African servals, exotic cats as pets

Why Exotic Pets Should NOT Be Banned
Private Ownership and Animal Welfare
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Many ban bills have cited animal welfare as an argument for their passage, but the fact is existing animal cruelty laws protect animals both domestic and exotic. The missing link here is enforcement. We don’t need any more laws to protect the animals, we need stricter enforcement of the laws we already have.

On April 29, 2003 Environmental News Service reported that nine tiger and two leopard cubs were rescued from a private home where carcasses of some 30 tigers and 58 cubs were found. This lead to the arrests of the operators of the California nonprofit organization Tiger Rescue. The article quotes Michael Markarian, President of The Fund for Animals: "The plight of these babies demonstrates why people who care about animals must boycott the exotic pet industry as well as commercial animal displays that often pass themselves off as sanctuaries." He also states: "Congress can save young tigers and leopards from this cruel fate by passing the Exotic Pets Bill." Click here to read the article.

Heart-wrenching, isn’t it? What this article and others like it failed to mention is that California is one of the most heavily regulated states in the country. Private ownership of all exotic pets is banned. Sanctuaries must comply with an extensive permit process. Far from proving the need for legislation, this sad incident highlights the utter failure of ban laws to prevent cruelty.

The Tiger Rescue sanctuary operators allegedly failed to acquire required permits and violated animal cruelty laws. If laws are the answer, why did this happen? If atrocities like this can occur in a state so heavily regulated that one cannot legally own even a ferret, what is the justification for barring responsible exotic pet ownership? The Fund for Animals’ use of this incident to tug at people’s emotions and mislead them into supporting destructive legislation is despicable manipulation. We need to enforce our animal cruelty laws, not ban loving and law-abiding citizens from owning animals.

There have unfortunately been cases of exotic animals (most often the big cat species such as lions, tigers, and cougars) being abused or neglected in private hands. One of the tactics used by animal rights organizations and certain overzealous sanctuary operators when trying to garner public support for banning ownership is simply to highlight these abuses; to say “here is what happens to these animals in private hands.” The insinuation is that all exotic animal owners are likely to abuse or neglect their animals. This could not be farther from the truth. What they fail to do is put these cases in perspective.

I used to volunteer for a local humane society on a weekly basis. When I told people of this, their automatic response would be “isn’t that horribly depressing?” The answer was a resounding no, for two reasons. The first was that the shelter I volunteered for was a virtually no-kill facility. This meant we never had to suffer the heartbreak of euthanizing adoptable animals. In fact, one of the rewarding things about being involved with this organization was seeing the success stories of animals that might not have had a chance elsewhere.

I remember an elderly apricot miniature poodle that had been found running loose. This little dog was completely blind and deaf, and would have fallen under the category of “unadoptable” at most shelters. We set up an exercise pen in the lobby with food, water, and a bed for the little creature. That was where she lived for the next several weeks, pampered by shelter staff and volunteers who didn’t expect her to be adopted soon, if at all. Then one day a woman from out of town stopped by the shelter, never expecting to find her beloved pet. Imagine her joy when she saw the little dog she had given up for dead waiting for her in the lobby. Knowing you’ve been part of such a wonderful success story is even more powerful when you know that the tale would never have ended this way at many other shelters.

The second reason that I always answered no to this question was the wonderful people I would come into contact with through the shelter. People with hearts of gold that had an amazing amount of love for animals, and an equal determination to help them.

You see, we had our horror stories and heartbreaks. I’ll never forget the man who walked in one day and announced that he wanted to buy all of our Rottweilers. Upon further questioning, he revealed to me that he planned to house each one of them in an old car on his property and breed them to sell as guard dogs! Then there was the man who wanted to surrender his dog to the shelter. When we told him there was no room and that he would have to be put on a waiting list, he walked to his car and withdrew a gun, planning to shoot the dog right there on humane society property. Needless to say, we took the dog.

We got in a two-year-old mixed breed that had spent all of his life on a chain in the owner’s back yard. One cat arrived bleeding from all four feet because its paw pads had been burned off. I lost count of the number of tiny kittens brought in by people who had found them dying in cardboard boxes, burlap sacks, or simply lying in the woods. Sick kittens, injured kittens, starving kittens, hypothermic kittens, abused kittens, you name it.

There were the clueless people, too. One of the most memorable incidents occurred on a warm summer day, when the police dropped off a rather damp dog. He appeared well cared for and wore a collar with ID tags. We called the owner, who soon arrived to claim her dog. It turns out that the animal escaped when the woman took her convertible though a drive-in car wash with the top down! The woman took refuge on the floor, but the dog took off for greener pastures.

There was the call from a police officer that said he was escorting in a dead dog. The dog arrived in the bed of a pickup driven by the dog’s owners. I didn’t know exactly what to expect as I peeled back the tarp covering the body. It revealed a pretty dog, obviously meticulously cared for. The dog had been placed unrestrained in the back of the pickup truck, and had jumped out while the vehicle was travelling at high speed. The owners looked stunned.

During kitten season, we would be so flooded with unwanted kittens that we were reduced to housing them in endless crates stacked one on top of the other in our medical room. Every available cage would be filled to capacity and then we’d get another litter. One day I called potential foster homes for three hours, begging volunteers to come get kittens and care for them at home until they were old enough to be adopted out or until we had room at the shelter. Many of the staff members arrived at work each day carrying crates containing kittens that they had bottle-fed through the night. I had a nursing mother and her sick kittens at home that I was fostering.

So why on earth would I say this wasn’t depressing? Because the heartwarming moments and the wonderful people so far outweighed the bad. Those kittens stacked in the medical room were cared for by loving volunteers until each and every one of them found a good home. Some families arrived at the shelter intending to adopt one cat, only to fall in love with the tough little mother cat who’d been raising her litter on the streets and end up going home with her and a couple of her kittens. Others would open their hearts to the shy little black kitten hiding in the corner of the cage, knowing he might otherwise be one of the last to find a home.

The cat with the burned paw pads made a full recovery and went to live in a wonderful new home. Volunteers and staff woke up around the clock to bottle feed all of those abandoned little kittens, raising them with love and kindness until the time came to hand them over to their new owners. The dog who had lived on a chain was introduced to other dogs and the joys of racing through the sand dunes in the humane society’s huge outdoor exercise areas. He lived happily at the shelter until just the right person walked through the door and took him home.

We saw people open their homes to elderly animals, animals needing expensive surgery or ongoing medication, shy animals, and aggressive animals. Volunteers showed up every day to brush cats, walk dogs on the sand dunes, and play with the kittens. People brought in food, treats, toys, money, and handmade pet blankets. Whenever a shelter animal needed an expensive surgery that couldn’t be covered under the shelter’s budget, people always seemed to come up with the needed money.

I can attest to the fact that people often do cruel or irresponsible things. But there are also an overwhelming number of wonderful, responsible animal lovers out there. Many people should not own cats or dogs, and even more should never own a exotic feline. But there are people out there who should.

We would never consider closing the doors of our animal shelters and refusing to let anyone adopt a cat because a select few abuse them. The key to both domestic and exotic animal welfare is doing our best to teach people about animals and make sure that the only people who end up with these pets are those who are prepared to take good care of them.

It seems to be a regrettable fact about the human species: put a living being in our care and some of us will abuse it. Children, spouses, dogs, cats, horses, birds, you name it. Should we abolish marriage, childbearing, and pet ownership because of this?

What about the argument that if private ownership were banned, supposedly none of these animals would be in private hands, and thus there would be no opportunity for them to be abused? This is true, but also lacking in perspective. What do you think it’s really like to live in the wild? Wild animals routinely suffer fates that make what we dish out pall by comparison. When you factor in starvation, thirst, lack of medical care, exposure to the elements, pests, and the possibility of being eaten, living in the wild loses some of its appeal. I once ran across a deer carcass in the woods near my house. It had obviously tried to jump a wire fence, but had gotten one hoof caught in the wire on the way over. As it cleared the fence, the wire had twisted around the deer’s leg, trapping it so that its body dangled from the fence by one limb. Did he die of starvation? Infection? Dehydration? That’s nature for you. There’s a premium to be paid for “living free.”

If you took a random sample of 1000 wild felines and 1000 privately owned felines, comparing the circumstances in which each animal lived and died, I’d be willing to bet that even with the occasional case of abuse the captive felines would have lived more pleasant lives.

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© Jessi Clark-White, 2004
Why would you want to own a wild cat?