The ownership of exotic pets has been brought to the forefront of people’s minds recently with instances of ownership being reported in the media. Having pets such as lions, tigers and chimpanzees, is not only harmful to the animals but also to the owners. Inappropriate, emotional bonds are formed between humans and domesticated ‘wild’ animals that will never lose their natural instincts.
One notable occurrence has been that of the Vietnamese vet Terry Thompson, who released 56 of his exotic animals into Ohio farmland and took his own life after doing so. The menagerie of animals included: 18 rare Bengal tigers, wolves, bears and monkeys, which had to be shot before they came into contact with the general public. The whole incident is speculated to have occurred due to financial difficulties of keeping so many exotic pets.
Louis Theroux has also just released a new documentary about the ownership of exotic pets in order to gain an insight as to why people believe they should own such powerful and dangerous animals. The programme was filmed once again, in Ohio where the number of exotic pets is high as the state laws are relaxed in relation to the worlds view on owning exotic pets. The limited control of exotic animal ownership is not without consequences, as 75 people have been killed and over 1500 injured by their pets.
Both these news stories highlight how dangerous these animals can be, but why do people continue to buy them? It may be that the dangerous animals are used as power symbols to enhance their owners status, for profit by selling body parts, or because cubs and primates have the cute factor when young. But when these cute animals grow up, they often outgrow their enclosure, become expensive to keep and aggressive as they reach sexual maturity. It is for these negative reasons that out of control pets are given away to establishments such as those featured in Louis Theroux’s documentary. This gives a justifiable reason for keeping them open, in addition to using them as gene pool in the future.
However, despite their proposed usefulness in the future, can conservation organisations really rely on these establishments to make sure the gene pool of endangered species are not compromised by inbreeding when it is normally controlled by an overseeing body? With approximately 5000 Bengal tigers (5% in recognised zoos) kept in captivity in 2004 in the USA alone and only 3200 Bengal tigers in the wild, this is an increasingly important question to consider.
Keeping exotic animals is not a practice everybody agrees with and less than 24 hours after the massacre in Ohio was reported to the general public, approximately 28 000 people signed a petition to ban the sale and ownership of wild animals. There needs to be a shakeup in terms of the laws surrounding owning a dangerous animal as a pet. It should not, in today’s society, be acceptable to be able to buy unchecked numbers of tiger cubs in car parks for $200/cub as reports suggest. Nor is it acceptable for the owner to put themselves in constant risk of being attacked and killed by a loved pet.
If laws surrounding wild animal ownership are stringently controlled in countries which currently permit it, they could provide an invaluable service to conservation in the future. This is because the release of endangered, captive bred individuals into the wild may be considered as a way to reverse depleted populations. But until it is controlled, how long before we hear of another incident similar to the one in Ohio or before an owner is killed?