The Allure of Exotic Pets Bring Risks to Owners, Animals

Experts say more Americans are keeping tigers and other exotic animals as pets.

ByABC News
October 30, 2008, 4:49 PM

Oct. 31, 2008 — -- Cathie Ake loved her animals. She adored her typical brood of prized Pomeranians and also doted on her decidedly less common pets, including monkeys, llamas, wallabies and her new camel.

But in April 2007, when a television news crew visited her family's Wewahitchka, Fla., ranch to film Polo the camel and their other exotic animals, Polo began kicking Ake.

Donnie Ake, who was at work at the time, said his wife, 55, tried to get out of the camel's enclosure when Polo kicked her and knocked her to the ground.

"And I guess the camel just got on her and crushed her," Ake said. "And I came home in the middle of it."

Camels, which have been domesticated in some parts of the world for hundreds of years as work animals, can weigh up to 1,600 pounds, according to the National Geographic Web site.

"They're thinking it was trying to breed," Ake, 59, said of the camel's attack.

Exotic pets cause big headaches for law enforcement and humane society officers who routinely respond to reports of unusual animals roaming the streets or attacking other animals or humans, something experts say is inevitable when dealing with animals ill-suited to captivity.

"There's a reason why these animals are wild," said Adam Roberts, senior vice president for Born Free USA, a nonprofit animal protection organization. "They don't belong with people."

Born Free USA keeps a list on its Web site of attacks and injuries caused by exotic pets when they are let loose or held captive. There are more than 90 incidents listed for this year through September, compared with the same amount for 2007.

Roberts said it is hard to estimate how many exotic pet attacks happen each year because "so many go unreported." It's not uncommon for owners to keep injuries quiet for fear of legal repercussions or attention from animal control officers or humane societies, he said.

"We often only hear about the most egregious cases," he said.

And those cases are often not enough to dissuade people who want to own unique pets. For example, Born Free USA estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 tigers -- more than exist worldwide in the wild -- are kept as pets in the United States. This is despite 2003 federal legislation that was passed specifically to protect big cats from the pet trade.

But protection laws don't stop smugglers from trying to bring exotics into the country. Roberts said travelers are often successful at bringing reptiles or other exotic animals, some dangerous, into the country by plane.

He's seen reports of dealers smuggling birds in from Mexico by knocking them unconscious with tequila, putting them in canisters and attaching the canisters to truck wheel wells.

When the Akes, married for 13 years with two children, purchased Polo, they were told the animal was available because a previous buyer's check had bounced.

But after his wife's death, Ake found out that Polo was sold because the camel had attacked its previous owner.

Polo was meant to be a part of the Akes' exotic animal farm, which included miniature horses, goats, llamas, wallabies and monkeys. And it was going to play a role in the couple's live Nativity scene at Christmas.

Now Ake is selling most of his animals and cautions anyone thinking of buying an exotic pet to do the research and be careful.

"Any kind of animal can turn," he said. "It's been a year and a half this month, and I really don't know how to go or where to turn sometimes."

A Python's Deadly Grip

Last week, a Virginia Beach, Va., woman was apparently strangled by her reticulated tiger python, Diablo. Police said Amanda Black's husband, employed by the Navy, came home Oct. 21 to find his wife unresponsive.

"She was laying in front of the snake's cage," Virginia Beach Public Information Officer Margie Long told, adding that authorities believe Black was trying to give the python medication.

Preliminary reports from the medical examiner ruled that Black, 25, had died of asphyxia and showed signs of pressure to her neck and chest. Diablo, between 10 and 13 feet long, was later euthanized at the request of Black's husband.

"It took two people to get a hold of it," Long said. "It was very agitated."

Black's mother, Elizabeth Valentine, declined to speak about her daughter's death and Black's husband could not be reached for comment.

Reticulated pythons are indigenous to south Asian countries such as Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines and kill by constricting around their prey, according to the Fort Wayne Zoo Web site. They are carnivorous and have been known to eat large animals such as deer and antelope.

James Severts is the manager of Pet Paradise in Virginia Beach, where Black had been working as a reptile caretaker. The store sells young reticulated pythons that are only a couple of feet long, though they can grow to be 15 feet or more.

"She was good with them," Severts said. "She's kept them before."

Severts said pythons as large as Diablo can weigh more than 50 pounds. They are best fed by tongs, because a human hand, not the food, will attract the snakes' infrared sensors they use to locate prey. If a snake mistakes a person's hand for food and attacks, the person can break an arm "at the least," he said.

"You don't want to handle them alone," he said. "Anything more than 6 feet you want two people."

Other incidents in the United States this year have included monkeys attacking young children -- one bit off the finger of a Queens, N.Y., toddler in June -- as well as attacks or escapes by buffalo, bears, zebras and emus.

Animal protection leagues estimate that there are thousands of exotic and wild animals, the majority of them reptiles, being kept as pets in the United States.

Born Free USA isn't just concerned about human safety. Improper ownership has led to animals being killed or injured or dumped in places they don't belong like lakes or the woods or, in many cases, the Florida Everglades.

The group's list of reported incidents includes an emu being Tasered, wolf-dog hybrids and tigers being shot and numerous cases of reptiles being run over by cars or found dead from exposure to the unnatural environmental elements.