Q&A: Vince Musi and the World of Exotic Pets

It all started with a haunted house. Or at least, a house former residents and neighbors said was haunted. When photographer Vince Musi purchased a home in 2004 on an island that once hosted Edgar Allen Poe, the residence came to life at night, but not because of demons or spirits.

Raccoons, possums, squirrels, and rats had also made Musi’s house their own. When the photographer called a guy out to trap the critters inhabiting his home, one conversation led to another, and Musi found himself taking portraits of the animals the trapper had at his own residence.

Thus the general-assignment photographer who used to cover everything from vanishing cultures, landscape driven stories, and sports found himself tackling perhaps the most challenging subjects of all—animals.

Twenty years working assignments for National Geographic magazine have led Musi to his current project, diving into the relationship between people and their exotic pets. I spoke to him about this latest assignment and whether it changed how he thought of pet ownership.

JANE LEE: Why did you take on this assignment regarding exotic pets?

VINCE MUSI: It seemed to me that it’d be a really interesting story, and it wasn’t one I’d seen done well.

 My main objective here was to lend a voice to these people in a straightforward and non-judgmental way. Not a puff piece or one that intended to be critical.  I was looking for diversity in experience, animals, and opinions. Anyone who had a direct relationship with an exotic animal.

JANE: Did you have any preconceived notions regarding what you’d find?

VINCE: No, actually. To be honest, that was one of the challenges. It’s a really hard culture to get into. There’s a lot of suspicion. Folks who readily want you to come in and talk to them, there’s often an agenda there.

I’m pretty skeptical. I really wasn’t looking for collectors. I was really looking for relationships. And honestly, I didn’t think I’d find it.

JANE: What kinds of relationships did you find?

VINCE: The two extremes are Melanie Butera—she and her husband have Dillie the deer. Dillie is really one of the most extraordinary animals I’ve ever met, and their relationship is profound. Melanie has recently beat cancer and I know this animal played a huge role in helping her through that.

Melanie’s not a kook. She’s a veterinarian, and she saved this animal from being put down. She didn’t go out looking for a deer. It just happened.

The other end of that is Allison Freedman who had a monkey over 40 years old. That relationship is unbelievable in a completely different way. Allison had spent her life working around these capuchin monkeys. She really bonded with Amelia, carrying the monkey around in her pocket the whole time.

When people are dismissive of these relationships, those are the two that I think are strong and real and valuable, to humans and to those animals.

I don’t think everybody should get a deer, I don’t think everybody should get a monkey, but I will tell you, I’m glad Allison has that monkey and that Melanie has that deer.

There are a lot of bad relationships out there. I think these good folks often get lumped in with the bad ones, and they don’t get their say.

JANE: Did finding these relationships surprise you?

VINCE: The only reason I wanted to do this was if I got to see the story through the perspective of these relationships. I was really interested to see what made them tick.

I was a little surprised that they worked. I could probably have worked on it for the next two years, but it would have been really difficult. When people bond with an animal like that, they don’t do too well with the outside world sometimes and it’s kind of hard to break in.

JANE: How did you break in?

VINCE: I had help. I had a fair bit of someone calling on my behalf, folks reaching out to friends. I think once people trust you they’re going to pass you along.

Robin Schwartz is one of those photographers who spends much of her time photographing these relationships and she was instrumental in the beginning. Allison [with the monkey] was also a lot of help.

And then Mary McPeak, a researcher in the photography department, she is without question, the secret weapon. You need a hedgehog at noon, she’s going to find you a hedgehog at noon. She’s as much a collaborator on my work as anyone else in the building. It’s very much a group effort.

JANE: Do you own a pet?

VINCE: I do not. I did have a stray cat that was shacking up with us for a while. We had two tiny frogs my son had been given for Christmas a couple years back, but they both died.

JANE: Based on your experiences on this assignment, do you think of pets or of owning pets differently than you did before?

VINCE: I am always humbled by the enormous responsibility you take on by having one of these animals. Every now and then I think about having one, but the responsibility just terrifies me.

I have a 12-year-old boy and he was pretty broken up when our cat died—it got hit by a truck. We inherited the cat from neighbors who moved away. I didn’t really like it and I kept trying to give it back. But when it got run over, we were really sad.

It’s a funny thing, but for an animal photographer, we’re not surrounded by animals. I think I could easily become a pet-owner if I were in a different line of work.

But I certainly do not have a desire for an exotic animal, although the hedgehog [on the magazine cover] was pretty cool.

JANE: Why do you think hedgehogs are cool?

VINCE: It’s a neat little animal, it’s compact, it doesn’t take up a lot of space, and they seem to have a cool personality. They don’t make a lot of noise.

It’s a very beautiful animal.

A lot of the animals we photographed, actually, they were stunning. Even the ones that were old kind of had a charm to them.

JANE: Is there a photograph that didn’t make it into the print magazine that you’d like to talk about?

VINCE: Alison and Amelia the monkey, I’m very proud of that photograph.

Amelia was in bad shape—she was balding. In fact, when Robin [Schwartz] told me about Allison, she said she’s great to talk to but she will not let you photograph that monkey.

When I talked to Alison, the relationship [she had with Amelia] was so amazing, I said I’d like to come up and photograph her. And she said, I don’t know if you want to photograph her. And I said, I’d love to try.

We did it on a Friday, and Amelia died the following week.

And you say, well, what’s the value of what I did? We held that moment in the relationship between Alison and Amelia. I’m very proud of that.

Vince Musi’s photographs of exotic pets are featured in the April issue of National Geographic. View more of Musi’s work on his website.

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