I’m half-expecting to open my door and see a howler monkey on my step. Or a python. Or a wily band of neighborhood chickens. There’s just no telling what creatures my neighbors might be keeping.
I used to feel smugly certain about the contents of nearby basements and backyards. But after the last few months of snake-laden, monkey-wild, chicken-chocked news, my confidence is shaken.
It all started in February, when a Connecticut woman’s 200-pound pet chimpanzee went ape on her neighbor, as the latter tried to get the agitated monkey under control. The attack proved traumatic and was splashed across the news; images of angry primates that might be hanging around the neighborhood started dancing in my suburban head.
Next came the onslaught of Florida-baked snake news a few weeks later. The old story of people owning pythons and other snakes, and letting them go in the Everglades was rehashed anew. This time, the report came with the scientific opinion that such snakes could be extending their range outside the national park.
Maps released by the U.S. Geological Survey around that time were part of the impetus; they showed that pythons, who can grow up to 33 feet in length and eat antelope if they feel so inclined, “could find comfortable climatic conditions in roughly a third of the United States.” Yikes. Though the gravity of these predictions was mitigated by the revelation that pythons travel at roughly 1 mph, the news didn’t exactly make my sleep more baby-like.
This bout of Florida news was compounded by reports last week of more than 100 people donating rather colorful animals to Florida’s wildlife commission during “Nonnative Pet Amnesty Day,” a holiday where people can get rid of illegal or exotic pets they can no longer handle and not fear prosecution. A howler monkey, multiple boa constrictors and an African tortoise were among the “donations.” Heavens to Betsy.
Then came the less worrisome but much closer-to-home news that chickens are causing a stir in St. Louis subdivisions. The fad of owning “backyard chickens” in suburban areas is growing, and, according to an article from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, many non-chicken owners are objecting because they believe the animals’ presence will lower property values and might attract “coyotes and other varmints.”
So, it seems, the world is a zoo. And certainly zoos are fun, but there should be a better reason than that for keeping unconventional and often potentially harmful animals in the home. So where do we draw the line? Which unconventional pet owners have a case to make?
Legality will take us part of the way. Travis, the agitated Connecticut chimp, was only living with his owner because the state bent rules about owning monkeys (yes, they exist) who weighed more than 50 lbs., the reasoning being that the long-owned Travis posed no safety threat to the public. Since that slight miscalculation, legislators have tightened up the enforcement of such rules, sending the message that large, irascible primates simply won’t do as pets. Agreed.
The pythons and their exotic Floridian friends aren’t so easily dismissed. Though state law makes it illegal to import, sell or release exotic animals, people can legally own “Reptiles of Concern,” such as Burmese or African pythons, if the owners get permits and have monitoring microchips implanted in the animals. Here, then, we must appeal to reason rather than the law.
A reasonable rule might be this: If an animal is capable of digesting or poisoning my golden retriever, don’t own it as a pet. Is life really so boring that anyone needs to spice things up with a 20-foot reptile? Just go bungee jumping; eat some peppery food; buy leather pants, for goodness snakes.
Which leads us to the chickens. Chickens pose little threat to people or golden retrievers, but laws vary throughout the country and the St. Louis area on the topic; some suburban areas allow the chickens and some do not. So it comes down to other pros and cons.
Unlike owning chimpanzees or giant snakes for novelty’s sake, there are many practical benefits to having chickens in a suburban area. Owners save money by getting eggs from their own backyard; they have a free source of fertilizer; the chickens eat weeds. Moreover, the anti-chicken faction is short on proof to substantiate any objections.
In short, I hope we can agree on this. A few chickens won’t hurt anyone, but let’s try to keep suburbia from bearing any other resemblance to farms or exotic animal paradises. And if that leaves you still itching for some animal thrills, buy a chinchilla. Just saying the name out loud should keep you entertained for weeks.
Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. Katy plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.