The Heavy Petting Issue: Exotic pets — there's a place for them

click to enlarge Leopard and Big Cat Rescue resident Cheetaro. -
Leopard and Big Cat Rescue resident Cheetaro.

Though most prospective pet owners stick to cats and dogs when seeking a new four-legged companion, the trend of alternative pet-keeping has become increasingly popular, with birds, rodents, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and even farm animals like pigs and goats materializing in urban environments more and more often. So what happens to pets like these when they’ve been mistreated, abandoned or can no longer be taken care of by their owners? Where do they go, when your average animal rescue shelter isn’t an option?

The most common types of organizations that work to safely rescue, rehabilitate, and find permanent homes for alternative pets are foster care systems like Florida Parrot Rescue.

A nonprofit run completely by volunteers across the state, Florida Parrot Rescue was started by Jennifer James in 2010 as much to stop owners from releasing feathered friends they can no longer support into the wild as to nurse injured and neglected birds back to health. The organization gained some wider recognition via one particular bird that made it onto Fox 13 News: Duster, the white cockatoo known as the bicycle-riding “celebrity bird” at Weeki Wachee before he was retired. Florida Parrot Rescue was behind helping him find his forever home.

James’s rescue is one of numerous similar smaller-scale groups dedicated to helping alternative pets. But for more exotic creatures, organizations such as Big Cat Rescue come in to play.

In many states, owning primates, wolves, bears, big cats, and other meant-for-the-wild animals is illegal. But plenty of folks have found loopholes, acquiring exotic pet licenses under the false pretense of using the animal for exhibition. In reality, these animals are more often used for illegal purposes, like guarding a drug house.

Big Cat is dedicated to taking in exotic animals that were abused, neglected, or simply no longer wanted by owners who found themselves in well over their heads. Big Cat, as the name suggests, takes in exotic felines ranging from smaller breeds like Savannah cats and domestic hybrids to the more sizeable lions and tigers. All have stories, most of them unfortunate, like that of the park’s only lioness, Nikita, who was found chained to the wall of a crack house in Tennessee for so long she had massive swelling on her elbows and was so thin you could carry her under one arm.

She was originally transferred to a zoo, but since she was declawed, she couldn’t live with the other lions. She ended up at Big Cat Rescue, and when I saw her on my visit, she was contentedly bathing in the sun.

Big Cat is a nonprofit shelter housing more than 80 cats, among them servals, bobcats, lions, tigers and leopards. The organization has been rescuing and rehabilitating cats since 1992, but the shelter’s work extends to pushing legislation to abolish acquisition of these animals except in very select circumstances.

Owning an ordinary pet isn’t all fun and games. It takes time, dedication, and financial stability. Factor in the additional considerations that come with owning an alternative pet and what might happen when the responsibility becomes too great, and you can see how potential problems arise. With the help of organizations like these, we can help find these pets their forever homes. 

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