By Dr. Becker
In 2011, an exotic animal owner released 56 animals into the Ohio farmland where they lived and then took his own life; forty-seven of the animals were eventually killed by authorities. While residents were required to get registration tags for their dogs, no such permissions were required for wild animals.
The incident was a wake-up call, not only for Ohio but also for much of the U.S. Ohio has since passed a bill that restricts the sale and ownership of exotic, or wild, animals, but unfortunately this situation is not entirely unique.
Incredibly, there are more tigers in captivity in the U.S. (5,000) than there are in the wild (about 3,200). Only 6 percent of those in captivity reside in zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
The rest of them belong to private owners, which may or may not be regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. As reported by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF):1
"In many jurisdictions, people can legally keep a tiger on their property without reporting it to local officials or neighbors. In some states, it is easier to buy a tiger than to adopt a dog from a local animal shelter."
The Good News: It's Getting Harder to Get and Keep Exotic Animals
According to Ed Stewart, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), in Bloomberg, "It's always been far too easy for people to get animals, trade animals and breed them … Finally municipalities are making it harder …"
For instance, more than 40 U.S. cities now outlaw performances involving exotic animals. Worldwide, 30 countries have banned the use of wild animals in traveling circuses. Even Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus announced it would retire its elephants by 2018.2
Meanwhile, on a federal level, the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which went into effect in 2007, made it illegal to transport big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and more, across state lines or U.S. borders.3
The Big Cats and Public Safety Protection Act was also introduced, which, if passed, would restrict private ownership of big cats in the U.S. significantly.
Feeling the pressure from increasing legislation and activists, unlicensed zoos, circuses, exotic animal pet owners (exotic pets are typically defined as any wild animal kept in a human household4) and others are increasingly surrendering animals.
Lions, tigers, jaguars, bears, elephants and even wolf-dog hybrids are getting a new lease on life, but there's one problem.
The Bad News: Animal Sanctuaries Struggle to Find Room for the Rescued Wild Animals
Similar to the problem facing recently freed research chimps, animal sanctuaries must work hard and fast to find room for the influx of rescued exotic animals. As reported by Bloomberg:5
"The crisis for overloaded refuges was spurred by a newfound awareness of the often bleak circumstances of those bred for profit; a baby lion can fetch $1,000, a white tiger cub as much as $30,000.
They may be kept in corn cribs, horse trailers, basements or worse. [Pat] Craig's [founder of The Wild Animal Sanctuary], charges include Baloo the black bear, whose claws were ripped out with pliers, and Major the mountain lion, who arrived so stressed he was furless on his front legs and tail.
Grizzlies Gaika and Masha lived in a truck for 17 years, addicted to the nicotine a trainer used to coax them into tricks."
The sanctuaries are typically run by a small staff and large volunteer base and depend on donations — monetary and in the form of food and building supplies. Even then, work to build new habitats is constant.
Bobbi Brink, who runs the sanctuary Lions, Tigers & Bears in California told Bloomberg, "You can't build fast enough."6 It's a good problem to have since it means the tide is turning and increasing numbers of exotic animals that may have lived their entire lives in cages are being granted a second chance at life.
It's Still Incredibly Easy to Purchase Exotic Animals
The problem is far from solved, unfortunately. It's still shockingly easy to purchase exotic animals online. Many of the animals, from lions and monkeys to bears, are bred in captivity, giving buyers a false sense of security that they're somehow domesticated; they are not.
There are those who believe exotic animals should not be banned from private ownership but rather should be allowed given they are taken care of the "right" way. Bans, they say, will only increase illegal populations of exotics. Advocacy groups believe otherwise, however. National Geographic reported:7
" … advocacy groups like Born Free USA and the World Wildlife Fund say that captive breeding of endangered species by private owners — whether for commercial, conservation, or educational reasons — serves only to perpetuate a thriving market for exotic animals.
That, in turn, results in a greater risk to animals still living in their natural habitat. Conservation efforts should focus on protecting animals in the wild, they assert, not on preserving what are often inbred animals in private zoos.
If a federal law ever passes, violators could face a fine and time in jail, as well as have their animal confiscated.
… It's true that even in states where wild animal ownership is explicitly banned, existing laws are not well enforced. The market for exotics is so alive and thriving that to call it underground is a bit misleading.
'The worst offenders are the tiger petting zoos that churn out 200 cubs a year so people can have their picture taken with them,' says Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, an accredited sanctuary."
Tim Harrison, co-founder of Outreach for Animals, is perhaps one of the best resources of all. A former exotics owner (he had lions, monkeys, snakes, bears, wolves and more), he now believes ownership of dangerous exotic animals should be banned. His opinion changed when he visited Africa and saw how the animals really live in the wild.
"Harrison says he understood then that he didn't really own wild animals. What he had back in Dayton was a mixed-up menagerie of inbreeding and crossbreeding that resulted in animals that had almost nothing to do with the creatures before him now," National Geographic reported.8
Harrison now dedicates his time to rescuing exotic animals and educating the public about proper behavior around wildlife.
How to Be an Advocate for Keeping Wildlife Wild
Many are not aware of just how many wild animals are suffering in captivity. PAWS, which runs three wildlife sanctuaries in California, shared these sobering facts:9
Drive-through animal parks breed animals that have nowhere to go creating a surplus supply of captive bred animals. Approximately 40% of the animals that leave zoos are sold to dealers, auctions, hunting ranches, unidentified individuals or unaccredited zoos or game farms. In the U.S. alone, the surplus animal trade is a multi-billion dollar business with increasing links to drug trafficking. In Texas alone, there are at least 500 canned hunting ranches.
Animals sent to hunting ranches may come from backyard breeders, drive-through wildlife parks, the entertainment industry, dealers or zoos.
A monthly zoo association catalog of surplus animals, lists thousands of animals "for sale" or "free." A cougar cub may be purchased for as little as $50; a polar bear may be purchased for as little as $100. Most animals at PAWS were victims of surplus breeding – eventually rescued from horrendous conditions of abusive and negligent backyard breeders, traveling zoos or circuses or impounded by law enforcement officials during drug raids. One-third of all cocaine seized in the U.S. involves some level of exotic wildlife trade.
If you'd like to help to keep wildlife wild, PAWS recommends the following:10
- Tell friends and family not to patronize any use of animals in entertainment and urge them to boycott drive-through parks, zoos, and circuses that participate in irresponsible breeding programs.
- Write sponsors and producers of movies and events that exploit animals, advising them why you will not patronize their product.
- Urge sponsors and producers to use non-animal acts or animatronics.
- Contact your local authorities and county and city officials and work to have local ordinances passed to ban keeping exotic pets.
- Contact your state and federal representatives and ask them to abolish animal auctions.
- If exotic animal auctions occur in your area, contact your local humane society and the USDA to request that they visit auction facilities and cite violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
- Contact your local authorities and county and city officials to have local ordinances passed to ban canned hunting. Contact your state and federal representatives to abolish canned hunting.
- Ask local zoos to establish policies that provide lifetime care for their new births.