Where the Wild Things Are: Do Exotic Animals Belong in California?

We Americans are keepers of many things -- in this particular matter, I can't bring myself to use the word "own" -- toasters that sear the image of Jesus on our bread and ticket stubs from Abba concerts, not to mention kangaroos, lemurs, muntjac deer, potbellied pigs, lions, capuchin monkeys, cobras, pythons, and white tigers.

Exotic animals were in the news here in Ventura County last week, the Ventura County Planning Commission denying exotic animal trainer Irena Hauser's application to house up to five white tigers in Deer Creek Canyon, an unincorporated residential community in the Santa Monica Mountains north of Malibu. The commission's decision was close -- 3 votes to 2 -- and it elicited applause from residents who had feared everything from incessant tiger roars to tigers padding through their living room. The decision ended (for now at least) more than a year of debate, some of it, not surprisingly, heated. The writer of a newspaper editorial was incensed, as writers of editorials often are.

"The applicants for a tiger training facility near Malibu, which I oppose vehemently, are not conservationists. They are business people who intend to use these poor creatures for their own profit," wrote Van Vibber.

Those on the rejected end -- Irena Hauser and her sister, who operate ISIS Preservation, a company which supplies white tigers and other exotic animals for Hollywood productions -- were not happy, pointing out, among other things, a blemish-free safety record at the sisters' exotic animal facility in Canyon Country in Los Angeles County (they had hoped to open the Deer Creek facility to give the tigers more room; the two white tigers they currently own will now remain at the Canyon Country facility). Hauser also pointed out that the dogs in the Deer Creek community make far more noise than tigers ever would. Here I side with Hauser. We have dogs on either side of our home. Sometimes I wish a tiger would eat them.

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"Obviously we're very disappointed," Hauser told a reporter after the Planning Commission's decision. "I really feel the facts weren't looked at as facts. Much of it was strictly emotional."

Animals are an emotional issue. I'd sooner question a Hell's Angel's parenting than suggest a different brand of dog treat to the average American pet owner. America can be at war's doorstep, but America's fingers are frantically clicking a video of a darted bear cub.

Here's an interesting thought. It's believed that more exotic animals live in American homes than are cared for in America's zoos. This tucked away factoid, not to mention the tucked away animals themselves, is sometimes unveiled in a big way. When Hurricane Andrew roared through South Florida in 1992, it was as if Noah himself had thrown wide the doors, panthers and Burmese pythons and pretty much everything else promenading down Main Street. Many critters slunk into the Everglades, which has never recovered its ecological balance.

It is a complex and curious relationship we have with exotic animals: kangaroos raised in diapers and bottle-fed, monkeys dressed in baby clothes, lemurs snuggling with their human counterparts through the night. Sometimes the human portion of the relationship explains the relationship in heart-breaking terms. "All my life," says one owner of exotic animals, "people have let me down. My animals never have."

With full disclosure in mind, I confess I should not be casting stones. When I was a 12-year-old sprite, I was briefly the possessor of a small boa constrictor named Longfellow (after the poet). Longfellow was surprisingly neat and clean, and demanded little -- the occasional mouse and the occasional backyard stroll (carefully monitored). It should be noted, though, that snakes are escape artists and 12-year-old boys are sometimes lax. So it was that our entire neighborhood once went on high alert when I discovered the top of Longfellow's cage nudged aside and Longfellow gone. Eventually my grandfather, sitting on the back porch, looked up at the ceiling and mildly observed, "You might be interested in that." We pried Longfellow out of the crack with chopsticks. Longfellow was eventually given to the Washington Zoo, where he passed the remainder of his days as a happy member of the zoo's breeding program (I'm guessing here, for we never forged that close a bond).

I would not own a boa constrictor now, though these days exotic animals are even easier to find (without doubt, you can buy anything on the Internet). I was a 12-year-old boy, hypnotized by snakes, and my parents mistook me for a boy of some responsibility.

But let's be honest here. Exotic. If the word doesn't make you want to own it, touch it or look at it, it may make you want to fight to preserve it. "Climate change and human population growth could wipe out a species in record time, so having a backup population is a good idea," Lynn Culver, executive director of the Feline Conservation Federation told a writer. To which groups like the World Wildlife Fund counter bunk -- the captive breeding of endangered species, says the WWF, only continues to bolster the already thriving market for exotic animals, many of them snatched from their wild homes (this doesn't even address the matter of inbreeding of exotic animals -- white tigers in particular -- once they are in captivity). Interestingly, as I was writing this column, three elephants briefly escaped from a circus visiting St. Charles, Missouri, tromping upon several cars in an adjacent parking lot (Circuses are another stand-alone debate; if you really want to flip the debate switch on, there's the matter of zoos).

I am not judging entirely. I am just saying.

No one debates that the keeping of exotic animals has resulted in terrible tragedies, though domestic pets have certainly provided their share of tragedy, too. It's just that when exotic animals go astray, they can go big. Outside Zanesville, Ohio, one Terry Thompson released 50 wild animals he kept, tigers and lions among them, and then shot himself. With big cats dodging cars and padding through backyards, the local police had no real choice. They shot most of the animals. You can Google the photos of their carcasses strewn outside Thompson's property, but I'd advise against it. It is an oppressively sad and terrible waste.

In my readings, I came across many arguments advanced by exotic animal owners for the keeping of exotic animals. Some owners of highly endangered species argued that caring for the captive-bred creatures helped keep them present on this planet, an argument that is difficult to dismiss. Though many states ban the keeping of exotic animals (on an animal by animal basis), bans, argued some exotic animal advocates, don't work -- look at alcohol and prostitution. They also argue that the number of incidents involving injuries from exotic pets pales in comparison to the number of people who visit the emergency room for dog bites each year (I am not a statistician, but I believe the comparison is not entirely fair).

Some keepers of exotic animals pointed to past precedent: exotic animals have been owned by monarchs and kings, no doubt, well balanced souls all. My personal favorite, an exotic animal owner who professed that she would rather be killed by a lion than a "stupid drunk driver." An acquaintance of mind, a fellow journalist, once did a piece on a man-eating lion plaguing a series of African villages. Based on what he told me, I would opt for the drunk driver every time. Many exotic animal owners are folks who truly mean well, say a volunteer at a wildlife sanctuary who adopts a rescued animal in need of a home. There are as many arguments as Burmese pythons thriving in the Everglades.

I am not criticizing. Everyone's logic can be questionable at times, just as we all sometimes slant the facts to suit our needs.

In my reading, I came across an account of a former exotic animal owner who traveled to Africa. When he saw wild animals on the open plains and grasslands, he experienced something of an epiphany. Returning home, he handed his wolves and monkeys and big cats over to sanctuaries where they'd have at least a semblance of the space he had seen on the African plains. I thought this was interesting.

Recently I was hiking in the Amazonian rainforest, where capuchin monkeys chattered and shrieked as if engaged in some debauched frat party, while making tremendous leaps that saw the jungle foliage dip and crash as if assaulted by overweight rain drops. They followed us for several miles. I am not an expert on the issue of wild animal possession, but I will say that I doubt there is a cage big enough.

Perhaps I am slanting the facts to suit my needs.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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