• Even the most loving pet owners are out of their league when attempting to care for an exotic animal in their home.

    In 2009, a chimpanzee named Travis, who used to dress himself and sit at the family dinner table, mauled a woman in Stamford, Connecticut. A year earlier, a Virginia Beach, Virginia, woman was found strangled by her reticulated tiger python, Diablo.

    According to Adam Roberts, the executive vice president of the animal advocacy group Born Free USA, violent physical incidents are not the only way that exotic or wild animals can hurt their owners. He says that exotic pets can cause humans to come down with monkeypox, herpes, and salmonella.

    “There are a number of diseases that can be transmitted from wild animals to people,” Roberts says.

    There are some animals, including lions and apes, that transform from being docile in their youth to more territorial as they mature.

    “It gets to a certain point when they get unmanageable,” says Adrienne Castro, the director of education for the Fresno Chaffee Zoo, in Fresno, California.

    Steve Vogel, a curator at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, says that when an exotic animal attempts to attack its owner, it is a sign that something is wrong. “Anytime that an animal gets to the point where it’s trying to bite you, or it’s trying to react to you negatively, that’s very stressful for the animal,” he says. “And it’s unhealthy if it’s a continued thing.”

    Leave It to the Experts

    Both Castro and Vogel maintain that zoos and aquariums are more equipped to take care of exotic animals than regular pet owners. Vogel notes that the Monterey Bay Aquarium has a full-time veterinarian on staff, while Castro says that zoos put a lot of research into finding out how to provide the right environment for the animal.

    “I think in general you have to know the history of that kind of animal,” she says.

    Proper nutrition should be an important part of every pet owner’s knowledge. Vogel says that some exotic pet owners are unaware of the best diets for their animals. He says that some exotic animals, including small sharks, can come down with “relatively severe sclerosis events” due to poor nutrition.

    “There are a lot of folks out there that would get animals, put them in an aquarium, and try to keep them alive without having done the research that we do nutritionally on what they are requiring,” he says.

    Zoo and aquarium professionals look at not only what the animal eats, but also how it eats.

    “For some animals like the octopus we keep here, it’s putting food in a closeable container, and the octopus has to figure out how to open it and get the food,” Vogel says. “That stimulates their natural curiosity and ability to figure things like that out.”

    Over the years, Vogel, who says he is not against home aquariums, has encountered pet owners who have attempted to house their animals in incorrectly sized enclosures. The aquarist says that moray eels, for instance, grow to lengths of two meters (six feet). These fish need bigger spaces than most exotic pet owners can provide. “You can’t keep a big moray eel in a small aquarium,” he says. “They are just coiled up in a corner at that point.”

    Nurse sharks are another marine animal that Vogel has found in horrendous living conditions. “We had about a 3-and-a-half-foot nurse shark that was folded in half in an aquarium in someone’s house,” he says.

    Vogel believes that pet owners are fighting a losing battle when they take in a large exotic animal. “As advice out there to people who are keeping them at home, don’t do it because it’s going to outgrow your exhibit, and you are going to go broke trying to keep it the way it should be kept,” he says. “You’re just not capable.”

    Castro says that the Fresno Chaffee Zoo has received calls from exotic pet owners who can no longer care for their animals. Even parrots—large birds with powerful beaks—can be an unexpected burden to their owners. “They can be very destructive,” she says. “It’s in their nature to pick at things.”

    Illegal Activity

    Unfortunately, when exotic pet owners realize they can’t properly tend to their animals, some release the creatures back into the wild. This is against the law, but not all people who illegally release their exotic pets can be found and prosecuted.

    Roberts says that this has caused a population of non-native Burmese pythons to thrive in Florida’s Everglades. He says exotic animals like the python can harm the habitats in which they have been discharged.

    “Often times, these animals—especially reptiles—are released into the wild when they can no longer be cared for, and they become an invasive species posing a threat to native wildlife,” he says.

    Currently, there are 20 states—including Alaska, California, and New York—that have bans on the private ownership of exotic animals, while nine other states have partial bans that allow private owners to keep certain exotic animals. Twelve states require exotic pet owners to obtain a license or permit. Nine have no license or permit requirements.

    When visitors leave zoos and aquariums, including the Fresno Chaffee Zoo and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, hopefully they go away with more than just photos of the exotic animals they just saw.

    “When we do programs, we are very careful to make sure we tell people this is a wild animal and to treat it as such,” Vogel says. “It is not a pet.”

    Wild Things
    Carbonated soda is not a natural source of nutrition for chimpanzees. Wild chimps are also less likely to litter.

    Tiger, Tiger
    "The best figures available point to twice as many tigers in captivity in the United States in private hands as there are left in the world," says Adam Roberts, executive vice president of Born Free USA.

    Exotic Market
    The global black market for wildlife and wildlife parts is more than $10 billion annually. Only illegal arms trading and drug trafficking are more profitable.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    ape Noun

    large, intelligent primate with no tail.

    aquarist Noun

    person who works at or with aquariums.

    aquarium Noun

    a container or tank where aquatic plants and animals are kept, or an institution that keeps such containers.

    chimpanzee Noun

    large, intelligent ape native to Africa.

    curator Noun

    person who designs, assembles, and manages an exhibit at a museum or other cultural center.

    destructive Adjective


    diet Noun

    foods eaten by a specific group of people or other organisms.

    Encyclopedic Entry: diet
    discharge Verb

    to eject or get rid of.

    docile Adjective

    gentle and easily led.

    eel Noun

    fish with a long body and no fins on the lower surface of the body.

    enclosure Noun

    area surrounded by a wall, fence, or other physical boundary.

    Everglades Noun

    vast swampy region flowing south of Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

    exotic pet Noun

    rare or wild animal kept for human comfort.

    habitat Noun

    environment where an organism lives throughout the year or for shorter periods of time.

    Encyclopedic Entry: habitat
    herpes Noun

    variety of diseases, including chicken pox and cold sores, identified by itchy blisters on the skin.

    horrendous Adjective

    very bad.

    invasive species Noun

    type of plant or animal that is not indigenous to a particular area and causes economic or environmental harm.

    Encyclopedic Entry: invasive species
    lion Noun

    large cat native to sub-Saharan Africa and Gir Forest National Park, India.

    marine Adjective

    having to do with the ocean.

    mature Verb

    to age or grow up.

    monkeypox Noun

    contagious disease related to smallpox, for which there is no proven treatment.

    native Adjective

    indigenous, or from a specific geographic region.

    nutrition Noun

    process by which living organisms obtain food or nutrients, and use it for growth.

    partial Adjective


    prosecute Verb

    to accuse and carry out legal action against a person or organization.

    python Noun

    non-venomous snake native to tropical climates.

    reptile Noun

    animal that breathes air and usually has scales.

    salmonella Noun

    bacteria that is toxic to the digestive system of humans.

    sclerosis Noun

    condition of a disease which involves the hardening or thickening of a soft tissue such as a blood vessel.

    territorial Adjective

    very protective of a specific area, especially defending it against intruders.

    transmit Verb

    to pass along information or communicate.

    unmanageable Adjective

    unable to be controlled or contained.

    veterinarian Noun

    person who studies the health of animals.

    wild animal Noun

    animal that is not domesticated or trained to live safely around humans.

    zoo Noun

    place where animals are kept for exhibition.

    Encyclopedic Entry: zoo