04/13/2014 11:58 am ET Updated Apr 15, 2014

America's Exotic Pet Obsession Is Out Of Control (PHOTOS, VIDEO)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans own at least one cat or dog, and that's considered an accepted cultural practice. But exotic pet ownership is seen as much more controversial, and yet it's estimated that millions of these wild animals are in private possession in the U.S., according to Born Free USA.

"Wild Obsession: The perilous attraction of owning exotic pets," the cover story for National Geographic's April issue, dives into this multi-billion dollar industry. It's a dicey subject: More exotic animals live in people's homes than in zoos, National Geographic reports, and for many folks, these pets are just as much a part of the family as their own children. Some proponents argue that exotic pet ownership supports species conservation, while others make a profit off of their exotic animals. On the other hand, this industry draws heavy criticism from conservations and wildlife advocates for a range of issues from ethics to public safety, according to Born Free USA.

Currently, there's a loose patchwork of federal, state and local laws that ban the ownership and selling of exotic pets, while other states lack any regulation at all. The American Veterinary Medical Association, the United States Department of Agriculture and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have all expressed opposition towards ownership of certain exotic animals, according to the ASPCA.

Whatever your stance may be on the subject, these images from the April issue of National Geographic magazine provide a colorful look into the life of exotic pets.

  • Vincent J. Musi / National Geographic
    John Matus bought Boo Boo impulsively as a cub. Last summer the Ohio man gave her to a wildlife sanctuary. “She needs to be with her own kind,” he says. “It’s a lonely life.”
  • Vincent J. Musi / National Geographic
    Ohio veterinarian Melanie Butera took in Dillie after the blind farm deer’s mother rejected her. Dillie used to sleep with Butera but now has her own room. “She’s treated like a princess,” says Butera.
  • Vincent J. Musi / National Geographic
    "My life is completely about the animals,” says Leslie-Ann Rush, a Florida horse trainer. “I rarely leave them overnight or take a vacation.” She raised her kangaroos and lemurs from infancy.
  • Vincent J. Musi / National Geographic
    A Burmese python entwines Albert Killian in the Florida home he shares with 60 snakes. Tags noting the proper antivenom—and the nearest hospital that carries it—are posted next to venomous pets.
  • Vincent J. Musi / National Geographic
    Florida animal trainer Pamela Rosaire Zoppe bought Chance from pet owners who could no longer keep him. He now appears in Hollywood films. “Chimps are so intelligent that they get bored,” she says.
  • National Geographic
    See more photos of exotic pets in the April issue of National Geographic Magazine.