Feb 052009

“Do exotic animals make good pets?” is one of the most common sentences I hear, often with the words jeckyldecember1092“exotic animals” replaced with a particular animal, and there is never a good answer because it is the wrong question!  There is broad array of animals and an even broader array of human preferences, so the right question is, “Would this particular type of animal make a good pet for me right now?” 

Let me clarify this with a metaphor:  Is a Ferrari a good car?  If you are looking for a reliable vehicle that gets good gas mileage, has low cost of ownership, and can transport your children to soccer practice, NO!  If you are looking for a safe vehicle for your reckless 17 year old son, NO!  If you are looking for a beautiful Italian sports car that goes very fast and impresses the ladies, YES!  Is a Ferrari dangerous?  That depends entirely on the driver. Most people should not get a Ferrari, but for those who should it is a perfect choice. Same thing with any animal, domestic, wild, or exotic—if the particular animal fits into your lifestyle and you understand and accept the compromises required to care for that animal, you can have a wonderful and safe experience that is deeply rewarding for both you and the animal. If you do not fully understand what you are getting into, there is a high likelihood that both you and the animal will be miserable…

Speak candidly with as many people as possible who have experience with the animal you are considering, and gather as much information as you can about the pros and cons of the animal.  Be honest with them about your lifestyle, personality, and concerns, and listen carefully to everything they say.  Spend some time around a few animals that are similar to what you are considering, and not only for a few minutes on their best behavior—offer to help clean cages, give them a bath, babysit for a weekend, whatever you can do to really understand what life with this animal is like.  Once you understand the negatives, you need to do three things carefully:

1.       Envision the worst case scenario.  You will likely do better than the worst case, but maybe not, so be prepared! Listen to all the negatives and imagine that you get an animal that does ALL of the worst things you hear.  Think about these negatives in the context of your preferences—are you tidy, quiet, like to sleep late, squeamish about feeding certain things, etc. Will you still be happy with that animal?

2.       Really, carefully imagine what those negatives mean over the lifetime of the animal.  It is easy to say that you do not mind being kept up overnight by noise, but by year seven you may not feel the same way.  It is easy to say you do not mind odor, or cleaning up many times per day, or having your couch chewed up, but imagine how you will feel when you have been living with that negative for years.  When I got a crow, I was warned that they poop lots. Big deal, I have plenty of animals that poop lots… But a few years later, it IS a big deal.  I change my shirt 10 times every day, and mop the floor and wipe the couch and clean the wall and the seats in the car…  How will you feel about those negative later if you get married or have children?  How will you feel when you cannot go on vacation because you cannot find anyone to watch your animal? Genuinely and carefully think about this…

3.       Research the laws and regulations concerning the animal you want to own.  Federal, state, county, city, etc.  Make sure that you understand the rules so you do not risk yourself or your animal by breaking them.

All of these issues should be exactly the same whether you are getting a goldfish, cat, dog, monkey, wolf, or lion. If you go through these steps and are certain that you are prepared to live with the animal for its lifetime and make the requisite compromises, then you and the animal will likely have a wonderful experience.  Do as much research as possible, find a responsible breeder who has great animals and will give you support, get everything set up, and go for it! But if you are at all unsure, take more time to think about it: this is an important decision that will impact you and the animal for many years to come…

 February 5, 2009  Posted by at 5:10 am Tagged with: , , ,
Jan 062009

The central notion of the Animal Rights movement is that “animals deserve consideration of their interests”. Let us consider captivity as it relates to the interests of animals:

There are an wide range of natural lives and captive lives, and one can easily and misleadingly look at the best example of either and compare it to the worst example of the other and reach whatever conclusion one wants to reach. Too often people compare the very best and most idyllic moment in a wild life with the worst example of atrocious captivity, and reach a skewed conclusion. For the sake of this article I am going to try to compare an average wild life with an average captive life. Since the question is whether or not captivity can be in the best interests of animals, we need to look at a reasonably good example of captive life to decide whether or not it can be a good life and if we believe it can then we can turn our attention to determining what conditions need to be met.

The natural life of a wild animal is rarely the idyllic picture that Disney, your parents, and some animal rights advocates would like you to believe. Nature is harsh and unforgiving, and most wild animals live very difficult lives. They are almost always inundated with fleas, ticks, intestinal worms, heartworms, and other parasites. They are plagued by flies and mosquitoes. They spend much of their life without enough food or water, or drinking brackish filthy water. They are often hunted and killed by animals of other species. They are often dominated or attacked by members of their own species over territorial or mating disputes. They are uncomfortably cold and wet or hot most of the time. They are unvaccinated against even the most common diseases and their injuries and illnesses go untreated and are often agonizing and eventually fatal. They are shot, poisoned, leg-trapped, or struck by cars. They are under constant stress and are always held captive by geographic boundaries or other animals’ ranges. They are often bred every season regardles of their health, and many of their offspring die. A wild animal’s life expectancy is generally less than half what it would be in captivity and much of that time is full of fear, stress, and discomfort.

A reasonably well cared-for animal has a very different life: it has ample space without threat of predation. It has clean, fresh water at all times. It is fed high quality balanced meals regularly and given vitamins, supplements, and treats to ensure maximal health. It is kept close to an ideal temperature at all times, and has dry clean bedding. It rarely encounters any parasites. It is given excellent preventative care, and any injury it sustains is treated immediately and pain management is provided. It is exercised regularly and given lots of enrichment so it is not bored. If appropriate it is housed with other compatible animals so it has companionship without risk. It is weighed and bathed. If needed it may receive massage or chiropractic treatments. Many captive animals are never bred, but those that are often are bred at comparatively infrequent intervals and given superlative prenatal care and their offspring have a very high likelihood of surviving. A captive animal’s life expectancy is generally two to three times longer than that of their wild counterparts, and for much more of their lives they are healthy, robust, and comfortable.

The only intrinsic difference between a wild animal and a well-kept animal is that the captive animal has a person dedicated to tending to its every need. If a captive animal were cared for in a manner identical to “nature”, the owner would be arrested for neglect and abuse immediately.

Very few adult humans chose to live a “wild” life. While we value our freedom dearly, we also value health and comfort and convenience. (Humans who value freedom so highly that they forego comfort to live without walls are called “homeless”, and most of us do not consider their choice optimal)

Over the years we have had several animals who came to us at a young age from the wild due to injury or accident whom we have raised as citizens of both worlds. We live far out in the woods and let them come and go at will. Not only did they stay, but also they spent the vast majority of their time lying on the down comforter rather than being outside. The only way I could get them to go act wild is to go out and call them and play with them, and as soon as I went back inside so did they. This is a well known issue in rehabilitation—one must be careful not to let the animal acclimate too much to captivity or they will prefer a comfortable captive life to the wild and will become unreleasable.

Some people argue that captivity is bad and all animals deserve to be wild and captive animals should be freed or eradicated. The point of this post is to honestly and carefully consider that view: animals have lives in captivity that are every bit as rich and full as in the wild, and in general they are longer, healthier, more comfortable, and by any practical criteria better.

Animals do indeed deserve consideration of their interests, and it is unmistakably clear that, if we can look past our preconceptions and biases, captivity is often the very best life to achieve those interests.

Jan 042009

You have entered into a very exciting moral contract with a dog.  It will be a rewarding adventure full of joy and learning, and in all likelihood you will get far more than you give. But it is also a serious lifelong commitment to caring for another being. While that commitment has many components, one of the first questions you need to consider is safety: how will you at all times keep your pet safe while providing him with a rich and full life.


People imagine that animals are like Disney characters, but they are not–your pet does not know about our laws or technology or the consequences of his actions. He does not know that we think killing cats or sheep is wrong or that using teeth to communicate is unacceptable. He does not know that ethylene glycol is toxic, or chocolate or raisins or xylitol or… He does not know that if he eats a sock he will impact. He does not know that people intruding on his territory need to be tolerated most of the time. He cannot make good decisions on his own.  He will get into trouble in every way you can imagine and in many ways that you cannot.  He has instincts and fears that can override almost any training, and in the wrong situation he will bite someone. It is your job to keep him safe even when unexpected events occur, and even when his actions work against you.  Remember that other people will do things that make little sense—they will stick their hands into your car to pet your barking dog, they will let their kids run up and jump on your dog, they will trespass. They will steal your dog or poison him. They will set him free for his own good. Think of it like defensive driving—assume there are evil crazy people out there trying to get your dog to bite them. And assume that if he ever injures someone he will be blamed no matter how absurd their actions were.  I am not being cynical, and none of this may occur in your life, but you need to be prepared for any of these occurrences.


Any time you go anywhere, survey the area for potential hazards—wild animals, people, horses, cars, trains, broken glass, rattlesnakes, mushrooms, foxtails, fire, birds, yellow-jackets, whatever.  Then be unwaveringly vigilant for approaching distractions or hazards. Learn to keep one eye on your animal at all times and one ear out for hazards.  Expect the unexpected—assume that at any moment a loud noise could frighten your animal, or a rabbit could run across his path, or another dog could come running up to play or fight.  Imagine anything that could happen and have a plan!


Anytime he is unattended at home be sure his environment is safe.  Again, anticipate the unexpected.  Can he open a window and jump out, can he get to and eat anything, is there any chance of someone entering the house when you are not there. Does he have a collar on that could get caught on something? If you cannot make the environment safe at a particular moment, use a crate or a secure enclosure.  Look carefully at every fence, gate, door, window, etc. for any potential for egress. Never rely on other people to close gates or respect unlocked doors. Imagine anything that could happen and have a plan.


This may sound impossible—people are not perfect, and sooner or later you will miss something, and disaster will strike. And it may sound onerous.  But in truth it is possible and relatively painless—it simply requires that you practice processes and habits of vigilance, and it soon becomes second nature and unconscious—good parents do it regularly, as do pilots and surgeons and drivers and…


Even as years go by and you come to trust your dog deeply, never allow yourself to become complacent.  The most common words after a dog related tragedy are almost certainly, “He never did that before…” You always need to anticipate what could happen next which may never have happened before. Habitual vigilance takes very little effort, so cultivate the habit and keep your dog safe.


You may notice that I advise vigilance not avoidance.  This is a very important distinction because almost as often as people fail to keep their dogs safe they overprotect them into illness and boredom or simply make themselves and their pet miserable.   You cannot avoid all risk for your pet—his life should be fun and rich and rewarding, and almost everything you do will introduced an element of risk—going for a drive, playing with other animals, running in the woods, chewing on a stick, eating raw food, everything fun is also somewhat dangerous.  And you should not live in fear or avoid doing fun things with your animal.  You should simply be aware—always be mindful and make the choices consciously.  Decide, with full awareness, which rewards are worth the attendant risks, and never endanger your dog carelessly or take his safety for granted.

 January 4, 2009  Posted by at 3:51 am Tagged with: , , ,