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Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Wild animal pets: Sometimes a good thing?

Often I'm not at all ambivalent about people acquiring an exotic animal for a pet. A tiger cub, a snake that will grow to 150 pounds and enjoy swallowing your toddler, a lonely parrot, high-strung serval, any  monkey--these are not going to work out well in your backyard or living room.

We can raise a young wild animal to be crazy, but we can't raise it to be domesticated. It took us thousands of years to get dogs and house cats to where they are today. Why would you and an animal only a few generations out of the wild co-exist happily?

I'd like to point out to "animal lovers," in case this isn't obvious, that wild animals deserve a better fate than your average homeowner can provide. Many end up sick or dead due to ignorance of their diet and housing requirements. Or they survive in a cramped environment with no opportunity for their natural behavior--no companionship of their own kind, for one thing. The rescue centers are full of these failures. The media report the more terrible catastrophes.

This is a well-marked trail and those who don't do their research and act on impulse ("It was so cute!" "I rescued it from the pet store!") cause a lot of misery to themselves as well as the animals and possibly their family and neighbors.

But... I waver. I think people need animal contact, especially kids. We benefit from the family dog or cat or parakeets. We value the emotional support, we learn a little biology, we develop a life-long habit of noticing and caring about animals, we are immunized against many prejudices and myths about animals.

Where do wild pets fit into this? If a kid loves snakes or frogs or turtles, should this passion be stopped short of setting up a terrarium in her bedroom for a garter snake or a banana slug? What about raising an orphaned raccoon or crow? (Yes, I know it's illegal.) What about all the small, non-dangerous wild animals that have been bred in captivity for years, the bearded dragons and corn snakes and lovebirds?

I kept a half-dozen pet turtles as a child. My husband fondly remembers walking Chicago streets with a boa around his neck, terrorizing other kids. The library is full of sweet tales about what a tamed wild animal contributed to a family.

Usually this isn't the best life for that wild creature, but there's a trade-off. Perhaps the effect on the pet owner, that emotional and cognitive experience, is to the benefit of other animals and their habitat. The youngster delighting in a special animal is nudged toward a future as a biologist, amateur naturalist, and/or conservationist. We could use a whole lot more of those folks. Is this part of how we grow them?

What do you think? Where do you draw your line in this gray area? Anything goes? Dogs and cats only? Or somewhere in between. I'd love to hear your thoughts.


James Orr said...

Illegal? I thought that depended on the state (the person who wrote the book about raising a Gamble's quail mentioned getting a state license, maybe in Arizona, to keep the wild animal). My opinion is that if an animal is permanently injured, one might justify keeping it, as it would be unlikely to survive in the wild (I'm thinking of a one-winged eagle I met near Iowa City, but that was in a nature reserve, not a private residence). I've known some cases that turned out well - we had a pet woodchuck in the animal care facility at Walter Reed back in the 1960s, rescued as an infant when its mother's nest was overturned by some gardening machine, that was rather friendly. It would burrow in your pockets for pieces of paper, but I have no idea what it did with them. (If it was looking for money, I can't imagine what it would spend it on. It was certainly the wrong species to squirrel the money away.) And my friend Jesse-the-critical-care-doc had a pet raccoon, Emily, rescued as an infant in similar circumstances, but she eventually went wild in South Chicago. My general feeling is, don't do it, unless it's something as cute as a pygmy hedgehog.

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