Wild Things

Wild Things

A short article on the dangers of owning exotic animals as pets.


6 - 12+


Sociology, Biology, Ecology, Experiential Learning

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Even the most loving pet owners are out of their league when attempting to care for an exotic animal in their home.

In 2009, a chimpanzee named Travis, who used to dress himself and sit at the family dinner table, mauled a woman in Stamford, Connecticut. A year earlier, a Virginia Beach, Virginia, woman was found strangled by her reticulated tiger python, Diablo.

According to Adam Roberts, the executive vice president of the animal advocacy group Born Free USA, violent physical incidents are not the only way that exotic or wild animals can hurt their owners. He says that exotic pets can cause humans to come down with monkeypox, herpes, and salmonella.

“There are a number of diseases that can be transmitted from wild animals to people,” Roberts says.

There are some animals, including lions and apes, that transform from being docile in their youth to more territorial as they mature.

“It gets to a certain point when they get unmanageable,” says Adrienne Castro, the director of education for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, in Fresno, California.

Steve Vogel, a curator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, says that when an exotic animal attempts to attack its owner, it is a sign that something is wrong. “Anytime that an animal gets to the point where it’s trying to bite you, or it’s trying to react to you negatively, that’s very stressful for the animal,” he says. “And it’s unhealthy if it’s a continued thing.”

Leave It to the Experts

Both Castro and Vogel maintain that zoos and aquariums are more equipped to take care of exotic animals than regular pet owners. Vogel notes that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a full-time veterinarian on staff, while Castro says that zoos put a lot of research into finding out how to provide the right environment for the animal.

“I think in general you have to know the history of that kind of animal,” she says.

Proper nutrition should be an important part of every pet owner’s knowledge. Vogel says that some exotic pet owners are unaware of the best diets for their animals. He says that some exotic animals, including small sharks, can come down with “relatively severe sclerosis events” due to poor nutrition.

“There are a lot of folks out there that would get animals, put them in an aquarium, and try to keep them alive without having done the research that we do nutritionally on what they are requiring,” he says.

Zoo and aquarium professionals look at not only what the animal eats, but also how it eats.

“For some animals like the octopus we keep here, it’s putting food in a closeable container, and the octopus has to figure out how to open it and get the food,” Vogel says. “That stimulates their natural curiosity and ability to figure things like that out.”

Over the years, Vogel, who says he is not against home aquariums, has encountered pet owners who have attempted to house their animals in incorrectly sized enclosures. The aquarist says that moray eels, for instance, grow to lengths of two meters (six feet). These fish need bigger spaces than most exotic pet owners can provide. “You can’t keep a big moray eel in a small aquarium,” he says. “They are just coiled up in a corner at that point.”

Nurse sharks are another marine animal that Vogel has found in horrendous living conditions. “We had about a 3-and-a-half-foot nurse shark that was folded in half in an aquarium in someone’s house,” he says.

Vogel believes that pet owners are fighting a losing battle when they take in a large exotic animal. “As advice out there to people who are keeping them at home, don’t do it because it’s going to outgrow your exhibit, and you are going to go broke trying to keep it the way it should be kept,” he says. “You’re just not capable.”

Castro says that the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has received calls from exotic pet owners who can no longer care for their animals. Even parrots—large birds with powerful beaks—can be an unexpected burden to their owners. “They can be very destructive,” she says. “It’s in their nature to pick at things.”

Illegal Activity

Unfortunately, when exotic pet owners realize they can’t properly tend to their animals, some release the creatures back into the wild. This is against the law, but not all people who illegally release their exotic pets can be found and prosecuted.

Roberts says that this has caused a population of non-native Burmese pythons to thrive in Florida’s Everglades. He says exotic animals like the python can harm the habitats in which they have been discharged.

“Often times, these animals—especially reptiles—are released into the wild when they can no longer be cared for, and they become an invasive species posing a threat to native wildlife,” he says.

Currently, there are 20 states—including Alaska, California, and New York—that have bans on the private ownership of exotic animals, while nine other states have partial bans that allow private owners to keep certain exotic animals. Twelve states require exotic pet owners to obtain a license or permit. Nine have no license or permit requirements.

When visitors leave zoos and aquariums, including the Fresno Chaffee Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, hopefully they go away with more than just photos of the exotic animals they just saw.

“When we do programs, we are very careful to make sure we tell people this is a wild animal and to treat it as such,” Vogel says. “It is not a pet.”

Fast Fact

Tiger, Tiger
"The best figures available point to twice as many tigers in captivity in the United States in private hands as there are left in the world," says Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA.

Fast Fact

Exotic Market
The global black market for wildlife and wildlife parts is more than $10 billion annually. Only illegal arms trading and drug trafficking are more profitable.

Media Credits

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

October 19, 2023

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