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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 ...

There are 25.5 million pets in Canada, and we’re spending more on them than ever before. These stories explore how the animals among us are shaping us all.

When I tell you that my pet Max is stubborn and hilarious, you’ll probably assume I’m talking about a cat or a dog, possibly even a bunny rabbit. But what if Max weren’t a cat or a dog? What if, instead of being an elderly Wheaten terrier who likes to play ball-in-cup, Max were a crocodile, a wallaby or a tarantula? Would you think I was crazy?

These days, fashionable pet people carry Chihuahuas in their purses and feed them organic canine cookies, and the rest of us might at worst roll our eyes. But the man who feeds fresh meat to a Siberian tiger in his backyard is considered a redneck maniac.

No figures exist for the number of exotic pets currently in Canada, but rest assured, they’re out there by the nest-full, and they could be living next door.

Toronto residents will never forget the six-foot-long cobra who escaped its enclosure in a west-end home in 2007. We all remember that poor woman who was killed by one of her fiancé’s tigers near 100 Mile House, B.C. And for pure tragic irony, no incident can rival the fatal mauling of Norman Buwalda in 2010 by one of his Siberian tigers. Mr. Buwalda happened to be the chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owners’ Association, and had fought for years to keep his cats despite his neighbours’ repeated complaints.

More recently, Darwin the IKEA monkey has become the subject of a sensational custody battle, while the German government has levied a $1,500 fine on Justin Bieber for trying to smuggle his pet capuchin monkey into the country (where he then abandoned it). Celebrities have long shown a predilection for exotic pets, from Michael Jackson’s chimp named Bubbles to Nicolas Cage’s octopus to Leonardo DiCaprio’s gigantic tortoise.


Not from the local pet store


Many of us say we keep pets as a means of connection (however inauthentic) with the larger natural world. But when that pet is either undomesticated or truly wild, it seems we’ve somehow crossed a line. Is this fair? As the wildebeest said to the crocodile, when asked if she likes to swim: yes and no.

Now, I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill exotics here, the lizards, cockatoos and tropical fish you can find in your local pet store. I’m talking about the more “charismatic” species, to steal an industry term – the kinkajous, wolverines and lions that are available only through alternate channels, such as private breeders and animal auctions.

Why does anyone brave the stigma? I ask Scott Shoemaker, director of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership (REXANO), a U.S. education and lobby group. Mr. Shoemaker himself keeps a cougar, a bobcat, an ocelot, several tigers and an African lion named Bam Bam on his 10-acre property in Pahrump, Nev.

“First, it’s just a love for the animal itself, a fascination with it,” he says. “Second, it’s probably the challenge. Third, it’s the amount of dedication it takes. It’s a lot harder to take care of lions and tigers than, say, a house cat.”

Love. Challenge. Dedication. Sounds like a prescription for a fulfilled life. But what about ego?

Like today’s celebrities, powerful humans have been keeping animals from elsewhere for thousands of years. The trade was a going concern in ancient Egypt, when pharaohs filled private gardens with hyenas and leopards, and the medieval and early-modern periods saw some of the more comprehensive examples in the form of royal menageries: Charlemagne built three in the eighth century, William the Conqueror had one in the 11th and Louis XIV had two in the 17th. In the Tower of London, elephants, lions, polar bears and other species gallivanted around the palace grounds for six centuries.

A menagerie announced an aristocrat’s power, wealth and social status to all who visited. The animals were living testaments to their owners’ vast resources and connections, usually delivered by returning explorers or given as diplomatic gifts by far-flung heads of state.

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