my pet cheetah: the exotic animal problem

my pet cheetah: the exotic animal problem

When reading or engaging in discussions about animal welfare, human-wildlife conflict, or zoonotic disease, things can become emotionally-charged very quickly.
For this article, I recommend using an indica to help keep you focused yet calm and emotionally-regulated. Grinding less than 50mg of indica (much less than 1/4 of a 1g bud) and then smoking just a small pinch of that once or twice over a 3-5hr period is perfect for maintaining a calm state of mind when studying socially-, emotionally-, and even politically-challenging concepts.
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Original Publication Date: November 16, 2015

In my most recent shift at work, during one of our fireside conversations, one of our students brought up the legality of owning exotic animals. He mentioned that, in some Middle Eastern countries, it is perfectly legal, even normal, for people to own wild animals like cheetahs as “pets.”

The nonchalant tone he took in speaking on this topic triggered the surfacing of memories of the Animal Planet show, Fatal Attractions. Shaking my head, I said quietly, “That is not good…”

The students and one of my co-staff questioned me, justifying the ownership of such an animal by the fact that it wasn’t against the law. That got me thinking:

Just because we can own wild animals, does that mean we should

​31 states in the US enforce either a full or partial ban on the ownership of exotic animals. Under a full ban, private ownership of any exotic animal (“nondomesticated felines, wolves, bears, reptiles, non-human primates”) is forbidden, while a partial ban prohibits only some animals.

This is, on average, specific to animals that are “potentially dangerous,” typically restricted to large carnivores (Felids, Ursids, and Canids) and venomous animals. The remaining 19 states simply require a license, or worse, hold no restrictions on ownership of wild animals. 

According to some people (including me), if something is illegal, then you shouldn’t do it. According to others, legal or illegal… meh. 

Photo by Tamara Gore on Unsplash

Currently, there are more tigers in captivity within the United States than there are in the wild (approximately 5000 versus an estimated 3200).

Only 6% of them are located in facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) – this includes some zoos, wildlife rescues, sanctuaries, etc. The animals which are in private possession for such purposes as exhibition at roadside zoos, breeding and more, are attained primarily via the illegal wildlife trade, an international, multi-million dollar industry.

So, clearly, not only is stricter regulation is a necessity, but so is a worldwide wake-up call: 

It’s time to start taking the ethics and science of “domestication” into account. 

“We all know that individual animals can be trained to exist in close contact with humans. A tiger cub fed by hand, imprinting on its captors, may grow up to treat them like family. But that tiger’s offspring, at birth, will be just as wild as its ancestors. Domestication, by contrast, is not a quality trained into an individual, but one bred into an entire population through generations of living in proximity to humans. Many if not most of the species wild instincts have long since been lost. Domestication, in other words, is mostly in the genes.”

Ratliff, 2011

More than 50 years ago, Dmitry Belyaev began an experimental breeding project which aimed to recreate tens of thousands of years of domestication using foxes taken from fur farms. Based on their study, Lief Andersson, geneticist at Uppsala University, concluded that it wasn’t humans that initiated the process of domestication, but the animals themselves.

Photo by guille pozzi on Unsplash

Animals that are naturally “predisposed to human contact” – less afraid of humans – are more likely than others to be domesticated. Their inclination to welcome human interaction, or proximity, at the very least, kick-started the process of domestication, and we humans continued it when we took the reins with artificial selection.

I’m sure there are some that, upon reading this, will think of all the news reports of mountain lions, tigers, deer, etc. travelling into human territory. Those are not natural occurrences. Those normally reclusive animals are being forced to interact with us because of detrimental human activity – destruction of and encroachment on their natural habitat.

Their consequential interaction with us is not a naturally-occurring catalyst to their potential domestication – they don’t have a choice.

Jared Diamond, in his book Guns, Germs and Steel, specifies six characteristics of a domesticate-able animal:

1. Cannot be a picky eater.
2. Reach maturity quickly.
3. Willing to breed in captivity.
4. Docile by nature.
5. Cannot have a strong tendency to panic and flee.
6. Conform to social hierarchy.

Well, that rules out a lot of animals – the last three especially.

In terms of “cute” hooved animals, it’s no secret that deer and antelope are extremely skittish. If they’re not dumbfounded in the path of your headlights, they’re bolting away from you after you’ve spooked them with a non-threatening gesture. It’s less of a “strong” tendency – more like their only tendency when interacting with humans.


Chart Of Cannabinoids Print – 18×24

Even zebras, a common focal species in the question of why certain wild animals remain un-domesticated, are spooked by the most nonthreatening things. Get a warthog walking through tall grass you’ve got a chunk of the herd running and whinnying. (This and their highly aggressive behavior are among the primary reasons zebras are not able to be domesticated.)

A sort of unexpected example of this trait would be black bears, probably the least aggressive yet most panicky North American bear. Some say that this bear will more quickly run away than defend its cubs from an approaching human (take that with a grain of salt).

So, those animals have violated rule #5.

Big cats, one of the most popular exotic pets in the US, are typically solitary. The only cat that lives in an organized, social structure is the African lion. The others don’t take too kindly to being ordered around by any other cats, much less kept in cages by puny, hairless two-legged creatures that would barely come out to one full meal.

If you’re not Kevin Richardson (who even had quite a few bad experiences himself), do you really want to try to begin the centuries-long process of domestication in a tiger (the biggest living cat, the Siberian tiger topping at almost 700 lbs), an African lion (about 400 lbs), or any other big cat?

Sorry my friend, but big cats violate rule #6.

Docile by nature? When thinking of almost any large carnivores, this trait is laughable. One particular example that comes to mind is the wolf-dog. Wolves, like any carnivore, are extremely unforgiving animals in the establishment of hierarchies, hunting/feeding, and basically anything that has to do with surviving. For them, to survive is to be the exact opposite of docile.

These animals, unlike the aforementioned black bear, will defend themselves if they are threatened, cornered, etc. Does it really sound like a good idea to have a wolf in your household, even if it is cross-bred with a domesticated species? Even though, genetically, it may have a head start in the process of domestication, half of it will always be this.

Your pet leopardchimpanzee, or cheetah will always revert to its wild instincts that have been cemented by years and years of evolution. They simply cannot adhere to rule #4.

Photo by Ryan Gerrard on Unsplash

There is absolutely no reason to own a wild animal outside of the desire to “look cool.” It is damaging to the safety of the human, the individual animal, and does nothing to contribute to the persistence of the species overall.

All such an ownership accomplishes is the restriction of a once free-roaming animal to a relatively tiny cage in a backyard, often in a country they would have never seen otherwise.

No matter the home environment, no matter the owner, no matter the state or country, the animal always loses in the end. The human who thought he/she could tame a wild cat, dog or bear inevitably gets fatally injured or even killed, and the animal loses its life as a result.

I’ve heard of folks who believe that since we were given dominion over this world’s wildlife, that we can do with it whatever we like. I believe it is actually the opposite. Good stewardship of wildlife requires that we look past our own desires and be responsible in our decision-making when it so directly affects the welfare of other living beings.

I would love to have a tiger. Heck, I would love to have an axolotl and name it “Toothless.” (How to Train Your Dragon… one of my favorite movies.) But owning either one of these animals would ultimately do nothing to contribute to the persistence of their already-suffering species and severely decrease their quality of life.

If you or anyone you know has ever considered owning an exotic animal as a pet, I encourage you to think more deeply about it. Don’t sacrifice an animal’s life for the sake of impressing other people.

Wild animals don’t want to hurt you. The thing is, we humans often put them in situations where they feel they have to – purely out of fear, surprise, defense, or a natural inability to conform to human authority. Checkout this list of big cat incidences from the HSUS.


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