by Shane Locker
When thinking of a household pet what often comes to mind? Perhaps a dog, cat, or even a hamster. These animals are the most common, but what if I told you it was possible to keep something like say a chimpanzee or an African lion? Would you be completely ecstatic or find it hard to believe? Well, for those of you who may possibly find it hard to believe well, start believing! In certain states and other countries it is quite possible to acquire these wild animals as pets, in fact in some cases they are so easy to obtain all it takes is a quick internet search and a few clicks! But the real question is, is it right to be able to own these creatures? Breed them? Yes in certain circumstances, and no in others. It is all dependent upon the reason behind what possessed the individual to have such potentially dangerous animals. There are those who will own these animals for reasons of education and conservation and there are those who will purchase them for an ego boost. Over the years there have been numerous situations where people have been injured and even killed by exotic animals that were kept as pets. From primates to large predatory cats, is it ok or ethical to keep these animals as pets?
So, let’s talk a little bit about ego. During this day and age there are many things someone can purchase to give a potential ego boost: Fancy cars, Vegas vacations, whatever tickles your fancy that states to the general public “I’m better than you!” However, there are those who always want more, sometimes the fancy cars just are not enough. A great example would be a Cincinnati Bengal’s football player Chad Johnson. Chad Johnson is the owner of a large adult male Bengal tiger, his reasoning of purchasing a tiger are completely un-ethical for a couple of reasons. He purchased the tiger because he can afford the hefty price tag on one of these animals and he plays for a team that’s mascot just so happens to be a Bengal tiger. He bought this animal with no intentions of educational use or research, (if you have ever listened to an interview with the guy clearly he is not a biologist.) he purchased the tiger just like someone would go out and buy a poodle! This type of ownership is wrong because no matter how rich Mr. Johnson or anyone else who is financially able to drop fifteen to twenty grand on one of these beautiful animals, they cannot provide adequate space or enrichment for an adult male tiger, most zoos do not even provide adequate space for their tigers. The states that allow ownership of exotic cats require a USDA license and the USDA minimum space requirement for all exotic cats is enough space for the cat to simply turn around, this minimum is considered acceptable and many private owners utilize this. Keeping a tiger in such a small space can cause abnormal behavior within the cats such as pacing and swaying. (Nihus, Tilson 207-208) On average and adult male Bengal tigers territorial range is between 2 and 60 miles, (Nihus, Tilson 23) so technically speaking if following the minimum natural range for a male Bengal tiger then the minimum enclosure requirement should be about two square miles.
Another reason ego driven ownership is wrong is the danger. Exotic felines are extremely unpredictable in a captive environment, since 1990 there have been 20 fatal attacks related to captive exotic cats. Fourteen of the attacks involved tigers. (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership) Each attack being unique; only a couple of the attacks occurred during a scheduled feeding time. Other attacks took place during general interaction between owner and animal with no apparent motivation behind the attack, and there are also two attacks involving incidents with zoological facilities i.e. the Christmas day incident in San Diego in 2007 when a female Sumatran tiger escaped her enclosure killing one person and injuring another. The majority of people who actually decide to go out and purchase a tiger or any other inherently dangerous animal for a private collection do not know what they are truly getting themselves into, the statistics for fatalities may not be very high but there is always that possibility an attack may occur because these animals have not evolved to be reared in a captive setting. Most people who own these animals just want to be able to have the gratification of saying “I own a tiger” or “I own an elephant” and sadly anyone can go out and buy one because of the multiple irresponsible breeders out there, but more on that later.
There are many sanctuaries throughout the world that keep wild animals for reasons of educating conservation, rehabilitation, and research of individual species. Now, the question is what makes these organizations so different from private owners? And why is this type of ownership acceptable? The majority of sanctuaries are started by individuals who happen to acquire some sort of wild animal that they have rescued from horrible captive conditions and build from there, usually with the help of local or state government. The difference is that these individuals who start these sanctuaries are not looking for so much an ego boost but they are concerned for the wild animals and are trying to help them by offering sanctuary for those who are neglected or not given the proper care. This sort of ownership is completely acceptable, the motivation and goals of these organizations are completely different from that of someone with a high ego; wildlife sanctuaries teach conservation and offer hands on experiences within a controlled setting.
Hands on experience with wild animals has been proven to further incline people to more actively pursue efforts in conservation. (Manfredo 61-62) These facilities also offer rehabilitation services for injured and abandoned wildlife. For the injured wildlife they give them a second opportunity at life and in most cases the animals that are rehabilitated are conditioned for re-release back into their natural habitat. Abandoned specimens are usually kept on site in specially designed enclosures meeting USDA or AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) standards in the United States. Often times animals that are deemed unfit for release back into their natural environment can become subject of study for biologists, conservationists, and students. Thus, giving a better understanding of individual species overall, from behavior to feeding and husbandry requirements. These sanctuaries are built from the heart; an effort to help the creatures who have no control over the world, and giving back to the wild.
Breeding captive wildlife is a very controversial issue believed by many to be completely wrong no matter what the circumstance. There are two different types of breeding, those who breed animals in a sales setting which would include those who breed different species in an “assembly line” type environment to breed as many animals as they can and make a profit off of the sale with usually no regard for proper care etiquette. This type of breeding is completely unethical and wrong, and in some cases some of the breeding programs are illegal and fueled by the animal trade that goes on within the depths of the black market. Illegal breeding programs may include endangered or evasive species (Laufer 208-210). Assembly line breeding is extremely stressful on the animals that are being bred, and the conditions are usually close quarters where the animals are basically shoulder to shoulder being forced to walk around in their own feces. To summarize assembly line style breeding, it is a type of breeding that is fueled by capitalism with no regard for the animals’ health. The second type of breeding is breeding aimed toward reintroduction of a species to its natural environment. This type of breeding is completely acceptable because in most cases these breeding programs are aimed specifically toward the re-establishment of a new population of an endangered species. These breeding programs are usually only proctored by zoos or sanctuaries in an effort to save a species that is in rapid decline due to human invasion and destruction of natural habitat. The reason zoos and sanctuaries are the only facilities that do this style of breeding is because of the high cost to insure the programs are successful, and the programs are very popular with the general public. Finally these facilities are prepared to follow the specifications for proper release of an animal back into its natural environment, i.e. Whether the release occurs within the species’ original geographic range, whether there is a preexisting free-ranging population at the release site (Kleiman, Allen, Thompson, and Lumpkin 297).
From egotistical owners and assembly line breeders the keeping of exotic animals has been practiced for thousands of years, and will remain in practice for the ages to come. The important thing is remembering what is considered ethical, reflecting on the paragraphs above and cognitively analyzing the facts. You do not have to agree with me on everything necessarily just absorb the information with an open mind. When analyzing ego driven exotic animal ownership have sympathy for the animal that is being held, remember in most cases the owner doesn’t even know the basics of proper captive care for whatever exotic they may be receiving. Understand the difference in ego driven ownership and sanctuary ownership, and understand why they are different and one is more plausibly acceptable than the other, as well as understanding assembly line style breeding programs that are driven by capitalism and captive breeding programs designed for reintroduction of species to a particular geographic range or security of endangered species. Which one is more ethical? That is for you to decide, wise and unwise choices will continue to take place throughout the years in the industry of keeping exotic animals some mistakes will prove to be lethal but it should be known that the resources are available to prevent these potentially lethal mistakes.
In closing, it is important to note that this was written not only to inform and argue different aspects of keeping exotic animals but to help you the reader gain a better understanding of the necessity of conservation and the ethical practices in keeping exotic wildlife in general, whether it a large constrictor snake or a Bengal tiger. It is important that exotic animals are kept the proper way to insure the teachings about these amazing animals are passed on to the generations to come, extinction is forever. Extinction is the thing that we should ultimately strive to prevent due to its devastating effects in the worlds ecological system; the demise of one animal can cause the disruption within any biome because each population exists to play a vital role within the circle of life and death.
Kleiman, Devra, Mary Allen, Katerina Thompson, and Susan Lumpkin. Wild Mammals in Captivity: Principles and Techniques. Chicago,IL: University of Chicago Press, 1996. 297. Print.
Laufer, Peter. Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press, 2010. 208-210. Print.
Manfredo, Michael. Who Cares About Wildlife?: Social Science Concepts for Exploring Human Wildlife Relationships and Conservation Issues. New York, NY: Springer Science and Business Media, LLC, 2008. 61-62. Print.
"REXANO USA: Captive Big Cat Statistics-Human Fatalities." Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership. REXANO, Dec 2009. Web. 9 Nov 2010.
Tilson, Ronald, and Philip Nyhus. Tigers of the World:The Science, Politics, and Conservation of Panthera tigris. 2nd ed. San Diego,CA: Academic Press, 2010. 207-208,23. Print.