Wild Things Next Door: Dangers of Exotic Pets

Zanesville animal crisis highlights dangerous pet practice, experts say.

October 20, 2011, 3:46 PM

Oct. 20, 2011 — -- Across the country, there are lions in living rooms, monkeys in high chairs, and baby bears in the backyard. They're cute as babies, but deadly as adults.

"These are powerful, some of the most powerful animals in the world and there's no reason they should be at our homes or across the street," Wayne Pacelle, President and CEO of the Humane Society, told ABC News. "There's no reason for any private citizen to have a bear or a lion or a chimpanzee or a green anaconda in their home."

Even before the massive escape by animals at a Zanesville, Ohio, animal preserve put the issue in the spotlight again, animal rights groups said the numerous exotic pets in homes and unlicensed zoos have caused more than 60 human deaths in just over the last two decades.

In fact, the Humane Society of the United States said there are likely more tigers living in and around American homes than there are in the wild.

In most places, dog have to be licensed. Not so for tigers.

"The laws don't exist to forbid people from having tigers as pets," Pacelle said. "...Someone gets them as a cute, cuddly kitten that you can hold in your hands but they grow to be 400 pounds and they can take down a water buffalo."

Thanks to lax or non-existent federal and state laws, the trade in tigers and all kinds of exotic animals is booming, all legal. In Amish country in Ohio, a legal exotic animal auction was caught on hidden camera. On sale that day were baby chimps, monkeys and cougars.

The video was made by an Ohio film maker documenting the efforts of animal rights activist and former policeman, Tim Harrison.

"It's important for people to see that these things are so easy to get," Harrison said. "You can just walk out with a deadly snake without anybody saying 'boo' to me. And the funny part about this is you can get on the internet and order yourself a deadly snake or exotic animal and have it to your house within 72 hours, no questions asked."

"It's ridiculous," he said.

As a previous ABC News investigation of the trade in monkeys going back more than a decade, many treated the animals like their children. Owners said the monkeys -- which one woman called her "late-life child" -- do everything with them, including going on vacations.

"You can't help but love them," one owner said then.

But animal rights activists said many of the animals come right out of research labs and zoos, with little attention paid to potentially fatal health risks.

"It's more than just the dangers of teeth and physical strength, it's disease risk that these animals pose in our communities as well," Pacelle said.

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