This post was originally published in March 2014.
Having photographed for National Geographic for the last 20 years, you learn never to promise someone that they will “make it” into the magazine. After seeing the story about exotic pets in the April issue, some of the folks represented in this post were happy not to be included in our coverage, feeling that the tone of the story would have cast them in an unflattering light.
I spent the better part of 2013 photographing this world for the cover story that appears in the April edition of National Geographic magazine about Wild Pets.
Exotic pet ownership is a very complicated and often controversial relationship that is often portrayed and understood in a narrow and simplistic way. The animals photographed were far from wild. Captive-bred for many generations, these animals can commonly be found in the homes and backyards of places like Indiana, Ohio, Florida, and Texas.
“People always say skunks are like cats as pets. That always makes me [laugh] because it’s never someone who’s had a skunk, clearly. Skunk people know the truth of this quite well. Skunks are way way more affectionate and way smarter. They personify determination and a keen sense of ingenuity that would put a smile on Willie Nelson’s face and a tear in his eye. Skunks are as American as it gets. Sorry bald eagles.”—Travis Hamza
I met committed and caring people who owned monkeys, chimpanzees, lions, tigers, cougar, venomous reptiles, bears, lemurs, kangaroos, bobcats, alligators, hedgehogs, and one with a capybara, a 130-pound rodent found commonly in Brazil.
Surprisingly to me, very few of the people I met were advocates for owning an exotic pet, in fact, most said their best advice would be to tell people not to get an exotic pet. This wasn’t based in regret but issued as a cautionary note for potential owners about the extraordinary responsibility and commitment required to care for these animals. Each of these people came to be with these animals in different ways, and their relationships to these animals are just as different.
Albert Killian, a gentle man fascinated by snakes, lives side by side with king cobras, Egyptian cobras and other extremely venomous snakes. His bedroom, where he keeps them, looks more like an exhibit in a zoo. He adores and respects an animal that doesn’t really give or receive affection. He has been bitten over 100 times.
“I would not be without a pet skunk. They are very smart, have feelings and [bond] to their human companions. But they are not for everyone. Research is the key before people get any animal.” —Deborah Cipriani
Conversely, for the last 33 years, Alison Pascoe Freedman was rarely more than an arms-length away from Amelia, her precocious and affectionate capuchin monkey. Amelia was a small animal and a large part of Alison’s life. The two went everywhere together as Alison often carried Amelia around in her pocket.
I was really interested in the differences but also the similarities of these relationships. Were all monkey people like Alison? Was there such a thing as monkey person? I certainly knew that all monkeys were not Amelia.
Enter Skunk Fest, the labor-of-love brainchild of Deborah Cipriani who lives with and cares for more than 50 skunks at her Ohio home. For the past 12 years it’s been a community event that connects skunk owners with each other and a curious public.
“Skunk Fest was such an exciting day. Maggie was 9 and Maverick was 8 at the time of the photo. Loki is our beloved skunk who both Maggie and Maverick care for. We purchased him from a breeder in Frazeysburg, Ohio, and pay a fee every year for a permit to keep him. He is fun to play with and quite the snuggle buddy. He sleeps in the crook of our daddy’s neck every night and loves to sleep in our sock basket during the day. It’s quite funny to go get a pair of socks and his cute little face pops out. His favorite toy is a “Furby” that talks. He carries it around. He’s a part of our family.” —The Andersons
We built a temporary studio and invited a cross section of skunks and their owners to be photographed. The idea was to photograph the same kind of animal and show the diversity of ownership. What does an exotic pet owner look like? As you can see, they are as diverse as the animals they love. Their relationship no different than one might hope to have with a dog or cat.
“Bella is a total diva that wants her own way and ONLY her own way, but will cuddle with you when she knows that is what you need. Bandit is a mama’s boy. And I’m his mama. He will snuggle up with me and sleep for hours. They go places with me in their “cadillac” side-by-side double stroller anyplace I can get away with taking them.”—Gail Ceneskie
I don’t make any judgment for or against ownership of these animals. I’m just the messenger, but as an outsider, I find it fascinating that these people are connected in this way, by their love of an animal that is feared, misunderstood and not often loved.
See more of Musi’s work on his website.