Novelty is not enough for owning exotic pets

Monday, March 30, 2009 | 12:32 p.m. CDT; updated 12:54 p.m. CDT, Monday, March 30, 2009

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.

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Eric Roscoe March 30, 2009 | 10:35 p.m.

First of all, Kristi, you should have done a lot more research before hand.

You refer to the USGS survey on the "expansion" of Burmese pythons in the US, which is a highly flawed and innacurate report that has been thoroughly refuted. Please see these links below:

"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?"

Both myself and thousands of other snake keepers and enthusiasts are legitimate, law abiding citizens who enjoy their animals both as a hobby and small business. However, you seem to resort to unsubstantiated judgements and accustions based on your own irrational fears of what you don't know about. This is indeed disappointing.
Also consider that far more people are injured or killed by domestic animals such as horses than by any reptiles.

(Report Comment)
Eric Roscoe March 30, 2009 | 10:37 p.m.

Katy, my apologies for the name mix up.

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Eric Roscoe March 30, 2009 | 10:39 p.m.

Many of use reptile owners love and care for our animals just as those with chickens and chinchillas do. How is that any different Kati?

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Katy Steinmetz March 31, 2009 | 12:39 a.m.

Hey Eric - Don't worry about the name mix-up. About the python report. All I mentioned was that scientists said the snakes could extend their range outside the park (not that they definitely are) and that the maps showed the snakes could adapt to certain climactic conditions. I did not mention expansion, and I quoted from the report itself.

You're right about me having fears of 20-foot snakes, and, as you say, those fears are surely irrational on some level, since it is unlikely that I will accidentally encounter a python. But my thought remains that it would be nice not to have anyone run that risk, especially if they only do so because other people had a whim to own a potentially dangerous pet.

As I pointed out, I know owning pythons is legal; it's just unsettling, too, given that owners who aren't as dedicated as you have let those animals into the wild, where they are altering natural ecosystems, and, inevitably, propagating some ophiophobia.


(Report Comment)
Tim Fuller March 31, 2009 | 12:40 a.m.

Greetings there Katy,
While on the surface your logic seems quite appropriate, but may I point out that all species, even your golden retriever, started out as a "wild animal" in some form or another. As far as chimpanzees, tigers, lions, large snakes, anything that "is capable of digesting or poisoning your golden retriever"... that's just about everything. Toads and insects and native snakes can poison your dog, but much more likely is your neighbor that just drained his radiator into the street gutter. As far as attacking or digesting your pet... most people in urban and suburban areas have houses, and are capable of enclosing their pets (regardless of species) in them or in some form of sturdy containment not only for the pet's safety and also public safety. That should suffice to protect your dog.
Any pet, regardless of species, can be a good pet, as well as be a bad pet. It's all dependent on the humans involved. What sort of level of care you are capable of providing, not necessarily knowledge, but aptitude and adaptability, much like the animals themselves.
You may think a lion, tiger, bear, or chimpanzee may seem terribly dangerous, but they actually account for such a miniscule amount of deaths and injuries each year per capita, that you're more apt to win the lottery jackpot three times in a row than to ever be injured by a non-traditional pet of any sort. In fact, according to CDC death statistics, you're more likely to be killed as a result of police misconduct than you are of any animal not a horse or dog (CDC lumps all others together).
As far as poultry, rabbits, or any other convenient prey species is concerned... attracting predator species isn't exactly a problem because once again, if you're in an urban area, you likely are living in some form of structure that can keep all sorts of things out, or can build a smaller structure for pets you want to keep outdoors. Those of us from rural areas have been doing just that for centuries with great success. Coyotes, foxes, wild cats, etc., are not the great disease vectors many people presume them to be - they can't be or they'd all be dead from those diseases, wouldn't they?
All in all, while you think it's something scary, doesn't necessarily mean it actually IS something scary. And as far as getting a chinchilla... well, some of us would like a pet a little more substantial than the size of our carpet slippers, and DO have the skills to tend to them regardless of our geographic location - be it urban, suburban or rural, the skills are the same, the animals are the same, the people are mostly the same. The only difference is the competency of the people. Rural folks tend to know how to deal with the world around them as it relates to animals. Suburban and urban people don't seem to have the first clue. And that's from my 20+ years of experience.
Tim Fuller
President, National Exotic Owners and Pet Owners Association

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Katy Steinmetz March 31, 2009 | 1:00 a.m.

I hear you on the chinchillas, Tim. I mostly just wanted to write the name (the next best thing to saying it).

The mantra of your organization, promoting responsible animal ownership, is a comforting one. But, as you say, the safety factor of owning a potentially dangerous pet is almost entirely dependent on the owner, and some may not be so conscientious or capable as you seem to be.

I understand the risk is often small, but so long as people are releasing any amount of pythons into the wild or keeping any amount of 200-pound chimps in the bedroom, I'm going to have to continue to wish that there weren't any around, so there were no chance at all of their causing harm.

I also understand that people are much more likely to, say, crash into me with their cars than kill me with their pet poisonous snakes, but I can also see much more merit and reason to their needing to drive than to anyone needing to have a python, locked however securely in their basement.


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Tim Fuller March 31, 2009 | 2:59 a.m.

You touched on a major issue... need versus want. You don't NEED to drive. I don't NEED a pet. Your desire to travel distances faster than using your feet alone. I desire the companionship of an animal or to support a species that is shrinking in the wild. There are many reasons people keep pets. But you found a problem - the diminishing ability to define what is something essential versus something desired.
It is inappropriate to turn loose any kept animal. Its also wrong to be drive drunk or speed. Just as the majority of drivers are safe drivers, so are the majority of pet owners. That's why it DOES make the news when things go bad. Were incidents common there would be just one line in the paper, if that.
One problem with regulation is it creates a lack of new people learning the regulated skills. The fewer people that live in areas that are "allowed" to own a species, the fewer can have enough contact with the animals to learn to be able to handle that species. This holds true for any species. There are many children in major cities (and some not so major) that don't have the first clue how to react to a strange dog. This in itself is quite troubling but also proves the point. Not all close to those keeping a species are going to have the interest in them - due to familiarity or just preference. You're not going to become a snake handler. It would be equally folly for a snake-person to be trained about big cats. Their interest is not in that particular animal therefore their skill will show it.
Many aspects of animal handling cannot be taught through common means. Basic skills can be taught, but watching The Dog Whisperer can't teach you all the details of a dog's body language. Most handling requires hands-on training, and it does take a certain aptitude to do it well - like some people are "naturals" at sports and others have to put forth effort. And some people aren't cut out for it.
Many people out there CAN own "exotic" pets. They just don't know it yet. They've not been exposed to the animals and have been told that only professionals can do it. This is wrong because the professionals had to start out the same way as anyone else, myself included. The more areas that are regulated, the fewer people are exposed to the animals, and of those that are, fewer still show interest enough to learn that yes indeed they CAN do it. This means fewer people to be able to take care of the animals from those who have found they can't.
If there were places people could go for advice on care and handling without fear of legal reprisal, they'd get wise answers. The problem comes when they find out they're not up to the job and worry about the legality of giving up their pet. That's why snakes are turned loose in Florida - BECAUSE of the fear of legal action against the owner for having it in the first place.

(Report Comment)
Tim Fuller March 31, 2009 | 3:18 a.m.

But all in all, you're right, novelty is not enough. Though regulation doesn't seem to be the answer either.
(and sorry for the run-on comment)
Tim Fuller

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Eric Roscoe March 31, 2009 | 8:16 a.m.

"I'm going to have to continue to wish that there weren't any around, so there were no chance at all of their causing harm."

If by harm you mean physical harm, consider that there are situations that we encounter in our daily lives that present a far greater and real risk to ourselves than the remote possibility of being attacked by any exotic species. Rsik is a relative thing, I feel more at risk driving to work today than I do around my snakes.

Regarding needing vs wanting, we engage in a myraid of activites that we want to do but do not necessarily need to. But yet most of us probably engage in them for pleasure and fulfillment. Name some your hobbies Katy. I can bet that you don't need to be involved with those, but yet you do so out of pleasure too, right?

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Eric Roscoe March 31, 2009 | 8:59 a.m.

It could also be said that there is no need to own your golden retreiver either Katy. But you probably do so for the pleasure and companionship. How is it any different for those of us who choose to keep snakes?

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Eric Roscoe March 31, 2009 | 5:30 p.m.

"I also understand that people are much more likely to, say, crash into me with their cars than kill me with their pet poisonous snakes, but I can also see much more merit and reason to their needing to drive than to anyone needing to have a python, locked however securely in their basement."

First of all there are no "poisonous" snakes, but there are venomous snakes. There is difference. I always say you can eat them all.
Secondly you seem to be implying that pythons are poisonous (venomous), which is NOT the case. Anyone who knows anything about snakes should know that.

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Michael Amantea April 1, 2009 | 1:52 a.m.

Wonderfully written.

I have heard that chicken waste runoff even in extremely small amounts can pose a significant health risk to neighborhood children who tend to put anything in their mouths.

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Tim Fuller April 1, 2009 | 3:14 a.m.

Well, it's true that agricultural runoff has the potential to pose health hazards, nature has sort of overcome that by providing most species with an active immune system to defeat viruses and bacteria commonly encountered. This apart from the fact that things wouldn't taste good.
Realistically speaking, if a child is eating off the pavement or from the gutter, that shows a lack of adequate supervision moreso than the health risks posed by the child doing so. The main way to have an active and healthy immune system is specifically to expose it to minor infectious agents out and about so it doesn't 1). overreact (allergies) or turn on normal cells and 2). knows how to defend against an actual major pathogenic virus or bacteria when one is encountered.
If some child of school age is still putting things found in the gutter in their mouths... well... they're likely not going to grow up to be whatever they want to be. Sorry.
But that's a subject for a different story, I'd imagine.
Tim Fuller

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Eric Roscoe April 2, 2009 | 12:31 a.m.

"Any pet, regardless of species, can be a good pet, as well as be a bad pet. It's all dependent on the humans involved. What sort of level of care you are capable of providing, not necessarily knowledge, but aptitude and adaptability, much like the animals themselves."

I agree Tim. The definition of what makes for a good pet really depends on your own standards and what you want to gain by keeping the animal.

"And as far as getting a chinchilla... well, some of us would like a pet a little more substantial than the size of our carpet slippers"

Haha, I hear you there Tim. I bet those chinchillas would make for good slippers...
But in all seriousness, Many people choose to keep what they are interested in, and that might not necessarily be chinchillas. Snakes are what I like and am interested in, and I apologize for putting this bluntly, but that is my decision and not anyone else's.

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Katy Steinmetz April 3, 2009 | 4:18 p.m.

Well, it looks like people are keeping chimps in my backyard after. The "agitated" monkey being on the loose (1) and the horrible condition of the owners other pets, including three more primates (2), both seem to prove that some exotic-pet owners are not so conscientious and careful as one might hope.

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Eric Roscoe April 3, 2009 | 8:59 p.m.

That's an unfortunate story Katy. But as seen in your link, it can happen with any species, dogs included. It is not an exotics specific issue.
Here is another sad story. But does this mean we should ban dogs as a result?

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Eric Roscoe April 3, 2009 | 9:03 p.m.

Chimpanzees are apes, not monkeys by the way.

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Tim Fuller April 4, 2009 | 9:39 p.m.

Well, I've been closely following the saga of Timmy the Chimpanzee, and while I've only been gleaning information from news articles (likely just as you've been) rather than firsthand information, it would seem that instead of making effort to contain the situation (by containing the animal) the officer reacted in a way likely dictated by his training but not in a manner which would be intelligent for dealing with a chimpanzee... a game of "push" leads to a bigger game of push, especially with an agitated animal. Without knowing more details of the specific situation I can't cognizantly comment about the individual "what should have been done differently" but clearly there must be things that COULD have been done differently to elicit a different outcome than a dead chimp and an officer with just a couple scratches. The presumption of it being a "puppy mill" simply by the number of dogs is just that - a presumption. I personally know of a musher (sled dog racer) that has around 100 or so sled dogs that live in and about his house. It's not a huge house either... presumably about the size of the one there in Winston. He's not a puppy mill. I further know of a kennel that breeds and races champion sled dogs that has around 1000+ animals on their grounds at any time and raises 200-300 puppies each year. Their animals are absolutely magnificent and their small staff is tremendously knowledgeable about each and every one of the animals on the property. So numbers alone don't make a puppy mill, contrary to what some might think. In fact, numbers alone don't make any breeder good or bad. You could have a bad breeder with 3 animals, or you can have a bad breeder with 30. It's just a matter of intellect, goals, and wisdom to balance the two. But that's discourse for another day.
Tim Fuller

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro September 15, 2009 | 1:59 p.m.

How Killing A Chicken For Voodoo Will Improve Your Writing

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by Linda Stewart Ball - AP,4126,C...

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