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Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Book Review: Forbidden Creatures

Forbidden Creatures, by Peter Laufer, explores the reasons people want exotic pets, in particular, dangerous ones. He is amazed, and you may be, too, at how many tigers, cougars, pythons, macaws, etc. are in private hands. Most of what you can see at a zoo you can buy on the internet. Caveat emptor--these animals often end up dumped at sanctuaries or killed when they become too big, aggressive, or expensive.

Laufer's strategy is to interview people who live or work in unusual situations with exotic animals. He covers a lot of ground, for example, a woman and her daughter who drugged and smuggled a baby rhesus macaque through US customs; the mish-mash of federal, state, and local regulations covering non-domestic pets; actress Tippi Hedren's sanctuary for unwanted lions and tigers; a tiger in a cage in a feed store; a woman who breeds chimpanzees and monkeys for sale; and biologists dealing with the invasion of ex-pet Burmese pythons in Florida.

It's fascinating stuff, but not well analyzed. Laufer can't be blamed for the lack of statistics about exotic animal ownership--apparently there aren't any--but his attempt to answer why people crave intimate relationships with unusual and/or dangerous animals never quite jells. Partly that's because the reasons are varied. Among them are a need for emotional intimacy combined with a lack of the social skills required to love and be loved by humans, a desire to control ("subjugate") a powerful animal, profit (a very large factor), and prestige. It seems safe to add that some of these people have serious mental health problems, and some have far more interest in profit than in animal welfare. That said, owning a wild animal is a common inclination, and many, perhaps most, of us have kept at least a turtle or two.

One thing that struck me in most of the interviews with exotic animals owners was how insistent they were that the animal "bond" with them, that there must be a reciprocal emotional attachment. It seems not to occur to big cat owners, for example, that a lion "loving" a great ape (i.e., a human) is an odd expectation and that its fulfillment will be incomplete at best. I learned early on, working with volunteers at a zoo, to be wary of those who claimed to have a special bond with animals--they were mostly oblivious to species-specific signals and quick to take foolish risks. The owners described here also show a lack of interest in enabling the animal to exercise its full range of natural behaviors. Companionship of its own kind, housing that includes what the animal would use in the wild (tree stumps, dirt to dig in, etc.) is of little interest. Toys, yes, and cute costumes for monkeys, of course.

This contrasts to my experience as a zoo keeper. We made sincere, if often inadequate, efforts to provide as natural an environment as circumstances permitted, and I am confident that few exotic pet owners come anywhere near the enclosures, food, and social opportunities an accredited zoo provides its denizens. I hand-raised baby monkeys because they were rejected by their--also hand-raised--mothers and worked hard to integrate the young animals back with their own kind to break that cycle. This is a common story in zoos, where hand-raising is preferred only under unusual circumstances. Zoos don't want tame animals that relate to people. They want socially normal animals that get along with their own kind.

Laufer is an Oregon journalist who also wrote The Dangerous World of Butterflies, so he is experienced with the topic of animals, legal and not, and the people who acquire, keep, breed, and sell them. His focus really is people--he is not a biologist. He includes monkeys in the term "great apes" and refers to all captive snakes as "long snakes." He is blithe about leaving his bird-killing cat to roam, against his vet's advice, because he appreciates the wild nature of that cat, but apparently not the wild nature of its prey. To his credit, he had the sand to put a snake on the cover, despite the conventional wisdom that no one will buy a book if they have to look at a snake on their bedside or coffee table.

Read this as an introduction to the topic and for cautionary tales about acquiring species that have no evolutionary shaping to prepare them for living with us. Read it and develop a healthy skepticism toward those cute videos of adult lions hugging their former owners and darling chimpanzees in costumes selling cars and insurance. Read it and wonder at human ignorance and egoism, as well as our optimistic, faltering efforts to connect with other species.

House pet? (Picture by Nancy Parker)

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