I mentioned before that there’s a difference between domesticating an animal and taming one — you can theoretically tame a great many creatures that are not domesticated at all.
One of the consequences of this is, people have made some amazingly stupid decisions about what to keep as a pet.
For most of you, the word “pet” probably summons to mind a cat or a dog. With good reason: in the United States, over 38% of households have at least one dog, and over 25% of households have at least one cat. (I can’t easily track down how much those two groups overlap, i.e. have both cats and dogs.) Sidestepping the eternal debates about the relative merits and demerits of those two species, we’ve found that both of them make good companions. They’re small enough not to eat us out of house and home (. . . mostly; my neighbor’s Newfoundland might be an argument to the contrary), they have nice fur we can stroke (. . . mostly; Sphynxes, the hairless cats, are definitely an argument to the contrary), and they’re fun to play with, whether that involves throwing a ball or dangling a feather wand. They can be housebroken, which is very convenient. They often tolerate obnoxious behavior from small children, because there are some semi-universal mammalian traits that announce “I’m not fully grown yet!” — and that goes both ways, given what we humans put up with from puppies and kittens.
Just because those species hugely dominate the pet world of the United States, though, doesn’t mean they’re the whole story. Birds come in a distant third place here, at slightly less than 3% of households. Perhaps their non-mammalian nature counts against them in our hearts? Reptiles like snakes, lizards, and turtles are also present, but uncommon; fish may outnumber them both by a lot, but the American Veterinary Medical Association reports the statistics for “companion animals” (dogs, cats, birds, and oddly, horses) differently from the others, so it’s hard to say how prevalent they are. Back on the mammalian side, there are a fair number of rabbits — I’m told they’re fun and affectionate pets, if you can keep them from chewing through everything in sight — and about a tenth as many ferrets. What’s contained in the category of “other mammals”? One presumes rats and mice, gerbils and hamsters and guinea pigs; rodents are fairly easy to keep in cages, and therefore may be permitted in places where animals that have free run of the residence are not.
But let’s go back to those companion horses for a moment. They’re comparatively rare, showing up in less than 1% of households; horses tend to be expensive to keep. In the statistics for specialty animals, though, you also find “pet livestock” and “pet poultry.” How are they defining the “pet” part of those categories? The report doesn’t say. I know a surprising number of people who keep chickens, some of whom do it for the eggs those chickens lay, some of whom do it just because it seems like fun. Do both categories count as pets, or only the ones that are non-productive? Plenty of farm families have stories about their favorite cows or pigs or sheep . . . which doesn’t necessarily save those cows and pigs and sheep from the chopping block when it’s time to acquire some meat for dinner. Do the goats employed in goat yoga count as livestock, working animals, pets, or something else entirely?
That’s the shallow end of the pet pool, where the decision to keep such an animal as a pet may be viewed as a little unusual, but not too bizarre. The mid-level waters are the category of “exotic pets” — which is extremely blurry, its boundaries often poorly defined even in law.
Reptiles may be included under the “exotic” header, despite their prevalence; so are the much less common arachnids and insects. As mammals, we tend to find those creatures alien, and don’t often gravitate toward them as pets. (Are you going to cuddle a beetle? Play fetch with a tarantula?) Some people find them fascinating, though, and see no reason why they’re any weirder than pet fish. Then you have the animals that are being exported from their home countries, like sugar gliders, coatis, and chinchillas. In some cases this trade compounds the threat posed by habitat loss, endangering the survival of their species, and many of them — however cute or cool-looking — honestly make bad pets, suffering ill health in captivity. But not everything that’s an exotic pet to the Western world is seen as such closer to home; the binturong or “bear cat” is sometimes kept as a pet by Malaysian people, in its native range.
And then there’s the deep end of the pet pool. Have you ever seen stories on the news about someone being found with a Siberian tiger in their apartment? There are some truly priceless idiots out there who believe that if they raise a wild animal from infancy, that makes it a pet. Often these stories end with someone being hurt or killed. Great cats seem to be a frequent star in such tales, but primates also show up a lot, especially when somebody doesn’t realize there’s a distinction between monkeys (who have sometimes been kept successfully as pets) and apes. Ever notice that all the chimpanzees you see in movies tend to have pale faces, but the ones you see in wildlife documentaries are darker? That’s because juvenile chimps are lighter-skinned, and fairly tractable. Once they reach adulthood, both of those things change. There was a tragic incident in 2009 where a pet chimpanzee named Travis horrifically mauled a woman; I won’t subject you to the details here, but if you want to understand how bad an idea that was, you can look it up.
Why do we do this? On the dog-and-cat level of pet ownership, it’s actually good for us: there are numerous studies showing physical and psychological benefits to having a creature you can take care of, who returns your care with affection. That’s why an increasing number of hospitals and nursing homes are arranging for pets to visit their wards. I suspect, though I don’t know for sure, that these benefits are more distinct with nice furry mammals than with iguanas or parakeets — but for the right sort of person, maybe those are therapeutic, too. And if you’re writing about a sentient reptilian or avian species, they might well find more to love in a creature like themselves.
But when it comes to exotic pets, it’s often more about prestige. Pet monkeys and the like have often been associated with the aristocracy or the eccentric rich, at least in the West. (If anyone has statistics for pet ownership in regions where monkeys are found, let me know!) They’re more expensive to get and maintain, and having an unusual pet confers a status of its own, as other people want to see it. When that pet is dangerous . . . then you’re showing off how badass you are, as you wrestle playfully with your living room leopard.
Right up until the point where that leopard rips your throat out. Or dies of neglect, as happens all too often.
But there’s another blurry line here, between “animal being kept as a pet” and “animal being kept.” That latter description takes us in the direction of zoos and menageries — more on those next week!