Another revenue source for owners is for photography and television shoots. For example, Thompson supplied a lion club for a 2008 fashion shoot featuring supermodel Heidi Klum.
Because these situations force the animals in close contact with people who have no experience dealing with them, they too are often fraught with peril. One example: a Siberian tiger killed a teenager in Altamont, Kan. in 2005 after her high school class decided to have their class photos in an exotic animal sanctuary.
Animal welfare experts say that, besides the political will needed to change state laws prohibiting the private ownership of wild animals, more education is needed to teach the public to respect wildlife by not coming into close contact with it.
Reality television is not helping that cause. Shows featuring professed animal experts like Jack Hanna, Jeff Corwin, and Steve Irwin often glamorize up-close encounters with animals that otherwise should not be domesticated. The popularity of television shows and video games like "Awesome Possum" and "Fatal Attractions" have only increased ownership of exotic animals, Harrison says.
When wild animals like alligators or tigers are ushered onto talk shows, they are often "surgically altered or sedated," says Harrison, which creates a misconception that the animals can work well in domesticated environments.
"[People] think they can do what their heroes do on TV. It's an American phenomenon," he says.