It's a jungle in Pa. with exotic pets

Posted: October 25, 2011

ON WHAT should have been an ordinary Wednesday in Zanesville, Ohio, last week, school was canceled and residents were urged to stay in their homes. Fifty dangerous animals - lions, bears, wolves and cheetahs - had been set loose by private owner Terry Thompson before he committed suicide. Local law enforcement later killed most of the aggressive animals before they could harm members of the community.

As rare and shocking as this story was, people who own exotic pets are not so unusual. The Internet has made the purchase of exotic animals easier than ever, as the documentary "The Elephant in the Living Room" proves.

This 2010 documentary about the fascinating and complex people who are drawn to exotic pets was recently released on DVD.

Among those profiled in it is Tim Harrison, an Ohio police officer who specializes in rescuing exotic pets that have either escaped or been set loose by their owners. On the other side is Terry Brumfield, struggling to raise his two full-grown lions who he says helped him overcome depression.

"You don't have to go to India to see a tiger. You don't have to go to Canada to see a cougar. You don't have to go to Africa to see a [viper]," Harrison says in the film. "You go to Anytown, USA, those animals are here."

One source of exotic pets is the Animal Finder's Guide, a publication that advertises exotic animals for sale - and even some being given away. What the guide fails to mention is how to care for the pets. Nor does it mention that after you buy, there is no turning back.

"It's an ongoing problem that's never addressed enough," said Suzanne Murray, owner of East Coast Animal Rescue, a center created to provide a safe haven in Fairfield, Pa., (near Gettysburg) for former exotic pets. "When they find a tiger in a New York City apartment, it gets a little airplay and then it's done and not thought of again."

Murray devotes countless hours rescuing animals that have been abandoned by their owners. Although she said some of her rescued animals are from zoos, the majority are given up because pet owners can no longer afford the time or money to care for a lion, bear or coyote.

Nine states lack any sort of permit guidelines for those adopting bizarre pets and 30 allow ownership with an easily obtained permit. Even out of those that do ban exotic wildlife, many still leave loopholes that a determined prospective owner can get around.

Pennsylvania bans bears, jaguars and wolves as pets, but doesn't mention chimpanzees or even crocodiles and poisonous snakes. In Philadelphia, it is against the law to sell alligators and poisonous snakes, but people smuggle them in from other parts of the state.

And that can be a problem for emergency medical technicians and firefighters who may enter a home to rescue someone and discover a dangerous animal on the other side of the door, Murray said. The pets, even the lethal ones, don't even have to be registered by the state, Murray said.

Wendy Marano, the media and public relations specialist of the Pennsylvania SPCA, said the biggest problem is not legality issues, but people taking care of animals that they are uneducated about.

"People think it's a novel thing to keep one," she said. "But we find they are not in the position to give them the care that they need. Taking care of them is a danger to society and to the animals."

George Bengal, head of the SPCA's Humane Law Enforcement Department, recalled finding monkeys, poisonous snakes and crocodiles used to protect a drug dealer's stash. The SPCA discovered two crocodiles in a city home earlier this month, he said.

Bengal doesn't see anything wrong with Pennsylvania's current laws, if the animals are in the hands of a responsible caregiver. "But especially in a city environment, it's not good to have alligators or cobras in apartment houses. Too many people in the city to have animals like that in close quarters."

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