If you had driven by the idyllic-looking suburban home near Albany, New York, you would have never known that six African exotic cats had, for more than a decade, been living in the dark basement.
In the wild, servals, often referred to as reed cats, typically live near water. The largely solitary animals roam vast tracts of land and can jump 12 feet straight up into the air. They fish for meals by knocking their prey unconscious with their strong, precise paws.
Yet there were these six, 40-pound servals living virtually on top of each other in an 8-by-12-foot cage—no bigger than a small shed—with a concrete floor, a drain, two litter boxes and a few shelves on the wall. The homemade enclosure had been built to prevent the cats from spraying all over the basement and make it easy to clean. The owner let them out when people visited.
All of the cats had been declawed. One female had a permanently damaged ear, likely due to disputes that arose from the cats living in such close quarters. They were also grossly overweight, “like whales on little stick legs,” remembers Carole Baskin, director of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Florida. The sanctuary agreed to take the servals in 2011 after being called by the owner, who had fallen ill and was losing her home to foreclosure. Many exotic cat owners feed their animals food high in fat but low in nutritional value. Coupled with the lack of exercise from living in tiny enclosures and the discomfort from walking on concrete, especially if they’ve been declawed, these animals typically live only 10 to 12 years. “Here [at Big Cat Rescue], they live into their late teens and twenties,” Baskin says.
Five of the servals had been bought as kittens from a now-closed pet store in Latham, New York, when it was still legal in the state to buy exotic cats as pets. The sixth cat came from a man in Florida who didn’t want him anymore. The servals had been grandfathered in since the owner had purchased them before a 2005 statewide ban on the possession of big cats and other exotic animals. One of the servals died before making it to sanctuary. The remaining five have since been living in 1,200-square-foot outdoor enclosures filled with climbing opportunities, toys and cozy dens (one elderly male recently died). The staff also brings pools to their enclosures for water play.
Even with the vast improvements, one of the servals still licks himself to the point where he leaves gaping holes in his fur. “It’s a stereotypical behavior he likely developed at a young age,” Baskin says, “probably because there was nothing else for him to do.”
Baskin and her sanctuary staff are on the front lines of a battle against a national phenomenon that is disturbingly widespread: the private ownership of exotic animals. All across the U.S., servals, lions, tigers, cougars, chimps, monkeys and other animals languish in basements, garages and small outdoor enclosures, straddling the boundary between wild animal and family pet, their freedom curtailed and their biological needs unmet.
The animals are being captive-bred in roadside zoos and even people’s backyards, says Nicole Paquette, HSUS vice president of wildlife protection. “Some are sold in pet stores. Others are sold at one of about a dozen federally licensed animal auctions across the country or online.” Or, like in the case of the Florida man who didn’t want his serval anymore, the animals are traded back and forth between pet owners. Laws are mostly lax, and in many states possession of wild animals is perfectly legal.
Big cats are often victims. An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 tigers live in the U.S., mostly at unaccredited breeding facilities, poorly run roadside zoos, traveling zoos, pseudo-sanctuaries and private menageries, in conditions ranging from barely adequate to squalid.
Every so often, news stories shocking enough to make international headlines surface from this rarely seen underground world. Recall the nightmare of Zanesville, Ohio, on Oct. 19, 2011. What became known as the “Zanesville Animal Massacre” was a horrific scene of cruelty and carnage, as 56 wild animals were released from an unlicensed private menagerie by their owner. Nearly 50 of the hapless animals lost their lives, including 17 lions and 18 tigers. The owner killed himself. For years the local sheriff had expressed concern about flimsy, unsafe caging and poor conditions at the facility, but without any state laws regarding exotic pets at the time, there was little he could do.
Events such as Zanesville are both tragic and acute. The world gasps at the horror but then soon forgets it happened, even though the problem of keeping exotic pets goes beyond sporadic episodes of grim violence. Often the horror stories are restricted to local media outlets, if they are reported at all—even though incidences of abuse and neglect are constant and ubiquitous.
“It’s a public safety threat, a public health threat, and of course it’s bad for the animals: So many are not even provided adequate care,” says Paquette.
Twenty years ago, Baskin herself bred and sold exotic cats in Florida. She had her “road to Damascus” moment at a wild animal auction in 1995. “I recognized one of the lynx being sold as one we had previously owned,” she says. “He was one of the rescued fur-farm kittens that we placed in a pet home. I told everyone that if their kitten didn’t work out to bring them back. Most did, but this cat somehow ended up at an auction where taxidermists were likely to end up with him.
“We brought him home that day,” she says, “but it was one of those moments where the light came on in my head and [I] said, ‘Others are not committed to lifetime care of these cats, so you can’t trust people who say they will always love the animal.’ ”
And therein lies the paradox of exotic pet ownership: Our desire to keep these animals close eclipses our capacity to give them lives without suffering—and to keep our communities safe.
If anyone knows the dangers posed by exotic pets, it is Charla Nash. In 2009, Nash, a resident of Stamford, Connecticut, was mauled by her friend’s pet chimpanzee, Travis, who starred in commercials. The 200-pound, 14-year-old chimp turned on Nash, inflicting horrendous injuries. She lost her hands, nose, lips and eyes and underwent a full face transplant. Travis was shot to death by police responding to the 911 call—a typical outcome when wild animals go wild.
“I want everyone out there that either has a primate or knows someone who has a primate to know they are very dangerous, infectious animals,” Nash said in a 2014 interview with The HSUS. “As cute as they are, they are going to hurt someone.”
During puberty, destructive behaviors emerge without provocation or warning and the one-time cuties become unwanted pets. Most end up euthanized, cycled back into the trade or released into the wild, where their chances of survival are slim (and where they can harm the local ecosystem). Others are simply left to languish in neglectful and isolated conditions, locked away in cages.
“The general story you hear consistently is that people see a cute young animal,” says Ben Callison, HSUS integration and engagement director for animal response, care and sanctuary. “They get the pet as a juvenile generally, and they run into trouble when the animal becomes sexually mature. For primates, that’s always the story. They can’t handle them anymore, and you end up getting bit or they hit you.”
Jonas was an elderly rhesus macaque when he came to Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch, a Texas sanctuary operated by HSUS affiliate The Fund for Animals, after living chained to a tree for 25 years. (Macaques are popular in the pet trade, despite the fact that most carry the herpes B virus, which can be deadly to humans.) Jonas had been at a roadside zoo in Louisiana his first four years. But as he reached sexual maturity, he began getting rough with visitors. He ended up in someone’s backyard with a leather collar around his neck, attached to 100 feet of chain that had been secured to a tree. He lived a solitary existence, Callison says, though the owner said their dogs would sometimes visit him.
Ranch staff hoped Jonas’ years of living alone would not hinder his chance for companionship. “We didn’t know if he would be able to integrate with another macaque,” Callison says. He was placed in an enclosure with a female macaque named Sunshine, who’d recently lost her companion. Black Beauty staff watched tentatively as the two went to their respective corners. Slowly, over the next few days, they began to approach each other and eventually became inseparable.
Jonas adapted easier than most and experienced some peace before his death in late March. “Generally the animals have no social skills of how to be their own species,” Callison says. “It takes a lot longer for an animal who came from the pet trade than other rescues to be comfortable with other animals. It’s very difficult. They are put into an environment they are not used to because this is not their world. The longer the time they are isolated like that, the harder it is.”
What drives so many Americans to acquire creatures who need huge living spaces, expensive diets such as large quantities of raw meat and specialized veterinary care—animals who often outweigh us by hundreds of pounds, with teeth that can tear flesh and muscles that can wrestle us to the ground?
For some, it’s the desire to impress others by acquiring something dangerous and exotic. For others, it starts with a misplaced love of animals: We marvel at their beauty and aren’t content to simply admire from afar. In our human hubris, we also overestimate our capacity to tame, and we assume big cats are simply a larger version of the domesticated felines who purr in our laps, rub our faces and share our beds.
“We hear some folks say things like, ‘I have this bond with my cougar. I sleep with the cougar and he would be devastated if I wasn’t there,’ ” says Paquette. “But just because you think you have this bond doesn’t mean the animal’s natural instincts won’t come out.”
In the early ‘90s, when a character on the sitcom Friends acquired a pet capuchin, “everybody wanted a capuchin,” says Callison. Likewise, Finding Nemo led to a surge in the clownfish trade and damage to coral reefs.
Even not-so-exotic animals such as turtles have suffered escalating popularity in the pet world after making their splash on the big screen. Oftentimes the children quickly learn that turtles aren’t really ninjas and lose interest.
And then there are the wildlife evangelists who trot out an assortment of baby exotic animals as stage props for appearances on TV talk shows and at other venues. Instead of conveying a purported conservation message, they wind up inspiring viewers to seek out the animals for pets.
Exotic animals also function as status symbols (usually for people who already enjoy a lot of status). Former boxer Mike Tyson has owned at least three royal Bengal tigers, one of whom shared screen time with him in the film The Hangover. Kardashian family members rented a chimpanzee for an episode of their reality show, coincidentally, right around the time Nash was attacked.
In our social-media-saturated, celebrity-infatuated culture, these spectacles can fuel the demand for wild pets. When celebrities post pictures of themselves snuggling with tiger cubs or riding a baby elephant, the images reach millions of fans.
We see the dynamic in play whether it’s a Dubai millionaire exploiting his menagerie or singer Rihanna posing in Thailand with illegally kept slow lorises, a type of Asian primate (her widely broadcast selfie eventually prompted the arrest of two people who were using the animals as photo props for tourists).
The late pop singer Michael Jackson had an array of exotic animals, including a chimpanzee named Bubbles who, like most captive chimps, became too large and aggressive to handle.
“Even the most popular and among the most wealthy entertainers at the time knew he couldn’t handle an adolescent chimpanzee,” says Patti Ragan, founder of the Center for Great Apes in Wauchula, Florida.
In 2005, the center took in Bubbles with a large group of chimpanzees, all from the entertainment world. When Bubbles first arrived, he was withdrawn and shy, tending to stay on the ground. Having been raised to wear human clothes and drink out of teacups, he was lost when it came to interacting with other chimps.
Ten years later, he’s living well, says Ragan. “Bubbles has evolved into the dominant male in his group. He’s doing great: He’s just a normal chimp.”
But Jackson did not learn the lesson and replaced Bubbles with at least two younger chimps. After his death, his vast collection of animals was dispersed around the country, some finding proper sanctuary, others meeting tragic ends, such as a pair of giraffes who died soon after they were relocated to Arizona.
It is unknown what became of the chimps.
In the end, taxpayers and humane organizations bear the tremendous costs of caring for these animals. Placement at accredited sanctuaries is the best possible outcome for victims of the exotic pet trade, but sanctuaries aren’t the ultimate solution. “The reality is, we turn away animals because of the sheer volume of animals in the pet trade,” Callison says. “We can’t rescue our way out of this issue. Sadly, so many of us are saturated.”
The answer lies in passing and enforcing laws against the breeding, possession and sale of wild pets. Local governments are increasingly heeding this call. Macomb County in Michigan recently banned the sale of exotic pets. Caroline County in Virginia banned ownership.
The HSUS is driving legislative change. It supports bills in Congress to ban the breeding and ownership of big cats (Big Cats Public Safety Act) and to ban the interstate commerce in primates as pets (Captive Primate Safety Act), while pushing for reform at the state level. “We work with state lawmakers to ensure strong laws are in place to protect the animals and ensure public safety,” says Paquette.
Since 2000, the organization has helped pass 19 bills against the trade. One was in Ohio where, after the Zanesville massacre, the legislature banned new ownership of dangerous wild animals and placed strict standards on current owners. Today, The HSUS is particularly focused on the five states with no restrictions at all: Alabama, Nevada, Wisconsin, and North and South Carolina. In Wisconsin and North Carolina, there are bills pending to ban the private possession of dangerous animals. And in Clark County, Nevada, HSUS efforts brought the recent ban on new ownership of exotic dangerous animals. The county is the largest in Nevada with about 2 million people.
The owner said the other cats often attacked Teisha and she couldn’t walk. “He claims how much he loves his cats and how he is going to fight to the end to keep them,” Baskin says. Luckily, he signed them over when the SWAT team arrived. Though she is still weak in the back legs, Teisha is getting stronger, Baskin says. “It took her about a week to get into her pool, but once she got in she had so much fun.”
Baskin says people tell her she should go to Africa to see big cats in their natural environment. “But that would make my life even harder than it is because I know these animals belong in the wild. … It’s heartbreaking to see these intelligent animals who are never going to know freedom.”
Dark Side of the Turtle Trade
by Ruthanne Johnson
Growing up in Michigan in the 1950s, James Harding had a succession of pet turtles he acquired from people peddling tiny red-eared sliders around his neighborhood. “You could buy a little plastic palm tree and a bowl to keep them in,” he remembers, “and a box of stuff they said was turtle food.” His first turtle cost just 49 cents and promptly died, as did a string of others he memorialized with little crosses in his backyard.
The experience deeply troubled Harding, who went on to study turtles. He now teaches people about turtles as the herpetology specialist at the Michigan State University Museum. The peddled turtles, he now knows, were babies, the food they provided wasn’t even turtle food and their habitat was too small. People simply didn’t know much about turtles or their care.
Today, turtles are still popular as pets. According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, there were about 5 million pet turtles in the United States in 2014. While more resources are available, turtles can still have it pretty rough.
Most turtles in the pet trade are raised on turtle farms or by private breeders. Many are still taken from the wild. The majority of farmed animals are not sold to pet owners but to domestic and overseas Asian markets as food. Between 2002 and 2012, more than 126 million turtles were exported overseas. The butchery is gory, says Allen Salzberg, director of the nonprofit New York Turtle and Tortoise Society. “They grab the turtle’s head and chop it off or split the shell and dig out the guts while the animal is still alive.”