By Lisa Wathne
An Indiana boy and his dog were injured recently by the family’s pet monkey—who had been locked in a cage for years because of “aggression”—after he escaped and ran amok. You’d think that after a Connecticut woman’s face was ripped off by her friend’s pet chimpanzee last year—or after a toddler was strangled to death by her family’s python, or a Texas teenager was mauled to death by her stepfather’s tiger—that lawmakers would step in to put an end to the carnage.
But there’s still no federal law prohibiting people from breeding, selling or acquiring exotic and dangerous animals to keep as pets. Why?
The journey for many of these animals begins in places such as Asia and Africa and in the jungles of Central and South America. Many are imported legally in the billion-dollar-a-year exotic-animal industry. Others are jammed into trunks or suitcases or not infrequently, strapped or taped to the smuggler’s body. Such was the case with a Mexican man who was recently caught with 18 dead and dying monkeys stuffed into a girdle.
What few laws and penalties exist hardly dissuade dealers when compared to the kind of money to be made from smuggling: Prices on animals’ heads can range from a few thousand dollars for a jungle snake to tens of thousands of dollars for a hyacinth macaw.
Closer to home, countless tigers, primates and other exotic species are bred specifically to be sold as pets. Babies are removed from their frantic mothers (who sometimes have to be sedated) so that the infants can be acclimated to human contact. Traumatized and terrified, these young animals don’t stand a chance of ever living as nature intended. Primates are diapered and often have their canine teeth yanked out. Within weeks, tiger cubs outgrow their ramshackle backyard pens and spend the rest of their lives pacing and yearning for something that they want and need but will never get: their freedom.
Buying an animal on a whim or because one wants to be “different” almost inevitably leads to buyer’s remorse. Since dealers market these animals as little more trouble than stuffed toys, most people are inevitably shocked by the responsibility and expense of specialized food, space and veterinary requirements of exotics. When the novelty wears off and reality sets in, some try to unload their high-maintenance pets at zoos, which are unlikely to accept such animals.
Jack Cover, a curator at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, says, “We’d have to have two or three warehouses to handle the [animals] we get calls on.”
Others simply abandon animals in woods, swamps or along rural roads—but since the animals’ wild instincts have been irrevocably corrupted, many starve to death or fall victim to the elements or predators. Some species, such as pythons dumped in the Florida Everglades, thrive and wreck havoc on entire ecosystems.
Too many animals—and in far too many tragic cases, people—pay with their lives in this cruel cycle. The time is long overdue for federal lawmakers to put a stop to it once and for all.
Lisa Wathne is the senior captive exotic animal specialist for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.