Exotic Pets Debate Renewed After Zanesville, Ohio Animal Disaster
-- Yadah used to be an adorable baby. Now he's a cranky 5-year-old with a willful streak and a $250-per-month food bill, and Shannon Pandarvis is desperate to get rid of him.
Pandarvis' brown capuchin monkey has become too expensive for the out-of-work utility worker and his wife, but the couple can't find a sanctuary to take him in.
Days after dozens of lions, tigers and bears were slain by police after an Ohio man mired in debt freed them from his preserve, rescue organizations say the economic downturn is contributing to a problem that's existed for as long as exotic animals have been kept as pets.
Sanctuaries have neither the space, nor the financial wherewithal, to come to the rescue of overmatched owners who can no longer care for their big cats, monkeys or even parrots. Some sanctuaries have closed their doors, contributing to the population of unwanted, difficult-to-place beasts that can cost $10,000 a year or more to maintain.
"If you want to place a big cat, I would tell you that every reputable sanctuary is full and more than full," said Patty Finch, executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, an accrediting body.
Even rescues that were financially strong a few years ago, she said, have been forced to dip into their reserves to meet expenses because private donors and foundations have reduced their giving amid the prolonged economic slump.
This year, the owner of a Florida wildlife rescue center lived in a cage with two lions for a month as a fundraising ploy to keep the facility afloat. In San Antonio, the Wild Animal Orphanage folded last fall "due to overpopulation, under-funding and inadequate housing for the animals," according to its website. It took months to place several hundred tigers, bears, lions, cougars, wolves and primates.
In Zanesville, Ohio, Terry Thompson committed suicide Tuesday after opening the cages of dozens of lions, tigers and other beasts at his exotic animal preserve, forcing sheriff's deputies to kill nearly 50 escaped animals. Thompson's motive remains unclear, but he and his wife owed at least $68,000 in unpaid taxes, and he had just gotten out of federal prison last month for having unregistered weapons.
His case has renewed old questions about the wisdom of keeping dangerous animals as pets.
"The novelty wears off, and then they turn into what they are: wild animals," said Kari Bagnall, founder of Jungle Friends Primate Sanctuary in Gainesville, Fla. "After they've chewed up the neighbor or escaped a couple times, people want to find a home for them. And it's getting tougher and tougher."
In Fairfield, Pa., dwindling financial support has forced East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue to stop taking most new animals. The rescue has turned down seven tigers in just the past two months. "Every time I have to tell them no, I bawl," said office manager Melissa Bishop.
Bagnall said Jungle Friends has lost tens of thousands of dollars in foundation help in recent years. She's been turning away one owner after another who say they can no longer afford their monkeys – or who no longer want them.
Rather than accepting these erstwhile pets, Bagnall tries to show distressed owners how they can turn their properties into "mini-sanctuaries" with suitable habitats. But when she tells them what it would cost, $15,000 to $20,000 for a proper enclosure for a pair of monkeys, they inevitably say they can't afford it.
It was Bagnall who took a call recently from Pandarvis, whose wife had bought Yadah when the monkey was just a few weeks old. The small primate was OK for a while. Then Pandarvis suffered a workplace injury and went on disability, cutting the family's income and making Yadah a drain on the budget. He also became harder to handle.
"Nobody can keep up with him anymore," said Pandarvis, of Walker, La. "He's all hands and destroys the house."
People have offered to take the monkey, but Pandarvis wants him to go to a sanctuary because "I don't want him in the same predicament. I want him in a better place. But a lot of them are real full and they don't have the capacity to take him."
Like other rescues faced with dwindling financial support, the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, Ky., is making do with less. Yet founder and executive director April Truitt said demand for sanctuary space has always outstripped the supply. Long before the current economic slump, private owners, biomedical research facilities and sanctuaries that accepted more animals than they could handle were all sources of castoff exotics.
"There's never enough room in a legitimate sanctuary for all the animals that need placement. There isn't today, there wasn't 10 years ago," said Truitt, who turned away five monkeys in a single week this month. "There simply isn't enough room at the inn for all the animals who need lifetime care and it will probably always be the case."
Traveling petting zoos that feature baby lions and tigers are another huge source of exotic animals. Since the animals are only suitable for petting between the ages of 8 and 12 weeks, the operators of these attractions must keep breeding them to stay in business, said Carole Baskin, the founder of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, Fla.
"When they can't use them anymore, they become this $10,000 a year liability. They will give them away, sell them, no paperwork," Baskin said. "Then (the buyers) call us and say, `I can't deal with this carnivore.'"
Big Cat Rescue had actually been faced with fewer unwanted felines in recent years after federal law was changed to prohibit the interstate sale, purchase and transport of lions, tigers and other cats.
Last year, the numbers starting going back up.
"That is largely due to the economy," Baskin said.
Unwanted exotics are more than just a problem for the rescue community.
In 2010, Florida banned the private ownership and sale of Burmese pythons and six other large, nonnative reptile species because some were being let loose in the Everglades, killing native species. It's unclear whether most of the pythons were released because they got too big for the owners to handle, or for economic reasons, or a combination of both. Whatever the reason, their numbers in the park have grown exponentially, to perhaps more than 100,000, because they are prolific egg-layers.
"It's an eco-disaster," said Tim Harrison of Outreach for Animals, a wildlife advocacy group. Snake owners, he said, "call these rescue facilities, and nobody has room for a 15-foot python."
Associated Press writer Terry Spencer in Miami contributed to this report.