The Call of the Wild

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on August 3, 2013 in a special Focus section on pets.

When I tell you that my pet Max is stubborn and hilarious, you’ll probably assume I’m talking about a cat or a dog, possibly even a bunny rabbit. But what if Max weren’t a cat or a dog? What if, instead of being an elderly Wheaten terrier who likes to play ball-in-cup, Max were a crocodile, a wallaby, or a tarantula? Would you think I was crazy?

These days, fashionable pet people carry Chihuahuas in their purses and feed them organic canine cookies, and the rest of us might at worst roll our eyes. But the man who feeds fresh meat to a Siberian tiger in his backyard is considered a redneck maniac.

No figures exist for the number of exotic pets currently in Canada, but rest assured, they’re out there by the nest-full, and they could be living next door.

Toronto residents will never forget the six-foot cobra who escaped its enclosure in a west-end home in 2007. We all remember that poor woman who was killed by one of her fiancé’s tigers near 100 Mile House, BC. And for pure tragic irony, no incident can rival the fatal mauling of Norman Buwalda in 2010 by one of his Siberian tigers. Mr. Buwalda happened to be the chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association, and had fought for years to keep his cats despite his neighbours’ repeated complaints.

More recently, Darwin the IKEA monkey has become the subject of a sensational custody battle, while the German government has levied a $1,500 fine on Justin Bieber for trying to smuggle his pet capuchin monkey into the country (where he then abandoned it). Celebrities have long shown a predilection for exotic pets, from Michael Jackson’s chimp named Bubbles to Nicholas Cage’s octopus to Leonardo DiCaprio’s gigantic tortoise.

Many of us say we keep pets as a means of connection (however inauthentic) with the larger natural world. But when that pet is either undomesticated or truly wild, it seems we’ve somehow crossed a line. Is this fair? As the wildebeest said to the crocodile when asked if she likes to swim: yes and no.

Now, I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill exotics here, the lizards, cockatoos and tropical fish you can find in your local pet store. I’m talking about the more “charismatic” species, to steal an industry term – the kinkajous, wolverines and lions that are only available through alternate channels, like private breeders and animal auctions.

Why does anyone brave the stigma? I ask Scott Shoemaker, Director of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership (REXANO), a U.S. education and lobby group. Mr. Shoemaker himself keeps a cougar, a bobcat, an ocelot, several tigers and an African lion named Bam Bam on his 10-acre property in Pahrump, Nev.

“First, it’s just a love for the animal itself, a fascination with it,” he says. “Second, it’s probably the challenge. Third, it’s the amount of dedication it takes. It’s a lot harder to take care of lions and tigers than, say, a housecat.”

Love. Challenge. Dedication. Sounds like a prescription for a fulfilled life. But what about ego?

Like today’s celebrities, powerful humans have been keeping animals from elsewhere for thousands of years. The trade was a going concern in ancient Egypt, when pharaohs filled private gardens with hyenas and leopards, and the medieval and early-modern periods saw some of the most comprehensive examples in the form of royal menageries:

Charlemagne built three in the eighth century, William the Conqueror had one in the 11th and Louis XIV had two in the 17th. In the Tower of London, elephants, lions, polar bears and other species gallivanted around the palace grounds for six centuries.

A menagerie announced an aristocrat’s power, wealth and social status to all who visited. The animals were living testaments to their owners’ vast resources and connections, usually delivered by returning explorers or given as diplomatic gifts by far-flung heads of state.

So where does ego come into play with keeping exotics today? Rob Laidlaw, the founder of the animal-protection charity ZooCheck Canada, says he does see a trend: “With the tigers or the lions or the spitting cobras, you have people who are fulfilling a need. It may be a need to increase their self-worth in the eyes of their friends. With the more dangerous species, a lot of them tend to be young men.” In summary: “Give a nobody a tiger on a leash, and he quickly becomes a somebody.”

Mr. Shoemaker mostly disagrees. “I’m sure there are some people out there like that,” he’ll allow. “But they don’t stay in it because of ego, prestige, or any of that. It’s so much work! There’s not much ego in going around and picking up cat shit.”

Clearly not everyone who owns an exotic animal does it to look tough. Say what you will about Darwin’s self-declared “mother,” there is no denying the bond they shared before he escaped in that parking lot. Then there’s the footage from a recent Pet Amnesty Day in St. Petersburg, Florida. One woman simply dissolves on camera as she imagines what it will be like to return to an empty house after handing over her beloved pets. Had she just given up monkeys, wolves or a particularly loving pair of white-faced sakis? Nope: Two green iguanas.

“It’s kind of hard to explain unless you see it and experience it,” Mr. Shoemaker says of the bond he shares with his big cats. “How do you explain to someone what it’s like to go skydiving?”

For the first two years of their lives, each of the cats live in his house with him and his partner, Zuzana. Once the socializing is complete (i.e., the feline gets too big for the couch), the animal is moved outside into an enclosure ringed with eight-foot fencing and topped with electric wire.

The truth is, it’s possible to have (or believe we have) a deep connection with an animal whether or not they are a domesticated species. This makes the issue much more complicated than we like to admit, and requires us to consider exactly what we mean by the word “pet.”

Captive animals are still considered personal property in most jurisdictions worldwide, and as such they are lightning rods for arguments over property rights and freedoms.

According to its position statement, REXANO aims to “oppose legislation that restricts the private ownership or use of animals.” Mr. Shoemaker says he is not against sensible regulation. His property is inspected twice a year, and he submitted voluntarily even before it was required by state law. But I wonder whether REXANO would go along with modernizations or amendments to current laws, since it is declaredly “committed to protect the rights of animal owners.”

In Canada, every province except Ontario either prohibits exotic pets or regulates them in some fashion. In 2009, British Columbia took the lead by amending its Wildlife Act to include more than 1,000 “controlled alien species” that require a permit to possess. The bar for acquiring one is so high that it serves as a de facto ban.

In Ontario, though, the situation is much different. Regulation is downloaded to municipalities, many of which haven’t bothered; for those that have, few standards exist on how the bylaws should read. The result is a collection of Swiss-cheese regulations across the province, some with holes large enough to drive an Orinoco crocodile through.

Any Ontarian with Internet access and a payday loan can buy a black Mamba, as long as you there’s no bylaw in place. Ironically, thanks to the global trade, which one estimate suggests is worth between $5– and $15-billion a year (second in value only to the illegal drug trade), exotic pets aren’t what they used to be.

ZooCheck’s Mr. Laidlaw thinks Ontario needs to hurry and catch up: “We license taxi cabs and hot dog stands and coffee shops, but any Tom, Dick or Hairy can go out and buy a spitting cobra that could envenomate the neighbour’s kid.”

Ontario’s Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur recently announced coming changes, including mandatory licensing for zoos and aquariums and increased resources for animal welfare, but its rules on private ownership have far to go.

The trend towards regulating exotic pets is an important one both ethically and ecologically. When breeders and owners submit to little or no oversight, animal welfare often comes second (or fourth) to the financial bottom line. Meanwhile, especially in the case of reptiles, the capture of wild animals to feed the global trade is decimating intact tropical ecosystems.

It’s easiest to raise the public’s ire on the issue, however, in terms of public safety – I don’t want my niece to have her face ripped off by a frightened, confused, rampaging non-human-primate.

The REXANO website provides a variety of statistics that appear to show that attacks by exotic animals in the U.S. are less frequent than you might think. So I ask Mr. Shoemaker which animal is more dangerous to my well-being, a tiger or a housecat.

“I think a housecat is more dangerous,” he says. “A tiger will telegraph what it’s going to do. But have you ever had a housecat? One minute it’s all nice and friendly and then it’ll just turn around and bite you?”

Surprised, I tell him I’ve never been bitten by a housecat, and ask if he’d like to qualify his answer. No way. That tabby on the windowsill is apparently a killer.

Mr. Shoemaker blames the media for the public’s fear of exotics: “If you get bit by a dog, you’re lucky if you get a report by animal control. But if you get bit by a tiger it’s going to make the national news.” The only neighbours’ complaints he gets, he says, are calls when Bam Bam hasn’t roared in a while, to check if the lion is okay.

Opinions do seem to be shifting on exotic-pet ownership in Canada. Mr. Laidlaw consults with municipalities on their bylaws, and the trickiest sections aren’t what you might think.

“It used to be about banning big cats and monkeys,” he says. “But now the discussion is, ‘Okay, we’re banning all those species, but what about green iguanas?’ … In Oshawa, the most controversial part of their revamped bylaw was hedgehogs!”

There is, of course, another reason people are inspired to keep exotics: to make money off them. There are more than 50 roadside zoos in Ontario alone. We’ve all seen the signs on the highway for Zeke’s Backyard Menagerie or Julia’s Jumpin’ Jaguars. And then there’s always Marineland.

In fact, Mr. Laidlaw thinks the problem of economic incentive is probably the most important, as it strikes to the heart of our philosophies about how we coexist with other animals: “It’s simply wrong to commercialize wildlife,” he says. “It’s dangerous to create a system where an animal’s worth is simply their value to us as an amusement.”

Humankind has been locking up exotic animals for thousands of years. We’ve done it to demonstrate power, to stroke the ego, for love, for the challenge, and in many cases to pay the bills. Along the way, countless animals have been exploited so meticulously that they have been transmogrified into symbols of both our strengths and our most primal needs: Darwin, for instance, is no longer just a baby Japanese macaque; via the litigiousness of his human “mother,” he has become emblematic of the defiant maternal instinct.

For Mr. Shoemaker, though, the matter simply comes down to the bond a person can share with any animal, domestic or wild: “Our neighbours – an elderly couple from New York,” he says. “They don’t have pictures of their children up in their living room. They have pictures of our cats.”