Exotic pets must be banned.

Thanks for raising the issue, Keith!   You’re right; there will not be a recurrence of the Zanesville zoo situation, but a ban on the sale of exotics as pets is sorely needed.  Unfortunately the Ohio legislation is only designed to regulate the keeping of potentially lethal animals, and to protect the public, not the animals.  It should ban the sale of all exotic pets.  I am (shh, don’t tell anyone) a fancier of turtles and tortoises.  It’s not my fault.  I came home from school at age 7 with one of those green dime-store turtles as a prize.  My academic-minded parents sent me to the library to research its biological needs.  The local library was insufficient, and I was forced to consult the biology department at Princeton University.  Since my little turtle, a hatchling Trachemys scripta elegans, got the UVA and UVB light he needed, in addition to an adequate diet (which involved, in the beginning, supplying him with disabled guppies that he could catch for himself (an experience that probably scarred me for life), he grew to be full sized and we released him into the wild several years later. 

I can’t tell you how many sick, suffering turtles I have tried to rehab over the years. I was at my desk at the ACLU one day when I got a call from a DFS worker who could not tell me how she found my name.  She’d just called everyone and kept getting names that led to other names.  She explained that her team went into an inner city apartment, and now the kids were in foster care, dad was in jail, mom was in detox. . .  “but there’s this turtle,” she wailed.  Okay, I was on the case.

Kids mostly get it, when I explain it to them.  Parents don’t!  I ask them how they would feel if a family of extra-terrestrials decided to adopt them as a pet.  They would be taken to the aliens’ home and kept in an aquarium with an exercise wheel, a water bottle and a fresh supply of cheerios every day.  No friends, no family.  I tell the parents about the cost of proper lighting and the labor involved with supplying a correct diet.  The parents listen vaguely and then say well, the kid wants a pet and we’re too busy to deal with a dog or a cat.  I’m not a parent, but I wonder about the moral fitness of a person who thinks a kid benefits from watching a “pet” die of neglect.

Dogs and cats are domesticated.  They want to live with us and we can meet all their needs.  Exotics will never relate to humans.  Taken in as a pet, the best you can hope is to keep the animal alive and maybe eradicate its instinct to fear you.  That animal won’t know you or love you back; you will always be his jailer.  In most cases, an exotic is brought home to embark upon a course of starvation and disease slowly leading to death.  I have the impulse to acquire these animals too, whenever I see pictures of the African pygmy hedgehogs and prairie dogs offered for sale.  I pine for a de-scented skunk.  But no.  It’s just wrong.  The earth, including its animals, is not here to serve man; it’s the other way around.

Author: Lowry Heussler

Lowry Heussler is a lawyer from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Having participated in the RBC as a guest-blogger, she made it official in 2012. Her most important contribution to the field of public policy to date was her 1994 instruction to Mark Kleiman, "Read Ann Landers every day. You need to learn about real people." Her essay on the 2009 arrest of Henry Louis Gates went viral and brought about one of her proudest moments, being described as "just another twit along the lines of Sharpton, Jackson, Gates, etc." (Small Dead Animals Blog). Currently serving as General Counsel to BOTEC Analysis Corp., she has been a public housing lawyer, a prosecutor for the Board of Registration in Medicine, a large-firm associate and a small-firm partner. She serves as a board member for NEADS, Dogs for Deaf and Disabled Americans, a charity that trains service dogs to increase independence for people with disabilities.

20 thoughts on “Exotic pets must be banned.”

  1. I sympathize with your perspective here. Alas, I fear the value you seek to present – an emphasis on humility and respect for the life of non-sentient creatures – is largely an intuition, and one many will not experience. I like to think there are two salient features of this disposition: one being a compassion for the actual lived experience of the animal (whether some form of consciousness or not), and a dispositional social norm of honor expressed toward the natural world that places a premium on non-interference unless absolutely unnecessary.

  2. “I got a call from a DFS worker who could not tell me how she found my name. She’d just called everyone and kept getting names that led to other names.”

    Hmmm … the Internet, operated in “manual mode.” Now we have link lists, and take it for granted. And of course, as I explain to my family, we have our friend who knows everything–Mr. Google. Back then, though, it was labor intensive, so the gal at DFS showed unusual initiative and perseverence.

  3. Unfortunately the state that really needs an exotic animal ban–Florida–is even less likely to enact one than Ohio. Burmese pythons and other large constrictors imported as pets have decimated native wildlife in the Everglades.

  4. The domestication of cats is questionable. At least one ethologist classifies cats (with Asian elephants and a few other species) as useful captives. The evidence is in the cat genome. With a slight exception for Persians, cat domestication is literally superficial. We have manipulated their coats and little else.

    That said, cats are tolerant of human presence, and some even appear to like us. Unlike dogs, cats do just fine when left alone. For parents who haven’t the time for a dog (or time and money for a horse), I recommend a cat.

    As far as the Everglades go, the big constrictors seem (now) to be established. The only question seems to be will alligators or pythons be the apex predator?

    1. Cats don’t do just fine when left alone. They get lonely and bored, and develop pathological responses to isolation. It’s wrong and inhumane to treat them that way and deprive them of companionship. It’s neglect.

      This myth deserves to go the same way as “If you no longer want your pet cat, it is OK to release it into the wild because cats can fend for themselves”.

      1. I don’t mean “left alone” as in neglected. I mean “left alone” as in, I go to work and come home and interact with the cats (I have two); or, I have to be out-of-town for a day or two and have someone to look in them.

        Many (not all, many) dogs do not do well in that situation and suffer from separation anxiety.

        1. That’s true of many cats also, though not to the same extent as dogs, which are of course pack animals.

          Your cats have the advantage of being two, but many or most cats would not fare well being left alone all day. Shelters are using this as a criterion for screening potential adopters. My point remains: cats don’t do well being left alone all day.

          Cats are domesticated and have been for 6000 years. Domestic cats are smaller, more social, docile, and communicative than their closest wild relatives, such as the European wildcat, which do not take well at all to humans or captivity. It’s just not true at all that they’re essentially wild creatures that happen to be kept, as if they were tamed raccoons or elephants or something.

    2. “That said, cats are tolerant of human presence,”

      In the sense that we’re too large for them to successfully enforce their views as to our relative positions in the food chain. Cats are small and prudent, no more.

    3. Cats: Less domesticated than dogs and more domesticated than they think they are.

  5. Our cats firmly believe they have domesticated us, although they occasionally apprear to wish we were just a little smarter.

    1. As long as you have sufficient manual dexterity to open cans, your other shortcomings will probably be forgiven.

    2. I once read a cat book that claimed that cats see their human “owners” (hah!) the way lions see antelope: the food supply pertaining to a given territory. Other things being equal, felines wish the food supply stays fit and healthy.

      1. “I once read a cat book that claimed that cats see their human “owners” (hah!) the way lions see antelope: the food supply pertaining to a given territory. Other things being equal, felines wish the food supply stays fit and healthy.”

        This is anthropomorphosizing (?). Felines want to eat, and that’s it. They don’t strive to take care of their food supply.

  6. Thanks for posting Lowry. I really know nothing about exotic animals (or spilled molasses). This morning we heard that someone known to us was involved in a freak accident that resulted in one death, one person being put into a coma, and two other people being severely injured. It was unpredictable, bizarre and unavoidable. And then I saw the story about the strange incidents in Ohio and the efforts to stop such things from happening in future. And that was my frame of mind, being affected in my own life by the play of chance, and seeing it as a sad but inevitable feature of human existence. I was writing entirely in a philosophical mood, not trying to recommend or not recommend anything substantive policy-wise in these areas, of which I am in ignorance.

    1. Exotics really do need to be banned. Unlike dogs, cats, horses, etc., who have had a long time to get used to us, they really are adapted to life in the wild, and for the most part, nothing in their psyches is geared at all to getting along in the kind of environment we provide for them. There are idiots out there who think it would be cool to adopt a tiger cub or a chimpanzee or a macaque. This is bad for them, bad for the animals, and in a lot of cases bad for other humans as well. (Not just bites, but, especially in the case of primates, zoonotic diseases.) It should be illegal.

  7. How do you define exotics? Aren’t cats an invasive species? They quickly become feral and decimate the local flora and fauna. Dogs can become feral too, and they are also not indigenous. This is the problem with your line of thinking: you didn’t think about it very hard.

    1. See upthread for a discussion of cats, but dogs are not “exotic” in the sense that dogs co-evolved with humans. There’s a term for a dog that doesn’t want to live with humans: it’s called a “wolf.” So the point of the post couldn’t be clearer: some animals like living with humans, and there’s nothing wrong with playing host to them. Other animals don’t like living with humans, and there’s plenty wrong with playing jailer to them. The post calls them “exotics,” which is descriptively accurate because most humans choose companions of species that like living with humans, while only a few choose otherwise.

      Whether the species are “invasive” or “indigenous” may have other sorts of relevance, but it misses the point of the post.

      This is the problem with your line of commenting; you have the impulse to criticize points you haven’t bothered to understand.

  8. I think exotic is an overly broad catch all. Just thinking of reptiles; a captive bred ball python (maximum size 4-5′) is not in the same category as burmese or reticulated python in terms of ease of adequate housing (40 gallon aquarium vs specially engineered room with an airlock). Similarly, bearded dragons are (I think) entirely many generations on captive bred such that a good argument could me made that they are at least somewhat domesticated. It’s not easy to judge what a snake likes beyond “it’s eating and its enclosure is big enough/warm enough.” The Massachusetts guidelines seem fairly reasonable and are about as general as I think you could get:


  9. I try to wrap my head around this, knowing a woman with a 35 year old box turtle that comes to her name, to be pet; a 6 1/2 foot Boa named forgarty that likes to be held and pet and torture the house cats with his tongue, and an assortment of birds. Why should they not have pets, too? Clearly not all unusual pets are jailed, yes?

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