by Stephanie Reisner
I have been fortunate enough to experience animals in my life from a very young age—from wild animals (a plethora of which I recall asking my parents’ permission to keep) to farm animals to zoo animals—because I grew up in northern Wisconsin where seeing a bear or bobcat in your backyard was mundane. This has instilled in me ambivalence about animals as pets. Today, I am an exotic pet owner. The definition of “exotic pet” is an evolving one and can vary depending on the context; the more popular a certain type of pet becomes, ferrets for example, the less exotic they seem. Granted, I do not have anything as jaw-droppingly grandiose as a tiger, odd as a Pantagonian Cavy, squeezabley adorable as the Fennec Fox, or even anything as singularly cute and unique as a Squirrel Monkey, but I do have Sugar Gliders—which I call my Gremlins (Crabby, Twitch, Gizmo, and Sterling Archer)! These four little fur balls are in addition to my three domestic cats (Smalls, Smokey, and Dynamo) and one Bearded Dragon (Spike)—which I’m proud to say is going to be 11 years old this summer!
A Sugar Glider is a small marsupial possum native to Australia that lives in family colonies which spend most of their lives in trees; they glide from tree to tree similar to flying squirrels. Like most exotic pets they have a specialized diet which you generally cannot buy at your local pet store. I call them my Gremlins because like the mythical creatures that starred in the popular Warner Brother’s horror-comedy film of the 80’s, their care requires following the same three rules: 1. Don’t expose them to bright light (Sugar Gliders are nocturnal), 2. Never get them wet (Sugar Gliders bathe themselves like cats and also will drown very quickly), and 3. Don’t feed them after midnight (okay, so this rule actually doesn’t apply; they most definitely can and should be fed after midnight since they are nocturnal creatures, just watch your fingers when feeding insects). But to be more precise about why I call them my Gremlins, they just fit the bill; they are mischievous, speedy, tenacious little brats—when they’re not sleeping. Although owning such a curious and entertaining pet has filled me with joy, I often ponder at how they came into my life. They were all abandoned by their owners after realizing the special, and sometimes tedious, care required to keep them. Or they were rescued from a dire situation resulting from an uneducated, unprepared owner—in one shocking case the owner didn’t even know they are nocturnal! When I dwell on the issue for too long, frustration begins to swell up inside me because I wish that all animals could be free, and yet I find joy in the experience of animal ownership. Although the absurdity of any living creature being forced to live life in a cage, completely dependent on someone else, tugs at my heartstrings, I find it even more horrifying that this is so easy to accomplish. For that reason I feel the United States government should place tougher restrictions on private ownership of exotic pets and also better enforce the already existing regulations.
Sadly there are too many animal shelters overflowing with unwanted pets—millions of which are being euthanized each year to make room for more. I blame this on an attitude in America that is being cultivated by the ever enduring supply and demand for pets, rendering them as expendable commodities for our pleasure. Exotic pets are readily available for our choosing, without so much as having to demonstrate you have any knowledge of how to provide for the animals’ welfare. Unfortunately for the vast majority of these animals, when they become unwanted or unwelcome, they cannot be dumped off at the local animal shelter as easily as a cat or dog. They usually bounce from home to home until they meet their fate or end up with someone, like myself, who makes the time to be educated and is dedicated to providing for the animal’s best interest. What’s worse is that once someone obtains a female and male, whether related or not, the potential for breeding becomes a reality; many people exploit these animals in that respect on venues such as craigslist.org, without any regulation. Although Sugar Gliders don’t technically reproduce the way the 80’s film Gremlins do—getting wet forcing them to almost immediately convulsively pop out gooey blobs of babies—they do give them a run for their money. Females have two uteruses and two vaginas and males have a forked penis. Unfortunately, due to uneducated or exploitative owners, this generates a perpetual cycle of unwanted Sugar Gliders and when they do find a home with possibly another uneducated or exploitative owner the cycle may start all over again . . . and therein lies the problem.
The multibillion dollar revenue of the pet industry serves not only as indication that Americans love their pets, but also as a powerful example of how the trade of animals can be a lucrative affair, subject to corruption, and therefore should be managed as such. I do not feel that our current regulation is substantial enough. I believe in responsible pet ownership and I feel it is very unfortunate that so many animals suffer due to the lack of research done by the owner. Too often people are lured in by the “cute” and, to the anguish of the animals, realize too late the responsibility of pet ownership.
Ownership of exotic animals is gaining popularity due to “The emergence of new TV channels, such as National Geographic, Discovery and the Animal Channel . . . transform[ing] what was once perceived as an odd pursuit into a mainstream hobby” (Sevastopulo par. 6). Some unsettling statistics have arisen here in America since the emergence of this trend. Perhaps you recall the 2011 Zaneville, Ohio tragedy where Terry Thompson, a collector of exotic animals, intentionally released about 50 large dangerous animals—including black bears, grizzly bears, mountain lions, cheetahs, leopards, wolves, lions, monkeys, and endangered Bengal tigers—all of which were slaughtered by local law enforcement in order to protect the public. In response to those states currently without exotic animal restrictions (including, but not limited to, buying, selling, breeding, cage specifications, and veterinary requirements), Director of the Humane Society of the United States, Summer Wyatt, says, “You can literally have a tiger in your backyard” (Harold par. 11). That’s a scary thought; 300 pounds of muscle, teeth, and claws could be crouching in your neighbor’s perfectly pruned shrubbery, preparing to pounce and kill!
Obviously, the previously mentioned Ohio tragedy is a testament to the belief that “private ownership of dangerous exotic animals has broad implications for tiger and large-carnivore conservation, public health, and animal welfare” but when it comes to regulating private ownership of exotic animals such as these, there are no hard and fast rules consistently enforced across the states, so if you don’t like the regulations for one place you can simply move, in some cases just to the next county (Nythus, Tilson, & Tomlinson 573; Brook par. 5). While legislation is quibbling about the details of “exotic” – from a pet gecko to a pet tiger – and the concerned pet industry advocates are hotly contesting the adverse affects tighter regulations would have on the multibillion dollar pet industry, people across the country are concerned about their safety and some animals are living in deplorable conditions instead of roaming free in the wild where they belong. According to bigcatrescue.org, the website of a non-profit educational sanctuary located in Florida, there is potentially more than 20,000 big cats privately owned today in the U.S. alone—meaning they are owned by regular people and not by an accredited facility such as a zoo or sanctuary. The trend of exotic animal ownership here in America is developing a provocative picture of how these animals are exploited through the illegal pet trade. The trade of exotic animals is affecting populations of different species on a global scale. In a three-year span, 2003 to 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reported that in surplus of the nearly 700 million exotic animals that were legally brought into the U.S., an immeasurable amount are snuck in as well (qtd. in O’Neill 17). Why we have this insatiable need to have pets I’m not certain we will ever know, but I think we could benefit by trying to view the world through their eyes.
Big Cat Rescue. Big Cat Rescue, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.
Brook, Tom Vanden. “Exotic pets growing more accessible in USA.”USA Today n.d.: Academic Search Complete. 6 Dec. 2002. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
Harold, Zack. “State lacks restrictions on exotic animals Officials worry bans in other states could push pet owners into W.Va..” Charleston Daily Mail (WV) 20 Nov. 2013, News: P1A. NewsBank. Web. 2 Mar. 2014.
Nyhus, P. J., R. L. Tilson, and J. L. Tomlinson. “Dangerous Animals in Captivity: Ex Situ Tiger Conflict and Implications for Private Ownership of Exotic Animals.” Abstract. Zoo biology 22.6 (2003): 573-86. ProQuest. Web. 9 Feb. 2014.
O’Neill, Justin. “Should A Tiger Be Your Pet?.” Scholastic Scope 60.12 (2012): 16-17. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 Feb. 2014.
Sevastopulo, Demetri. “Americans Fall Prey to Allure of Exotic Pets EYEWITNESS: WASHINGTON:” Financial Times: 10. 5 Jul 2003. ProQuest. Web. 15 Feb. 2014 .