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May 17, 2005 > Is a Komodo Dragon the right pet for you?

Is a Komodo Dragon the right pet for you?

by Nancy Lyon

Keeping an exotic or wild animal as a "pet" has a romantic appeal to many people. But what is the reality of having such an animal? Most people are unaware that they are unsuitable for home rearing and handling and that they have complex needs that are difficult to meet. All too soon the romantic dream of being Tarzan or Jane of the Jungle degenerates into a nightmare.

Most individuals don't have the experience or finances to properly care for these animals and according to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) 90 percent are dead within the first two years of captivity. When they become a hazard or inconvenient, people often release them into the local environment where they cannot survive or they cause irreversible damage to the local ecosystem.

Frightening statistics show that each year privately owned exotics have injured and killed humans. Pet snakes have suffocated babies; racoons have killed children; prairie dogs imported from Africa by the pet trade have been found to harbor deadly monkey pox; lions and tigers have seriously mauled their owners.

Wild animals are notorious vectors or reservoirs for diseases and parasites, many of which are zoonotic in nature - capable of transmission to humans, including rabies, tuberculosis, hepatitis, tularemia, leptospirosis, salmonella, and ringworm and other parasites. From a legal and regulatory standpoint, the doors are wide open for the import of the majority of wild animals destined for the pet trade, including ball pythons and hedgehogs from Africa. The U.S. government mandates no quarantine, no inspection and no tracking of movements for these animals.

According to HSUS, most owners are ignorant of a wild or exotic animal's needs. The local veterinarian more often than not can neither properly diagnose nor effectively treat health problems. The animal's behavior is usually misunderstood and often radically altered in captivity as a result of inappropriate care; in order to domesticate the animal, the owner resorts to such "corrective measures" as defanging, declawing and castration.

If exotic animals are unfortunate enough to be removed from their native habitat, they should only be kept in captivity by professional zoological facilities. The only individuals who should be allowed to have wild animals are licensed wildlife rehabilitators. In both cases, they should demonstrate a thorough knowledge of their field and an ability to care for the animal humanely.

The federal Animal Welfare Act, when enforced, provides protection only for wild and exotic animals within the custody of the of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and in permitted facilities or businesses. The law provides little or no protection for those animals kept strictly as pets.

California and Georgia have the most comprehensive laws in the country regarding the ownership of virtually all wild animals. While some states do have laws that either forbid or regulate the ownership of wild animals, they are in the distinct minority and most inadequately address the humane considerations of the problem.

Besides human ignorance, the responsibility for this tragedy lies with the pet industry that is composed of individuals whose business is to make money off the sale of animals. Once they are purchased it has shown little concern over what happens to the cute baby iguanas, snakes and other animals that can soon grow into large, expensive and possibly aggressive animals trapped in an unnatural environment.

The truth is that dealing in exotic wild animals is big business. In fact, in the United States it is conservatively estimated to be worth $15 billion annually. The trade in wild animals world-wide is worth many billions of dollars; one quarter of this trade, including the poaching of tigers and elephants, is estimated to be illegal. This illegal trade in exotics and their body parts is often described as the number two moneymaker on the black market, behind drugs and weapons.

It means that people have easy access to an amazingly diverse and dangerous array of animals who are supremely unsuited to life as a pet. Exotic animals are available and visible, both in the marketplace and promoted in the media where they are frequently presented as glamorous and easy to care for.

Because of this accessibility, they are often impulse purchases by the uninformed who have scant knowledge that wild and exotic animals are difficult, very possibly dangerous to human health, and their care well beyond the abilities of the average person.

When the owner finally has enough and decides to get rid of the "problem," it is usually impossible to find a new home that is more informed to handle or care for the poor animal than the original. There are few qualified rescues that aren't overstretched with these sad rejects and local animal shelters are often ill-equipped to handle such creatures. The illusion that there is some sanctuary waiting with open hands to take on the end result of your error in judgement doesn't exist. Faced with few if any options, the innocent animal usually ends up euthanized or abandoned.

It is suggested that before you take on the life of an exotic wild creature that you give very serious thought to the responsibility and care involved, the dangerous health threat to your family, the innate cruelty of an unnatural life, the environmental damage both local and worldwide, and the support of an uncaring industry whose bottom line is the dollar sign.

If you want an animal companion and are willing and able to devote time and money to take care of him - best to go with a domesticated dog or cat.

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