— Man's new best friends don't bark or purr. They might have eight legs or no legs at all. Move over, Rover. Exotic pets are taking over.
Ferrets represent one of the fastest-growing segments of the pet industry, with Americans purchasing an estimated $300 million in food alone for these furry creatures. They're joined by miniature donkeys and potbellied pigs as some of the most popular members of the burgeoning exotic pet population.
While some pet owners are cuddling up to giant pythons, others find comfort in banana slugs, whiptail scorpions, bombardier beetles, tarantulas, and other creepy-crawlies that might be considered more pest than pet.
From Mauling Tigers to Hissing Roaches
The danger of exotic pets came into focus in the wake of the Oct. 3 mauling of entertainer Roy Horn of Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas. Horn remains in critical condition following the attack by a 7-year-old white tiger named Montecore.
Earlier this month in New York, authorities had to evict a 425-pound tiger named Ming and a 5-foot-long alligator from a Manhattan apartment after resident Antoine Yates was hospitalized with animal bites. Animal rights experts fear there could be thousands of potentially dangerous animals secretly kept as pets.
Smaller animals might not hold the inherent dangers of a tiger. But some fear that nontraditional pets could be connected to the spread of disease. Earlier this year, a batch of prairie dogs in the Midwest was linked to an outbreak of the monkeypox virus, though fans of the burrowing rodents maintain their critters are safe.
Such concerns have grown internationally. As unlikely as it sounds, giant hissing cockroaches had become a popular pet in Thailand. At one point, the African insects — about twice the size of anything you'd find in a garbage can in Times Square — were selling for about $20.
But last year Thai officials banned pet roaches, fearing they were connected to health concerns. Officials even offered to give the insects traditional Buddhist funeral rites, out of respect for bereft pet owners.
"These really are charming creatures," Sue Hasenpusch of the Australian Insect Farm told Reuters. "They're not stinky at all and there really is nothing horrible about them except for the name cockroach."
When Pigs Fly … First Class Still, even when there are no apparent health concerns, the pet world is rife with discrimination — a vicious form of species-ism — and alternative pet owners seek equal rights with their dog and cat contemporaries.
Maria Tirotta Andrews made headlines last year when she and her 300-pound pet pig, "Charlotte," flew first class on a US Airways flight from Philadelphia to Seattle.
"I am a big animal-rights person. My pig has the right to be with me on an airplane," Andrews declared to reporters, displaying a doctor's note averring she suffers from a heart condition and that the pig helps relieve stress.
"I love this pig. She's my best friend," she told the Philadelphia Daily News in an interview titled, "The Pig and I."
Charlotte the pig slept most of the flight. Nevertheless, the airline promised that pigs will never again be able to go hog wild in first class.