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February 01, 2012

Exotic Animals: Don’t Try This at Home

As I travel around the country, I am struck by the consistent reaction from so many individuals that they cannot believe that certain forms of animal use or mistreatment still occur. They wonder how people can be so cruel or selfish, or are perplexed that there are no legal standards to forbid or regulate the conduct in question. I get that response when I talk about the seal hunt in Canada, the extreme confinement of sows on factory farms, or the shooting of animals in fenced enclosures for a fee, just to name a few examples. And I get it a lot when I talk about people keeping tigers, chimps, pythons, and other animals as pets in their homes, and when I share the fact that many states do not forbid this reckless conduct.

Rescued tiger at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch in Texas
Kathy Milani/The HSUS
A tiger at Cleveland Amory Black Beauty Ranch.

Today, I debated this very issue on the Diane Rehm Show, which is heard on National Public Radio affiliates throughout the country. The timing was good, coming just a day after a deeply troubling report published by the National Academy of Sciences revealing that non-native Burmese pythons―discarded by pet fanciers―have all but wiped out large classes of small and medium-sized mammals in the Everglades. And it came a couple of weeks after the Obama administration issued a rule to restrict trade in just four of nine species of large constrictor snakes that it had previously identified as medium- and high-risk of colonizing land areas in some southern regions of the United States.

Those who believe in the right to have exotics cling to the notion of freedom and liberty. But they fail to acknowledge that there’s more at stake than their own hobby. Millions of animals suffer and die every year as a consequence of the massive exotics trade. There are also occasional attacks on people. The nation spends tens of millions trying to contain invasive species, which get here because of the international trade or are captive-bred for the industry. And the animal welfare community spends tens of millions, perhaps hundreds of millions, housing and caring for animals that are cast-offs from this commerce. All for what? So someone can keep a tiger or a python in the yard or the garage?

I am struck by the imbalance of the whole thing. Nobody wishes to deny anyone his or her hobby, except if the societal costs are too high. We have values in the nation related to animal welfare, protection of native species, the safety of our communities, and keeping a lid on government spending. It’s only because the collective actions of exotic animal fanciers are so severe and harmful that we are driving the effort to change policy and bring some sanity to this current crisis.

You can listen to the debate online.

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