What’s legal, what’s right and what you should consider
By Liz Stelow, D.V.M.
When I was 7, my parents decided that a good way to teach me about “the birds and bees” was to purchase a pair of chipmunks. Why chipmunks? I still have no idea. But the man at the pet store ordered our chipmunks for us, and my mother dutifully prepared a large cage built atop 30-inch legs (presumably to keep the large dog, curious cat, and feisty second-grader from gaining easy access).
When the little guys arrived, we were surprised to discover that they were both male. No reproduction lesson there. And my mother had to divide the cage with wire mesh, as the two began warring with each other immediately.
To complicate things, these animals were likely just a few generations in captivity. In other words, no one could handle them. Mom had to wear heavy leather gloves just to change their food and water dishes. Then, about 10 months into Chip and Monk’s stay at our house, someone knocked the cage over and the two little rodents escaped. The chase that ensued would have made the Keystone Kops proud. After a successful capture, my parents decided that Chip and Monk needed to go. They chose the politically-incorrect method of releasing them in the mountains. We had no illusion that they would fare well in the wild; but, given their dispositions, we pitied the animal that tried to prey on them.
What the law says
Although California has subsequently become quite restrictive about the pets you can own legally, some states still allow native or non-native “wildlife” species to be acquired, bred, or sold as pets.
Common native wildlife species include skunk, coyote, wolf, deer, gray fox, red fox, opossum, raccoon, squirrel and some non-venomous reptiles.
Common non-native species include the hedgehog, ferret, sugar glider, flying squirrel, pot-bellied pig, primates and some exotic birds and non-venomous reptiles.
If you happen to live in one of the states (or a country) that allows exotic or “wildlife” pets, you may just be tempted to “own” one. But, there are many issues that must be addressed:
What types of permits and insurance will you need? Even if your state allows the exotic or wildlife pet you desire, you may need to apply for a permit or license. If you are caught without one, your pet may be taken from you and destroyed and there may be fines. You may also need a rider on your homeowner’s insurance to cover liability from this pet.
Where will the pet live? Some governments require special housing and certain species have specific space needs. How will you keep this pet from getting loose, ultimately becoming feral? How will you keep him or her away from native wildlife that might spread diseases? How will you keep family members and visitors from getting injured in your home? If the pet will live outdoors – or be outdoors much of the day – will the noise or smell be a problem for the neighbors?
Does this species carry risks to human health? There is always a threat of spreading diseases or parasites between pets and humans. But, wildlife species carry diseases that cats and dogs don’t. Many reptiles carry Salmonella. A few years ago, imported exotic rats brought the monkey pox virus with them. Wild-caught mammals are likely to have intestinal parasites that can cause issues in humans, sometimes even serious illness. And this is only a partial list.
What do they eat (and how readily available is that food)? It’s one thing to own a rabbit, for which food is as close as your garden. It’s quite another to have an ocelot, skunk, or monitor lizard. Can you get quality food at the pet store or feed shop? Will you need to raise live food for them (and how will you and your family feel about that)? Will they try to eat your other pets?
How will you physically handle this animal? Even if born in captivity, exotic/wildlife individuals may not be friendly (domestication is a process that takes many, many generations); they can be hard to tame down to the point you can handle them safely. Will you need gloves or specially-designed restraints to medicate them or move them to a carrier for transport? How will you secure them so you can clean their home safely? Have you selected an animal that will grow to a size and strength that may be difficult for you to control as an adult?
Where will you get good vet care? Not all vets are comfortable with wildlife species, either because they did not study them in school or their staff or facilities are not equipped to handle them. Even with a qualified veterinarian, you may be charged a premium to treat exotic pets, depending on the level of difficulty the vet faces in handling them.
Who will care for him or her if something happens to you? You can’t count on the local shelter to take the animal should you become unable to care for her. Will your family take over? Is there a local rescue facility for the species you have in mind? Can you set up a trust fund to pay for his or her care?
Keeping an exotic pet
While exotic pet ownership can be fun and rewarding, it comes with a much greater level of responsibility than that of cats and dogs. It is far more difficult to provide adequate food, housing and care. For some species, there is little or no information about husbandry and your pet may suffer for this lack of knowledge. If you can’t find a pet sitter, you can’t even leave for vacation. And, if the relationship just doesn’t work out, you have fewer options for finding a new home for your pet.
Further, wild-caught wildlife simply should never be thought of as pets. These animals rarely flourish once they are removed from their native homes. The stress of capture can cause sudden death in high-stress prey species like rabbits and hares. Those animals who do survive their initial capture may become ill, be unwilling to eat, or display unhealthy behaviors in response to their stress. It is exceedingly unlikely that they will ever accept their captivity or be better off in your care than they were in the wild.
Exotic pets are a little like Van Gogh paintings: they’re exciting and beautiful – but their care is typically best left to professionals.
Liz Stelow is a veterinarian living in Davis, California. She is also a busy mom and the author of a pet health blog at PetDoctorMom.com.