effort to stop the “messes” in the house – he pulled up the stake meant for a 120 pound dog (Badger is a 20 lb. dog) and jumped the fence, where our neighbor found him slowly strangling to death, because while he could get his body over, he couldn’t manage the stake and attached leash. Badger did not chew or destroy anything – and this is the one troubling behavior pattern he hasn’t shown to this day, though most “toys” only last five minutes or so. He particularly enjoyed chasing young, small children (and bicycles). To this day, he looks very interested in car tires when we’re out for a walk. He clearly thinks those cars are big, ugly dogs meant to be intimidated. Before we moved, at our garage sale, Badger ran after, barked at, and harried a series of much-larger dogs, each of which he dispatched, as they cried, cringed and whimpered. At the end of the day, he received his comeuppance when the older couple at the end of the street brought out their three Yorkies. I turned to hear Badger, for once, crying and whining and running as fast as he could away from the group of yipping 5-lb. tiny terrors.

This is all to say that Badger is far from an exotic animal, but he is a commitment and a lifetime one. He will probably live another 8 or 9 years. His ordinary bills run $200 to $300 a year, just to keep up his checkups and shots, and he is a healthy dog. And that amount is without taking into account its accessorries we had brought from DogGear. Unlike other dogs who have been severely inbred, the qualities that made Badger an “off-standard” Jack Russell also ensure that he has none of the hip, bone, joint or other hereditary problems so common with pedigreed dogs these days. If I had not been able to take the time and make the commitment to properly train him, he may well have bitten a child, and even the Vice Principal. Today, Badger is well-trained and much better-behaved than he was after being taken home as an abused “rescue dog.” He still has his “moments” because he’s a Jack Russell, but I love him to pieces. Now, when walking him, I can see how much “better” he is than the majority of other dogs in our neighborhood and along the beach. I would estimate that one out of ten dogs I see has had much training, and that the percentage of owners who know how to control their animals is about the same. And these are dogs – which all people know well and are familiar with – but what about exotic animals?

Take the small, adorable sugar glider for instance. The sugar glider is like “Rocky, the Flying Squirrel” only cuter – it is a marsupial from Australia. Like most marsupials, it is a nocturnal animal. Its adorable appearance and many of its natural behaviors (such as hiding in “pouches” which include people’s pockets or even the disturbing term “bra babies”) have turned it into an extremely popular new exotic pet almost overnight. The “downside” to sugar gliders is about as significant as the “downside” to a full-bred Jack Russell like Badger. Sugar gliders apparently pee a lot, they require a diet that’s not that difficult, but which isn’t “store bought” for the most part, they need a lot of time and attention to socialize, they are miserable unless they can live with other sugar gliders, and because they are nocturnal, they stay up all night long “barking” (sounds like a small dog) and “crabbing” (weird rumbling, grinding noises) and doing their sugar glider thing.

Some advocates of sugar gliders – probably the same people that will basically take anything into their home and then dump or kill it when they grow tired of it – try to deny the animal’s basic nature that can make it a difficult pet to maintain (aside from the fact that it is not a domesticated animal, it is a wild animal who is being removed from its natural home in order to be a pet). Just as the lady in the mobile home couldn’t handle Badger, unprepared pet owners (some of whom will never be prepared) can’t handle sugar gliders. These small animals, which range from $100 to $300 and up are being bred in substantial numbers, sold in pet shops (always bad – no pet shop animals are healthy and nearly all are mistreated, usually from breeding mills), and promoted via ignorant people who just want the “next cute thing.” This web site is a great example of people overly promoting a wild animal as a pet — the small sugar glider probably can’t do that much damage, is probably not impossible to care for, and probably can be a good family pet for “pet people” who are prepared and able to give it the time and attention and environment it requires for a decent life. But that’s precisely the thing. The sugar glider may be cuter than a pet mouse, but it also requires a lot more care an attention than a mouse does. Not everyone is prepared for this commitment of time, space and attention. And as for me, I have grave doubts that, given the challenges of owning and caring for a domesticated dog with a spirited personality like Badger (and a rescue dog, with all its attendant behavior and emotional challenges) – I don’t see the necessity for taking a wild animal out of its natural habitat and turning it into a household pet.

Even more serious than the use of small wild, exotic animals as pets is the continued trend of people adopting animals that anyone would know are better-off in their natural environment. I learned this from an early age from the awful situation of our neighbor’s gibbon. That’s right – our neighbor had an aviary-sized cage in his yard right next to his pool, in which lived the utterly wicked, mean-spirited – and in a word, lonely and miserable gibbon. The gibbon showed his displeasure by efficiently shooting pee-missiles at anyone who was foolish enough to come near his giant cage. He flung poop bombs with alarming accuracy and shrieked in rage and frustration as he swung from branch to branch in his cage in a vain attempt at freedom. Because he was alone, thousands of miles away from his gibbon friends and family, had to live in a cage, which while large, was surely not large enough to entertain an active gibbon, and that was basically his only entertainment and excitement – hurling his feces at anybody unfortunate enough to walk by the yard or pool.

27_danachimpanzee-yellow-hammockThis is Dana, a chimpanzee who participated in Air Force and medical research testing for nearly her whole life. In one experiment, Dana’s kidney was transplanted into a baboon for some unknown reason. All of her babies were taken from her and used for some research purpose. Dana now lives at a chimp rescue called Save the Chimps.

Of all of the animals, chimpanzees are closest to human beings in emotions, behavior, thought and nature. But they are wild animals even so, and there are countless chimpanzees that were adopted as pets by misguided humans. By scrolling down on this link, you can see the detailed description of LaDonna Davis about the controversial 2005 chimpanzee attack in California that severely injured her husband St. James Davis. The Davis couple was at the sanctuary to have a birthday celebration for their former pet chimpanzee, Moe, age 39. The couple had given Moe up to the sanctuary because he had grown larger, older, and very dangerous and they could no longer keep him as a pet. During the visit, two other chimps (not Moe) attacked the Davises. One of the chimps dragged Mr. Davis by the foot a hundred yards into a parking area, Mr. Davis lost his foot, many other digits (Mrs. Davis lost her thumb), and as was widely reported – one eye and his genitals – to the attack. At least one of the chimps was shot by the sanctuary owner on-site, immediately following the attack.

And this could have all been avoided if this couple hadn’t thought of Moe as a “child” but rather the wild animal that he and all the other chimps were. These chimps were exhibiting the same sort of behavior many people have observed studying them in the wild. And as anyone should know, an adult chimp is far stronger than a person, and lethally dangerous, more than capable of killing an adult human quickly, efficiently and gruesomely.

And still – these animals are dressed in human baby and toddler clothes, given diapers, and treated like “children.” Until they grow too large to handle – and – the St. James Davis case is not an unusual, but a likely result. Animals kept in cages, far from their natural homes, isolated from their families and friends, and unable to live a normal life – it’s a wonder there are not more tragedies and attacks.

My point being – a normal dog or cat is a significant commitment. For both dogs and cats, a significant portion of our lifetimes can be expected to be devoted to their care. Even the little sugar glider normally lives as long as an average dog – from 10 to 15 years. Gibbons, chimps and all of the great apes have much greater lifespans. Some pets, such as tortoises, may well outlive their human caretakers as a matter of course.

I suppose I do not believe at all in exotic or wild animals being used as pets. And most certainly, I think that the use of chimpanzees and other great apes, indeed, any animals, in laboratory experiments or other pointless procedures is inhumane, unnecessary and cruel torture. Don’t adopt these creatures and tear them away from their natural homes and disrupt their lives just so you can “feel good” about having a “cute” pet. And let’s all review what is done in the name of animal testing or “science.” We do have alternatives, and we can follow them.

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Exotic Animals as Pets — 4 Comments

  1. I am equally saddened by birds in cages. I think flying must be a glorious wonderful thing. And we clip their feathers and never allow them to fly. We keep them in cages equivalent to locking a small child in a closet for all of her/his life. Poor birds.

  2. You’re right, Barbara. However, I did see a large white parrot that was not clipped the other day, riding in an open convertible with his owner. The bird wasn’t restrained at all, and the man said he doesn’t cage him, and the bird has never strayed far from his house.

    From the flocks of wild parrots around Southern California (and parakeets), these obviously started out as “escaped pets” and now are free. The little green parrots are almost like monkeys, they are so social, talkative, and curious.

  3. Amy — that would make my pornstar name “Flicker Cummings.” Doesn”t quite have the ring of yours.

    I’ve been so saddened by the number of animals being abandoned or turned over to shelters because Repression blues means their owners can’t care for them. I actually can”t imagine that. When I was a young actress in New York and very poor, I had a wire fox terrier, Morgan. It’s was me and Morgan against the world. We ate ground beef and rice as our principal diet. Worked for us.

  4. Phoebe, I don’t know. I think that’s a pretty good name, but more like a children’s story name! Somehow, I think I’d rather have that – “My Friend Flicker.”

    Terriers are the most amazing dogs. I appreciate all breeds, but having Badger, and your having Morgan – they are awesome, aren’t they?