This story appears in the April 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine.
All across the nation, in Americans’ backyards and garages and living rooms, in their beds and basements and bathrooms, wild animals kept as pets live side by side with their human owners. It’s believed that more exotic animals live in American homes than are cared for in American zoos. The exotic-pet business is a lucrative industry, one that’s drawn criticism from animal welfare advocates and wildlife conservationists alike. These people say it’s not only dangerous to bring captive-bred wildlife into the suburbs, but it’s cruel and it ought to be criminal too. Yet the issue is far from black or white.
At least not to Leslie-Ann Rush, a horse trainer who lives on a seven-acre farm outside Orlando, Florida, a place where the wind makes a rustling sound when it whips through the palms. Rush, 57, who has a kind face and hair the color of corn, breeds and trains gypsy horses she houses in a barn behind her small petting zoo, a wire enclosure where three male kangaroos, four lemurs, a muntjac deer (originally from Asia), a potbellied pig, a raccoon-like kinkajou called Kiwi, and a dog named Dozer all live—the lemurs leaping freely, the kangaroos sleeping on their sides, the petite pig rooting in the ground, the Asian deer balancing its rack of antlers on its delicate head.
Rush weaves in and around her exotic pets with ease and cheerfulness and Cheerios, doling them out to the lemurs. They thrust their humanlike hands into the open boxes and draw out fistfuls of O’s, which they eat almost politely, one by one, dining daintily while the drool gathers in the corners of their mouths.
Rush has a ring-tailed lemur, Liam; two ruffed lemurs, Lolli and Poppi; and a common brown lemur named Charlie. While many lemurs are threatened, the ruffed lemurs are considered critically endangered in the wild. Rush believes that by caring for these captive-bred creatures she is doing her part to help keep lemurs alive on Earth, and she cares for her animals with a profound commitment that consumes her days and even her nights. As darkness falls, she moves from the small enclosure into her home and takes her favorite lemur with her; he shares her bed, coiled up on a pillow by her head.
Because kangaroos are active typically at dawn and dusk, the animals look lazy in the daylight, dun-colored beasts lying on their sides in cylinders of sun, their thick tails trailing in the dry dirt. But come evening they hop up on their hind legs and press their faces against the large glass window, looking in on Rush in her home: Let me come in, they seem to say. Rush does not let them in, although she did when they were babies. “I have all of these amazing animals of different species, from different continents, and the thing is, they play together,” she says, and she sweeps her hand through the air, gesturing to her multicolored menagerie sunning, sleeping, snacking. She has filmed and posted videos of them playing on YouTube, the lemurs leaping over the kangaroos, which hop and twirl and chase the primates around the yard.
Despite occasional reports of wild kangaroos attacking humans in Australia, Rush’s pets display not a hint of aggression. This may have something to do with the fact that kangaroos are naturally somnolent during daytime hours, and it may also have something to do with the fact that Rush’s kangaroos are no longer truly wild: They were bred in captivity; two of them have been neutered; they are used to human contact. Rush raised each kangaroo in diapers, bottle-fed it, and, touching the sleek suede fur continually, accustomed each animal to human hands.
The $35 that Rush charges to visit what she calls her Exotic Animal Experience helps defray the costs involved in keeping her pets. Some exotic-animal owners spend thousands a year on fresh meat, for carnivores that dine daily on raw steak, for primates—omnivores with complex dietary needs—for snakes, which eat rat after rat after rat. In Rush’s case her kangaroos consume huge quantities of grain, while the lemurs eat mounds of fruits and vegetables.
Rush herself lives a lean life, much of her own money poured into feeding her herd. And then there’s her time. She puts abundant hours into caring for her exotics. “They’re 24/7,” she says, and then goes on to add, “but they’re my family. They need me. I can’t explain to you what that feels like. I wake up every morning and come out here, and all my animals come rushing up to greet me. I feel loved, and that feels great.
“My family,” she repeats, and a shadow sweeps across her face. “All my life,” she says, “people have let me down. My animals never have.”
Privately owning exotic animals is currently permitted in a handful of states with essentially no restrictions: You must have a license to own a dog, but you are free to purchase a lion or baboon and keep it as a pet. Even in the states where exotic-pet ownership is banned, “people break the law,” says Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, who keeps a running database of deaths and injuries attributed to exotic-pet ownership: In Texas a four-year-old mauled by a mountain lion his aunt kept as a pet, in Connecticut a 55-year-old woman’s face permanently disfigured by her friend’s lifelong pet chimpanzee, in Ohio an 80-year-old man attacked by a 200-pound kangaroo, in Nebraska a 34-year-old man strangled to death by his pet snake. And that list does not capture the number of people who become sick from coming into contact with zoonotic diseases.
The term exotic pet has no firm definition; it can refer to any wildlife kept in human households—or simply to a pet that’s more unusual than the standard dog or cat. Lack of oversight and regulation makes it difficult to pin down just how many exotics are out there. “The short answer is, too many,” says Patty Finch of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It’s estimated that the number of captive tigers alone is at least 5,000—most kept not by accredited zoos but by private owners. And while many owners tend to their exotic pets with great care and at no small expense, some keep their pets in cramped cages and poor conditions.
Commercially importing endangered species into the United States has been restricted since the early 1970s. Many of the large exotic animals that end up in backyard menageries—lions and tigers, monkeys and bears—are bred in captivity. Today on the Internet you can find zebras and camels and cougars and capuchins for sale, their adorable faces staring out from your screen; the monkeys with their intelligent eyes; the big cats with their tawny coats. And though such animals are no longer completely wild, neither are they domesticated—they exist in a netherworld that prompts intriguing questions and dilemmas.
From his experience in providing sanctuary for exotic animals in need of new homes, often desperately, Roberts says that exotic-pet owners tend to fall into multiple overlapping categories. Some people treat their animals, especially primates, as surrogate children, dressing them up in baby clothes, diapering them, and training them to use the toilet. Some own exotics as symbols of status and power, the exotic animal the next step up from a Doberman or pitbull. There are impulse buyers who simply could not resist purchasing a cute baby exotic. Still others are collectors, like Brandon Terry, who lives in Wake County, North Carolina, in a one-bedroom apartment with 15 snakes, three of them venomous. And then there are wild animal lovers who may start out as volunteers at a wildlife sanctuary and end up adopting a rescued animal in need of a home.
Denise Flores of Ohio explains how she acquired her first tiger. “I went to a wild animal park one day, and someone put a baby tiger in my lap. My heart melted; it just melted. I was hooked,” says Flores, who ended up caring for eight rescued big cats, including two white tigers so beautiful they looked like fluid ivory.
Some people seek wild animals as pets as a way to reconnect with the natural world. They believe their exotics set them apart, the relationship made all the more intense by the unintended social isolation that is often the result of having an unpredictable beast as a companion. “Yes, of course my exotics make me feel unique,” Rush says. Though anyone can own a cat or dog, exotic-pet owners take pleasure in possessing an animal that has, for hundreds of thousands of years, refused the saddle of domestication: They take the uncivilized into society and in doing so assert their power.
“I wanted something different, something unusual,” says Michelle Berk, formerly of Palisades, Florida, who bought her kinkajou, Winnie, on craigslist. “She was there for me to make my own. We didn’t get a dog because there’s nothing cool or outstanding about owning a dog. A kinkajou—now that seems untouchable. And who doesn’t want the untouchable? They say don’t touch it, so you want to touch it.”
Tim Harrison understands the allure of owning exotic pets. Thirty-two years ago he worked as a public safety officer in the city of Oakwood, Ohio, and kept a menagerie in his house. He had snakes wrapped around lamp poles. He had rhesus monkeys leaping from counter to couch. He had lions sunning themselves on his gravel driveway. He had capuchins and bears and wolves, which were his favorites.
After a hard day of chasing criminals or a boring day of ticketing cars, Harrison would change out of his uniform and drive home to his animals. He always went to the wolves first. His body aching, his mind numbed, he’d let the canines come to him, weaving around his legs. He’d drop down on his knees and then lie flat on his back, the wolves clambering over him. “I would just lie there and let them lick me,” Harrison says, “and it was one of the best feelings in the world.”
Now the animals are gone. Harrison will never again own anything wild or exotic. He believes ownership of all potentially dangerous exotic animals should be banned and is working to make that happen. He underwent a profound transformation, his entire outlook shattered and put back together again in a new way.
What happened is this: After decades of being an exotic-pet owner, Harrison went to Africa. He drove over the open plains and grasslands, and he can remember, all these years later, the giraffes’ long lope, the lions’ hypnotic canter, the elephants sucking water up their trunks and spraying themselves so their hides glistened. Harrison gazed upon these wild animals, and he says it was as if his eyes had been blistered shut and were suddenly opened as he witnessed these mammals moving in such profound harmony with their environment that you could hear it: a rhythm, a pulse, a roar. This, Harrison suddenly realized, was how wild animals are supposed to live. They are not supposed to live in Dayton or any other suburb or city; they are creatures in and of the land, and to give them anything less suddenly seemed wrong.
Harrison says he understood then that he didn’t really own wild animals. What he had back in Dayton was a mixed-up menagerie of inbreeding and crossbreeding that resulted in animals that had almost nothing to do with the creatures before him now. He felt that he’d been no better than a warden and that he needed to change his ways. When he returned to Ohio, one by one he gave up his beloved wolves and primates and cats and handed them over to sanctuaries where they’d at least have safety and space. It hurt him to do this. He knew his wolves so well he could howl a hello, and a goodbye.
Today Harrison is retired from the police force. He puts as many hours as he can into Outreach for Animals, an organization he helped found to rescue exotic pets and place them in one of the sanctuaries he trusts. Many of the so-called wildlife sanctuaries in this country are actually using their animals to make a profit, commercially breeding them or allowing public contact. The few that operate solely for the benefit of the animals are already overloaded, says Vernon Weir of the American Sanctuary Association, an accrediting organization. “I have trouble finding space for wolf-dog mixes, potbellied pigs, some species of monkeys—many retired from use in research—and all the big cats and bears,” Weir says. “A good sanctuary will take in only what they can afford to care for.”
Harrison’s agency fields hundreds of calls a month from law enforcement officials dealing with an escaped animal or owners overwhelmed by the cost and responsibility of an animal’s care. He has been on more than a hundred big cat rescues in the past year and over his lifetime has rescued close to a thousand exotic felines. He was there when a man in Pike County, Ohio, named Terry Brumfield finally agreed to give up his beloved but ill-kept lions. He is currently working with a man who owns a bear that bit off his finger. The owner can’t yet bring himself to let the bear go.
“I meet people where they’re at,” says Harrison. “If an owner isn’t ready to give their exotic up, I help them care for the animal in the best way possible. I help them build a better enclosure or get the best kind of feed. I don’t judge. My hope is that, with the right kind of support, the person will eventually see that owning this animal is a dangerous drain and will voluntarily choose to give it up.”
Harrison feels empathy for wild animal owners, whose affection he so well understands. He loved his animals. He believed, as most owners do, that his animals loved him. He believed that having a thriving menagerie made him special. “But I was deluded,” he says. “I used to believe there was no animal I could not tame, no animal I was unable to train, and that any animal living under my roof was receiving the best of care.” The delusion, rooted in a deep desire to commune with wild animals, has lingered long after the beasts were gone. Every time he participates in a rescue he has to stop himself from taking the animal home. “I try to keep my contact with the animals I rescue to a minimum,” Harrison explains, “because my addiction can come back at a moment’s notice.”
The state of Ohio has become ground zero for the debate over exotic-animal ownership, and here’s why: In October 2011, outside the city of Zanesville, in Muskingum County, a man named Terry Thompson let 50 of his wild animals, including lions and tigers, out of their cages and enclosures before killing himself. The local sheriff’s department had little choice but to shoot most of the animals, which were dodging cars, loping across backyards, and posing a threat to public safety. Prior to the Zanesville incident, Ohio was one of a handful of states that required no license or permit to keep an exotic or wild animal as a pet.
The Zanesville tragedy woke Ohio up. In response to the outcry over the sight of exotic carcasses lined up near Thompson’s property, the governor of Ohio signed an executive order cracking down on unlicensed animal auctions. The state now requires owners of “dangerous exotic animals” to have a permit, to microchip their pets, to establish a relationship with a veterinarian, and to buy insurance.
“I couldn’t afford the insurance,” Flores says, and so she sent her big cats to live in accredited sanctuaries, which is exactly what state officials hoped would happen. “These are beautiful animals, yes, but let me tell you,” says Flores, “I had the common sense to know to never get in the cage with them. I’d pet them through the bars, if that. That was all.”
Sheriff Matthew Lutz was the one who gave the order to shoot the animals after Thompson released them from their cages. The incident continues to haunt him. He has joined forces with animal rights activists who have lobbied for years, to no effect so far, for a federal law that would prohibit the private possession and breeding of large cats except by zoos and other registered facilities.
Like Rush, many exotic-pet owners and private breeders say they are motivated by a desire to preserve and protect threatened species. “Climate change and human population growth could wipe out a species in record time, so having a backup population is a good idea,” says Lynn Culver, a private breeder of felines and executive director of the Feline Conservation Federation who believes that “those who do it right should have the right to do it.”
But advocacy groups like Born Free USA and the World Wildlife Fund say that captive breeding of endangered species by private owners—whether for commercial, conservation, or educational reasons—serves only to perpetuate a thriving market for exotic animals. That, in turn, results in a greater risk to animals still living in their natural habitat. Conservation efforts should focus on protecting animals in the wild, they assert, not on preserving what are often inbred animals in private zoos.
If a federal law ever passes, violators could face a fine and time in jail, as well as have their animal confiscated. That prospect enrages some exotic-animal owners, who argue that the number of incidents involving injuries from exotic pets pales in comparison to the number of people who visit the emergency room for dog bites each year.
“Placing bans on wild animal ownership will only increase the population of illegal exotics out there,” says Zuzana Kukol, who co-founded REXANO (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership) to oppose bans on the private ownership or use of animals. “Bans do not work. We’ve seen this with alcohol and prostitution.”
Kukol and co-founder Scott Shoemaker live on ten acres of land an hour’s drive from Death Valley, in the state of Nevada. They own two bobcats, two African lions, two cougars, four tigers, one serval, and one ocelot. They point out that wild animal ownership has existed throughout history and in all cultures—“by monarchs, kings, monks, nomads, and peasants”—and insist that most owners today treat their animals well and keep them from harming people. When it comes to risk and its management, she is very clear: “I’d rather die by a lion than by some stupid drunk driver.”
Local people, including farmers, give the couple their ailing cows and horses, which Shoemaker kills with a simple gunshot to the head, then butchers into small pieces and feeds to the menagerie, including Kukol’s favorite pet, a male African lion named Bam Bam. She has always gravitated more toward animals than people. “Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to surround myself with animals,” she says. “I never wanted children.”
It’s true that even in states where wild animal ownership is explicitly banned, existing laws are not well enforced. The market for exotics is so alive and thriving that to call it underground is a bit misleading. “The worst offenders are the tiger petting zoos that churn out 200 cubs a year so people can have their picture taken with them,” says Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, an accredited sanctuary.
At the raucous auctions held in muddy fields or paved parking lots, auctioneers hold out adorable tiger cubs with scrumptious soft scruffs or display tiny chimps in baseball hats and T-shirts that say, “I (heart) you.” But people don’t realize that all too soon that adorable tiger will outgrow its role as family pet and end up confined in a chain link enclosure.
It’s backyard breeders that Tim Harrison believes are to blame for most wild animal abuse. He’s been to auctions where cages are stacked one on top of the other, cramped with cougars and other big cats, mostly cubs; the tents awhirl with people whose pockets bulge with cash; snakes and primates being sold for thousands of dollars. The parking lots are filled with everything from shining Cadillacs to rusted trucks, the public pouring in to see and touch.
The breeders stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars during an auction. They coach their auctioneers—the middlemen—to tell prospective buyers that their animals, usually babies, are harmless, and they are correct. “The problem comes,” says Harrison, “when the animal reaches sexual maturity and its natural predator instinct kicks in.”
Remember Michelle Berk and her kinkajou? Like so many other wild animal stories, Winnie’s came to a sad end. For years Berk kept the kinkajou in peace, but when the animal went into her first heat, her behavior changed. She tried to eat her own tail as Berk and her family tried to protect themselves while stopping the kinkajou from tearing herself to pieces. After that Berk turned Winnie over to a sanctuary. “It’s like we lost a child. She’ll always be our baby. Now she has gone to a place where she’ll finally get to be a kinkajou,” says Berk, who seems at peace with the decision. “I’ve learned that Winnie never really needed us. She didn’t need to be our pet. She didn’t need to be locked up. We got her because we needed her.”
So yes, the infant animals are docile, but docile is different from domesticated. Of all the large land mammals that populate the planet, just over a dozen have been successfully domesticated. No matter how tamed or accustomed to humans an undomesticated animal becomes, its wild nature is still intact.
When making the case against exotic-pet ownership, animal rights advocates tend to highlight the dangers these formerly wild creatures pose to humans; wild animal owners underscore the inherent rights of humans to own exotics. Back and forth the argument goes, but what can get lost is what’s best for the animals. If only it were possible to look at the issue from the animal’s point of view.
Yet perhaps we need only look more closely, with our own human eyes, at even a model example of responsible wild animal ownership. Here we are, back at the ranch owned by Leslie-Ann Rush, the marsupials still snoozing in the sun, the pig still rooting in the earth, the fruit trees heavy with papayas.
In all ways Rush has done a fantastic job. The enclosure where she keeps her animals is clean. Despite the financial pressures, they are well fed and content. She is 100 percent committed and, on top of that, has managed to carve out for herself a life that suits her, a sustaining interdependent community of breathing beings, and this is no small thing.
Like most exotic owners I spoke with, Rush does not believe her animals pose a danger to herself or anyone else. “I don’t have predators,” she says. “I’m not that kind of wild animal owner.” But perhaps danger to humans is not really the point.
A rabbit runs through the yard, a newcomer, or simply suddenly visible. The potbellied pig sniffs and snorts. One kangaroo lifts a lazy eyelid and then lowers it and starts to slumber again. Only the youngest kangaroo is awake, and now, suddenly, he perks up. His ears fork forward and his eyes take on a sheen.
Hauling himself up on his hind legs, he sniffs the pig’s mottled hide as it trots by, then starts to hop behind the animal, lowering his pointed nose to get a whiff of the pig’s rear. The pig turns around and snarls. The kangaroo, the youngest one, which hasn’t been neutered, doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the snarl—why would he, since he’s been raised to comprehend not animal but human language—and continues to pursue the pig, which picks up speed. The kangaroo is now in hot pursuit, trying to mount the pig.
“Look!” Rush says. “They’re playing!” But the animals do not seem to be playing. The pig’s snarl grows more threatening. There is, all of a sudden, in what was a peaceful enclosure, a series of misunderstandings. Although it seems evident to me that the kangaroo is trying to mate with the pig, Rush later tells me it was grooming. Whatever is happening, the pig is having no part of it and trots away as fast as his little legs will go. Of course, a kangaroo cannot successfully mate with a Vietnamese potbellied pig. Yet here, in this wired enclosure, the natural order has been altered.
Adam Roberts of Born Free USA says his organization’s mission is to keep wildlife in the wild, where it belongs. When humans choose to keep what are supposed to be wild animals as pets, we turn them into something outside of wild, something for which nature has no place. In the famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, a boy sails on a boat to an island where he dances with beasts born from his own imagination. In the end what we learn from exotic-pet ownership is that when you take the wild out of the wild, you eradicate its true nature and replace it with fantasy—the fantasy being ours, we humans, the animals at once the most and the least tamed of all.