As recent escapes show, scaly exotic pets pose dilemmas
They’re not cuddly. And cute is in the eye of the beholder, of course.
But the very idea of keeping animals such as boa constrictors and alligators as pets brings confused reactions from most folks, who much prefer their dogs and cats. Maybe a hamster or an aquarium of small fish.
So the recent news that two big boas in Missouri and an alligator in Kansas were not in their enclosures but loosed on the populace brought understandable outcries.
Should we be scared? Just last week, two boys in Canada were killed by an African rock python. The youngsters were on a sleepover at an apartment above a pet shop.
Two boa constrictors kept in a trailer home in Bourbon, Mo., have gone missing, possibly escaped from their enclosures. And an alligator was found in a creek near an Atchison County, Kan., lake last week with a bullet wound.
The alligator was taken to Dana Savorelli’s Monkey Island sanctuary in Greenwood, Mo. The alligator had been shot through its snout, creating a small hole all the way through.
The best way to help it was to leave it alone, Savorelli said.
“These guys are primitive,” he said about alligators. “They can come back from anything.”
Atchison County Sheriff Jack Laurie said the alligator’s owner told the department he had kept alligators for 15 years or so and had hosted school trips to teach youngsters about them.
Savorelli said he expected the alligator owner, Waylon Saxton, to pick up the 3-foot animal this week.
Saxton couldn’t be reached for comment for this story. But he has said that someone broke into his alligator tank several weeks ago and released the alligator. He planned to make the enclosure more secure.
That won’t be enough for some people.
Adam Roberts of Born Free USA said the national nonprofit organization opposes keeping any wild animals as pets, including reptiles such as alligators and large snakes. It maintains a database of exotic animal escapes and related injuries and deaths.
“Missouri and Kansas are not immune to these kinds of incidents,” Roberts said. “Really there is no excuse for keeping animals in captivity that way.”
Venomous or not — boa constrictors and pythons aren’t — they can still bite and inflict harm, Roberts said. Large animals can hurt children or other pets. In Florida, large constrictor snakes have colonized and compete with or devour native wildlife, he said.
“There’s an animal welfare problem, a human health and safety problem, and an environmental problem,” he said.
State and municipal laws vary about ownership of exotic animals, from bans of certain species to licensing programs to no rules at all. No laws apparently were broken in the keeping of the Atchison alligator or the Bourbon boas.
Roberts said it’s unclear whether more people are keeping exotic pets in recent years, but there’s no doubt they are much easier to obtain because of their availability on the Internet.
“People have an easier time acquiring these animals compared to 15 or 20 years ago,” he said.
When news of the missing boas surfaced in Crawford County near Bourbon, Bill Fitzgerald, owner of Riverside Wildlife Center in nearby Stanton, got a call. The center keeps exotic animals from big cats to non-venomous snakes and little frogs and offers educational programs and tours.
Fitzgerald said the snakes would not have been 9 feet or longer, as had been reported, but probably closer to 6 or 7 feet and about as big around as an arm, judging by the skins that were found.
And while one of the boas was reported missing a few weeks ago and the other this week, he said, the owner is also gone, so it’s still possible the owner has one or both of the snakes. The enclosures were proper for boa constrictors, Fitzgerald said, and it’s legal to keep them privately.
“It’s hard to imagine he would have abandoned them,” Fitzgerald said. “For one thing, they’re worth several hundred dollars apiece.”
These boas are big snakes, he said, but it’s a mistake to compare them to the 16-foot python that killed the Canadian boys. The boas can’t be considered as dangerous, he said.
“It’s a lot to do about nothing,” Fitzgerald said about the missing reptiles. “I don’t know how it became newsworthy.”
If the boas did escape, they will likely head for cover and look for water and food, he said. They won’t want to have anything to do with humans, he said.
“They won’t chase you,” he said. “They would probably crawl away. It’s a pretty unwarranted fear.”
In any event, one would not have to fear them long. The tropical snakes won’t survive the winter here.
“In just a few months, those animals will be dead,” Fitzgerald said. “The problem is going to solve itself.”
For his part, Fitzgerald understands the fascination with reptiles, having gotten the bug when he was about 6. He considers reptile collecting a good hobby.
“It kept me off the streets and focused,” he said. “I also know as snakes get bigger and older they can get more aggressive. So I think having permits is fine, so the authorities know where they are.”
Phil Dickens with the Kansas City Herpetological Society understands why people are drawn to snakes and other reptiles. His group advocates responsible reptile ownership and believes in the the captive propagation of reptiles rather than their importation, which he said puts burdens on the wild population.
“I can’t really explain what my fascination is with reptiles anymore than someone who likes to keep horses or parrots, which are two animals I have no desire to work with at all,” Dickens said.
“From an early age I had an inclination to chase after reptiles as opposed to run away from them.”
Dickens used to work with boas and pythons but now handles Mexican pine snakes, corn snakes and milk snakes, to name a few. He likes the breeding aspect, getting a lesser-known species of snake or lizard to breed, especially when only a few people have been successful at it.
Dickens said society members rescued nine alligators last year and took them to a wild animal park.
“People buy them when they’re cute and little and they grow rapidly into something they can’t handle,” Dickens said.
Kansas City Zoo director Randy Wisthoff wishes people would focus on dogs and cats — domesticated animals that actually need homes — and leave other animals in the wild or to the care of professionals.
“There is a danger factor with some of these animals because of their disposition and what it takes to work with them,” Wisthoff said. “Getting a crocodile or alligator to be handleable, to be safe to be around, especially when they get to be a certain size, is extremely difficult.”
Even an animal as seemingly simple as a ferret can be mishandled, he said, as was the case two years ago in Grain Valley when a 4-month-old boy lost most of his fingers to a pet ferret. In a tragic Connecticut case a few years ago, a woman’s face was destroyed by a friend’s pet chimpanzee.
Often in these cases, Wisthoff said, the person injured isn’t the person who kept the animals.
“It’s a child or a friend that suffers, and then that animal has to be destroyed for what they did,” he said.
“And we’re fearful people don’t know what these animals need for their well-being too, their diet, space requirements, temperature,” he said. “We take painstaking efforts to learn that and to provide those things for the animal.”
For everyone concerned, people should stick with pets that need adopting, he said.
“These are animals that will love you back. We really think that’s the right thing to do.”