As a journalist, my job is to present both sides of an argument. This can be very difficult when the topic is something I have strong opinions about. While writing my recent article about exotic pet ownership for The Globe and Mail, I felt I should muzzle my own feelings about the subject in order to be fair to those who own, and love, their perfectly legal exotic pets.
Yesterday’s tragedy in Campbellton, N.B., in which two young boys were believed to have been killed by an escaped rock python during an innocent sleep-over, has once again thrown my journalistic instincts for a loop.
The attack is so horrifying that it borders on the incomprehensible. Even those who make their living handling dangerous snakes can’t seem to get their heads around it. The facilities manager at one Ontario reptile zoo told the CBC, “It’s strange… it doesn’t make sense to me.” Another snake professional, this time at a reptile store in Hamilton, found the tragedy simply “bizarre.”
If the people who spend their days dealing with exotic snakes can’t understand how this could have happened, how are the rest of us supposed to?
One way is to simply draw a line in the sand, to say all potentially dangerous exotic pets should be banned right now. Another way is to push for increased regulation of exotic animals in the form of mandatory inspections and licensing systems. Finally, there are those who would attack the above ideas as mere political opportunism, the hijacking of a senseless tragedy for the sake of an agenda.
Well, call me an opportunist, but even before the events in Campbellton, and after listening to both sides of the conversation for a long time, I still see no justification whatsoever for allowing people to own dangerous, undomesticated, undocumented animals.
Regulation, for all its merits, would be an incredibly expensive undertaking, and would by proxy endorse the practice of keeping quasi-wild animals under lock and key. An all-out ban, however, would solve the problem right here, right now. A ban would also save countless exotics from spending lifetimes in captivity, which for many species is simply a euphemism for physical and psychological agony.
A domestic species is one that has lived side-by-side with humans for millennia, one that has been selectively bred for docile or otherwise desirous behaviour, one that has literally had the wild eliminated from its repertoire (to the extent that it can be).
An undomesticated animal in captivity is, by definition, an animal that has been underestimated. Large snake owners have been known to wax lyrical about those special moments when their snake has laid down next to them. A snake expert would warn that such an animal is not seeking companionship but simply sizing you up.
And then there is the claim made by Scott Shoemaker, Director of Responsible Exotic Animal Owners (REXANO), who I interviewed for my recent article. Mr. Shoemaker actually believes a housecat is more dangerous to a human than a captive tiger.
Here is the problem: across North America, tens of thousands of people who are categorically not experts are keeping dangerous exotic animals like snakes and big cats captive. Whether in a pet store or a human home or a rural backyard, each of those animals is a ticking time-bomb. Say what you will about property rights and freedoms, none of us should have the right to endanger our neighbours and their children because of some predilection for exotic creatures. This isn’t the time to ban these sorts of “pets”; the time to ban them was years ago.
Andrew Westoll was the winner of the 2012 Charles Taylor prize for his book The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary