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Ken White

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Two Options for "Exotic" -- A Slow Death or a Fast Death

Posted: 11/03/11 06:17 PM ET

Consider the Zanesville, Ohio, massacre of exotic animals: As we watch the ongoing custody battle for the animals which survived, it's obvious that so many things were and still remain wrong. Let me make three points.

First, and most obvious, far too many people keep exotic animals, animals who do not want to be in those cages and who deserve so much better than that life.

Most of my own exposure in this realm has been with highly venomous snakes kept, illegally and completely inhumanely, in people's homes. There certainly may be any number of reasons why people chose to try and live with these animals, ranging from an appreciation of the animal's beauty to the uber-manliness of sharing your quarters with a frightening wild animal than can eat your face off. None of these reasons, of course, comes close to justifying the decision to house a cobra or a tiger.

Second, and less obvious, far too many dollars are made by the industries which supply and then support the keeping of these animals, and none of those industries's practices are in any way good for the animals -- no matter how nicely wrapped up in the patina of conservation, an increasingly common spin on what is nothing but exploitation of wildlife.

Hell, even the relatively innocuous iguana (with thousands sold annually at mall pet shops around the country, an animal which can inflict a nasty wound) is almost certainly destined for a slow death in almost every single case. Often now sold as "captive bred," a term meant to muster either images of happy iguanas romping on farms or in state-of-the-art iguana laboratories, most often this actually means nothing more than someone paying pennies to have plywood walls hammered in place around trees in tropical jungles, the young iguanas "harvested" like peaches and then shipped to the U.S., European and Asian markets.

And third, after a man was fatally mauled by a "pet" bear in Ohio last year, the State banned the purchase, sale or keeping of dangerous wild animals. Tragically, an incoming governor ordered wildlife officials not to enforce the ban.

The reason? The new administration wished time to study whether enforcement would be a "hardship" for small businesses (aka, animal dealers). Fast forward to more than four dozen animals -- tigers, lions, bears, primates -- shot by the same officials in the same State after their owner opened their cages before taking his own life.

We should mourn the fate of these animals. But we should also recognize that those few moments of freedom just before being shot were likely the best moments of their lives. Between the slow, lingering life and death they would have faced had they remained exotic "pets" and their brief run and execution by bullet, I'm not at all sure that these weren't the lucky ones.

Considering how uncommon common sense is, it's clear we need laws to protect both wild animals from people and to protect people from what happens when wild animals are kept where they do not belong by a species which is, frighteningly often, incapable of taking care of itself.