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.