Exotic Pets Pros and Cons

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IMAGINE the panic and terror experienced by the monkeys, bears, lions and leopards that ran loose in Ohio earlier this week as they were chased and then killed by the police. Imagine the heartbreak of the police officers who were obliged to destroy the rambling menagerie. Officers are not trained to stalk big game and bring them in alive with tranquilizer darts.

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Police Kill Dozens of Animals Freed on Ohio Reserve (October 20, 2011) Why was there no law regulating the animal collection of Terry Thompson, who freed his animals and then apparently killed himself?

I’ve spent the last few years prowling America in search of people who share their lives with great apes, big cats and long snakes. Mr. Thompson is not unique.

Monkeys seem particularly ubiquitous; a cursory online search can connect you with a purveyor. Exotic animal auctions are crowded with buyers, and the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition — which opposes the practice — estimates the number of exotic fanciers in the millions.

Owners who bond with their pets as cubs or kittens, bottle-feed and cuddle them, often convince themselves that their relationship is special and their full-grown bear or cat will never turn on them. Yet it’s not just about cuteness and beauty; controlling an animal that arouses fear in other people can be appealing. That’s why those with egos that need feeding, from Kublai Khan to William Randolph Hearst to Mexican drug traffickers, are connected by the desire to stock their personal zoos.

Most apes, cats, bears and other animals change when they reach adolescence. They become stronger, more aggressive and less predictable. But is their potential to cause trouble enough reason to regulate or prohibit keeping them as household pets? If we allow ourselves to keep dogs (which can be out of control and vicious), why not other animals like chimpanzees, even if they also might exhibit violent behavior?

Champions of exotic pet ownership insist...
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