So where does ego come into play with keeping exotics today? Rob Laidlaw, the founder of the animal-protection charity ZooCheck Canada, says he does see a trend: “With the tigers or the lions or the spitting cobras, you have people who are fulfilling a need. It may be a need to increase their self-worth in the eyes of their friends. With the more dangerous species, a lot of them tend to be young men.” In summary: “Give a nobody a tiger on a leash, and he quickly becomes a somebody.”
Mr. Shoemaker mostly disagrees. “I’m sure there are some people out there like that,” he allows. “But they don’t stay in it because of ego, prestige or any of that. It’s so much work! There’s not much ego in going around and picking up cat shit.”
Clearly not everyone who owns an exotic animal does it to look tough. Say what you will about Darwin’s self-declared “mother,” there is no denying the bond they shared before he escaped in that parking lot. Then there’s the footage from a recent Pet Amnesty Day in St. Petersburg, Fla. One woman simply dissolves on camera as she imagines what it will be like to return to an empty house after handing over her beloved pets. Had she just given up monkeys, wolves or a particularly loving pair of white-faced sakis? Nope: Two green iguanas.
“It’s kind of hard to explain unless you see it and experience it,” Mr. Shoemaker says of the bond he shares with his big cats. “How do you explain to someone what it’s like to go skydiving?”
For the first two years of their lives, each of the big felines lives in his house with him and his partner, Zuzana. Once the socializing is complete (i.e., the cat gets too big for the couch), the animal is moved outside into an enclosure ringed with eight-foot fencing and topped with electric wire.
The truth is, it’s possible to have (or believe we have) a deep connection with an animal whether it’s domesticated or not. This makes the issue much more complicated than we like to admit, and requires us to consider exactly what we mean by the word “pet.”
A jungle of regulation
Captive animals are still considered personal property in most jurisdictions worldwide, and as such they are lightning rods for arguments over property rights and freedoms.
According to its position statement, REXANO aims to “oppose legislation that restricts the private ownership or use of animals.” Mr. Shoemaker says he is not against sensible regulation. His property is inspected twice a year, and he submitted voluntarily even before it was required by state law. But I wonder whether REXANO would go along with modernizations or amendments to current laws, since it is declaredly “committed to protect the rights of animal owners.”
In Canada, every province except Ontario either prohibits exotic pets or regulates them in some fashion.
In 2009, British Columbia took the lead by amending its Wildlife Act to include more than 1,000 “controlled alien species” that require a permit to possess. The bar for acquiring one is so high that it serves as a de facto ban.
In Ontario, though, the situation is much different. Regulation is downloaded to municipalities, many of which haven’t bothered; for those that have, few standards exist on how the bylaws should read. The result is a collection of Swiss-cheese regulations across the province, some with holes large enough to drive an Orinoco crocodile through.
Any Ontarian with Internet access and a payday loan can buy a deadly black mamba, as long as there’s no bylaw in place. Ironically, thanks to the global trade, reputed to be worth billions of dollars a year, exotic pets aren’t what they used to be.
ZooCheck’s Mr. Laidlaw thinks that Ontario needs to hurry and catch up: “We license taxicabs and hot-dog stands and coffee shops, but any Tom, Dick or Hairy can go out and buy a spitting cobra that could envenomate the neighbour’s kid.”