In 2014, I was interviewed by National Geographic magazine for their cover story on exotic pets in the April edition.  The stunning two-page photo staff photographer Vince Musi took of our deer Dillie became the unofficial centerfold of the issue.  The article, however, was not all about harmless furry divas like Dillie, but also about the ongoing serious debate  of owning potentially dangerous animals.

After he left our house, Vince was on his way to  the scene of a recent tragedy in Ohio involving exotic pets, the Terry Thompson case.  Thompson was a gentleman in the small southeastern Ohio town of Zanesville who had a collection of over 50 large, dangerous exotic animals including lions, tigers, and bears. This, however, was not a Wizard of Oz happily-ever-after story.  Thomspon inexplicably chose to release all the animals, before he stuffed raw chicken pieces all over his body and unceremoniously shot himself to death.   

Predictably, Thompson’s bizarre actions not only resulted in the tragic deaths at the hands of law enforcement of forty-eight majestic creatures, including eighteen rare Bengal tigers,  but also prompted heated debates even among animal professionals  about the legality and morality of exotic pet ownership.  The eventual official response was the enactment in my state of one of the country’s strictest exotic pet laws.  This controversial law prevents people in Ohio from owning animals deemed potentially dangerous without proper permits, housing, insurance, and education.

As Americans, we don’t like to be told what to do.  People want to believe they can own a rhino if they want to, and house it in their one bedroom flat.  They wave Old Glory and shout: “Anyone who wants to should be allowed to have any animal from an armadillo to a zebra!  It’s a free country! “

I’ve heard this argument against the law a million times in my own home. My husband Steve  is not only against the new exotic pet law but as a diehard Libertarian is against any law for any thing at any time.  He would do away with speed limits and traffic signs if he could because they infringe on the rights of people to make their own choices.  His wish for banishing government from our lives is so extreme even Ron Paul would tell him: “Whoa, brother. Cool it. Some laws are just necessary.”

I am not in favor of government intervention into private life any more than any average citizen,  but I do understand the need for stop signs and do indeed see a need for regulation in the exotic pet world.  I witness daily the glaring, fatal flaw in the laissez-faire ideology.  The entire premise behind their argument is that people are wise enough to make their own choices, that we all have enough basic common sense to make correct decisions.  

Aye, there’s the rub.

We have to face a sad truth.  What is the one single thing in the world these days rarer than an endangered Bengal tiger taking a stroll in Zanesville, Ohio?   Common sense.   Maybe it wasn’t like this when young Tommy Jefferson wrote those famous words about the pursuit of happiness, but it  sure as heck is now.  These days, if common sense were a person, his mug would be gracing milk cartons everywhere.   

Common sense is just no longer common. We’re fooled by the name; it implies that everyone has it. “Common” suggests it is floating around in the air more plentifully than nitrogen molecules. This  deceptive adjective makes the world believe that just because a person evolved to have opposable thumbs they also have basic instincts and necessary ability to reason.

Turn on the telly.  Is that what you see happening in the world today?   Watch five minutes of Cops, and you will have your answer.  That guy with a blood alcohol level so high his breath could disinfect a truck stop restroom gets pulled over after a high speed chase down a freeway.  He tells the cop he wasn’t the one driving because he has no license even though he is behind the wheel and alone in the car.  Oddly enough,  he, too, has opposable thumbs.   Yet, sense in his body would not be at all common, but  a miracle so great that three kings on camels would be camped on his doorstep.

Therefore, for my husband and others to make the center of their argument against the exotic pet law that people are capable of making their own decisions is laughable to me. As a vet, I have repeatedly witnessed the results of certain clients also apparently lacking that no longer  prevalent  common sense gene.  Unfortunately, the pet is the one that feels the repercussion of these people’s phenotypic deficiency.  Over half the patients at any veterinary emergency clinic right now are there because of  owners’ poor choices.  Maybe they let the pet run loose and it was hit by a car.   Or they chose to start a backyard breeding business and now the poor momma bulldoggle puggle poo weenie needs a c-section .   Or they put on their cat a dog flea product that says no less than twelve times in large letters on the package: “DO NOT USE ON CATS.”  As brutal as the truth is in these cases, the pet’s injury or illness was caused by the very people that love  them.

When I was an emergency clinician, I was particularly infuriated at the number of pets I saw that had been fed drugs intentionally  because the owners despite their opposable thumbs thought it would be “fun” to see what effect pot, crack, meth, or  amphetamines would have on their pet.  The only consequence the owners  experienced for their poor decisions was a sizable bill they often were unable to pay, although one did generously offer his crack pipe as collateral. The poor animal, however, had to endure the effects of the drug and the  treatment, and in some cases lost its life.  

The profound consequences of owners poor choices is exacerbated for exotic pets.  Often the owners have taken on an unfamiliar species and do not understand the unique husbandry, nutrition, and behavioral tendencies of the animal they profess to love.  Sure, they could have educated themselves before selecting the pet but for some people that takes more common sense that they are able to squeeze out of every cell in their bodies.  As a result, the most common diseases we see in exotics are nutrition or husbandry related.  The bobcat I saw with rickets should not have been fed only powdered sugar donuts, even if the owner did get them for free from the bakery where she worked.  The thousands of iguanas we see with spinal deformities or seizures from metabolic bone disease should have had a proper diet and special UV lighting, but they had to pay the price for  their owners' choice to not educate themselves. The box tortoise I saw recently with shell and body deformities so severe he cannot even withdraw into his shell (see photo)  was placed into a reptile rescue group for rehabilitation.   His species is  land bound, but he had spent the last six years in a water aquarium like a red eared slider.   If common sense were indeed as plentiful as nitrogen, the poor creature would not have endured this suffering.

Besides these and Mr. Thompson’s cases, one owner stands out to me as the absolute defense of the need for exotic pet regulations despite being the mom of an exotic pet myself.  My technician Noel called me into the exam room to see a mini-pig that presented for lack of appetite.  Mini-pigs are the latest fad in pet ownership and are inexpensive and deceptively cute as babies.   Genetically, though, they are no different from a standard 200 pound farm pig, just bred to be smaller.  Fad species, however,  tend to attract that particular type of owner that  is a disaster waiting to happen for the pet.    Such was the circumstance in this case.  

Smiling, I greeted the client , a petite young woman who looked barely old enough to drive.  On the exam table was a  young, adorable  black and white spotted piglet, in a ten gallon aquarium complete with cedar chips and a hamster wheel.  

The young woman client told me that Charlotte the pig had stopped eating her Cheerios.  Naively, I asked what else she fed Charlotte.  

“Nothing,” she answered.  “Just Cheerios. But she won’t eat them now.  And she never goes on her wheel.”

Up to that moment, I assumed that Charlotte was being housed in this aquarium she barely fit in just to transport her to my office.  Her statement made it clear that this was Charlotte’s enclosure at home as well. I suddenly realized  I had overestimated this girl’s common sense load.  

Darn those opposable thumbs; they always fool me.  

I said as gently and politely as I could, “You do realize that this is a Mini-pig, NOT a Guinea pig.  She cannot just have Cheerios.  She will never go on this hamster wheel.  And she cannot stay in this ten gallon aquarium.”  

Wide-eyed, she   did not believe me.  She huffed at me: “I read online that pigs can be housed in aquariums.”

“Guinea pigs, yes,” I answered, patiently.   “They are rodents, like rats. They don’t have hooves like Charlotte.  They only weigh two to four pounds.  This, is not a guinea pig. It is a pig.  Like you see on farms. raised for bacon and ham.  She is a smaller pig, but she will be about fifty pounds,  the size of a  large Cocker Spaniel.”

She still didn’t believe me.

As I began my exam on Charlotte, the piglet squealed as I picked her up.  Pigs do that.  A piglet can out squeal a pre-teen at a boy band concert.  In fact, the pigs on a pig farm at feeding time produce a collective sound rating of over 100 decibels, about the same as a 747 at full rev.

To Noel’s and my surprise, the owner herself suddenly stood up and screamed, then threw her hands over her ears. “I hate it when she does that!  Can’t you take that squeaker thing out?”

Noel and I looked at each other in disbelief.  “Just go out in the lobby,” I said calmly, forcing a smile and gesturing to the exam room door.  

“I can’t!” she said.  “The door’s closed!”

Noel turned the knob for her and opened the door.  The shrieking client ran to the lobby with her hands still over her ears.  

I printed out some handouts on pig care and nutrition and carefully reviewed it with her in the lobby.  I also gave her the name of a sanctuary in town that adopted unwanted pot belly and mini-pigs, since she was not the only owner that had gotten a cute tiny piglet not knowing it would soon be seriously large and no longer baby cute.  

Pigs are not actually covered by the new exotic pet law, but before the law was enacted in Ohio, this girl  could have gotten a lion, black mamba, or  similarly dangerous animal she would have been tragically ill-prepared to handle. Now, at least, to acquire a tiger or grizzly bear like Mr. Thompson had, she would have to complete the housing, insurance, and permit requirements and take educational courses about the species.  It’s a no brainer meant to protect the animals and the public from the throng of no brainers out there.

Sorry, Hubby Dearest. Save the  “It’s a free country!” argument for someone that hasn’t seen the damage poor choices cause the animals.  Owning an animal, loving a pet, is a lifelong commitment and  carries responsibilities.  Love alone is not enough.  The greatest responsibility of all is to be able to provide the proper nutrition, space and housing, and medical care for the lifetime of the pet. This is uniquely true for exotic species.  Having faith that a person will have the necessary  common sense to not take on animals they cannot care for  is no longer enough.  

Sadly, it took a tragedy the magnitude of the Thompson case to wake up my state.  Mr. Thompson was obviously in mental anguish, distraught over a multitude of serious problems.  By all accounts, he loved his animals. Still, his actions inevitably and very predictably caused their deaths. He knew by releasing them he was signing their death warrants.  These magnificent creatures shouldn’t have had to die for his choices.  After all, he was the one with the opposable thumbs.

About the Author

Melanie Butera DVM

Melanie Butera, DVM, is a veterinarian based in Canal Fulton, Ohio. She is the author of Dillie the Deer: A True Story of Love, Healing, and Family. 

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