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Not everyone who owns an exotic animal does it to look tough. (istockphoto)
Not everyone who owns an exotic animal does it to look tough. (istockphoto)

The call of the wild: Why some people like exotic pets Add to ...

Ontario Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur recently announced coming changes, including mandatory licensing for zoos and aquariums and increased resources for animal welfare, but its rules on private ownership have far to go.

The trend toward regulating exotic pets is important, both ethically and ecologically. When breeders and owners submit to little or no oversight, animal welfare often comes second (or fourth) to the financial bottom line. Meanwhile, especially in the case of reptiles, the capture of wild animals to feed the global trade is causing significant damage to tropical ecosystems.

It’s easiest to raise the public’s ire on the issue, however, in terms of public safety – I don’t want my niece to have her face ripped off by a frightened, confused, rampaging non-human primate.

The REXANO website provides a variety of statistics that appear to show that attacks by exotic animals in the United States are less frequent than you may think. So I ask Mr. Shoemaker which animal is more dangerous to my well-being, a tiger or a house cat.

“I think a house cat is more dangerous,” he says. “A tiger will telegraph what it’s going to do. But have you ever had a house cat? One minute it’s all nice and friendly and then it’ll just turn around and bite you.”

Surprised, I tell him I’ve never been bitten by a house cat, and ask if he’d like to qualify his answer. No way. That tabby on the windowsill is apparently a killer.

Mr. Shoemaker blames the media for the public’s fear of exotics: “If you get bit by a dog, you’re lucky if you get a report by animal control. But if you get bit by a tiger, it’s going to make the national news.” The only neighbours’ complaints he gets, he says, are calls when Bam Bam hasn’t roared in a while, to check if the lion is okay.

 

Hedging on hedgehogs

 

Opinions do seem to be shifting on exotic-pet ownership in Canada. Mr. Laidlaw consults municipalities on their bylaws, and the trickiest sections are not what you might think. “It used to be about banning big cats and monkeys,” he says. “But now the discussion is, ‘Okay, we’re banning all those species, but what about green iguanas?’ … In Oshawa, the most controversial part of their revamped bylaw was hedgehogs!”

There is, of course, another reason people are inspired to keep exotics: to make money off them. There are more than 50 roadside zoos in Ontario alone. We’ve all seen highway signs for something like Zeke’s Backyard Menagerie or Julia’s Jumpin’ Jaguars. And then there’s always Marineland.

In fact, Mr. Laidlaw thinks the problem of economic incentive is probably the most important, as it strikes to the heart of our philosophies about how we co-exist with other animals: “It’s simply wrong to commercialize wildlife,” he says. “It’s dangerous to create a system where an animal’s worth is simply their value to us as an amusement.”

Humankind has been locking up exotic animals for thousands of years. We’ve done it to demonstrate power, to stroke the ego, for love, for the challenge, and in many cases to pay the bills. Some animals have been exploited so meticulously that they have been transmogrified into symbols of both our strengths and our most primal needs: Darwin, for instance, is no longer just a baby Japanese macaque; via the litigiousness of his human “mother,” he has become emblematic of the defiant maternal instinct.

For Mr. Shoemaker, though, the matter simply comes down to the bond a person can share with any animal, domestic or wild: “Our neighbours – an elderly couple from New York,” he says. “They don’t have pictures of their children up in their living room. They have pictures of our cats.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly said there are 14 million pets in Canada. In fact, there are 14 million dogs and cats and 25.5 million total pets when you include birds, fish, reptiles etc.

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