Animals Pay When People Desire Exotic Pets

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The animals at Southwest Wildlife's sanctuary and rehabilitation center seem content enough in their spacious enclosures, sleeping on tree branches, sunning themselves on large rocks or digging in the mud.

A closer look, however, reveals painful pasts that led many of the animals here after they were kept as pets.

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Daniel Marchand holds an alligator snapping turtle on March 30, 2007, at the Phoenix Herpetological Society in Scottsdale. Exotic pets, which are illegal in Arizona without a permit, often become too much for owners and wind up at sanctuaries. Many suffer from improper care and feeding.

A mountain lion walks gingerly, because its claws have been removed. Some bobcats are missing claws and canine teeth. Another mountain lion, shorter than normal, suffered metabolic bone disease, causing three of his legs to break, because it was fed so poorly.

"It's sad, because all of it is avoidable," said Linda Searles, director of the center. "They should have never lost their freedom."

These animals, which were bred to become pets or plucked from the wild, eventually became too much for their owners or were confiscated.

State law prohibits keeping exotic animals without a permit, but that hasn't prevented people from owning cobras in Kingman, crocodiles in Tucson and piranhas in a Valley aquarium.

"We get calls every week from people wanting to give up everything from lions to bobcats," Searles said.

Many of the former pets that arrive at her facility are sick, injured or will sit and sway back and forth, because they had been kept in a cage that was too small, Searles said. Others will bite themselves or chew on their limbs out of boredom.

"These animals are very intelligent and sometimes if they aren't given enough stimulation, it leads to self-mutilation or other factors," Searles said.

Strong state laws in Arizona have kept ownership of exotic pets down, but lately the Internet has played a role in easing trade across borders, said Nicole Paquette, a researcher at the California-based Animal Protection Institute.

"Not only has it helped raise the attraction of keeping an exotic pet, but it has made it easier to learn where you can find these animals," Paquette said.

Four years ago, a Phoenix woman bought a baby mountain lion cub over the Internet to keep as a pet in her home. It was only when neighbors spotted her taking the cat for a walk, that authorities were alerted and the animal was sent to Southwest Wildlife.

In Arizona, the majority of animals that are confiscated from pet owners are reptiles, followed by small mammals such as raccoons and skunks, said Jay Cook, a law enforcement supervisor for the Arizona Department of Game and Fish.

"I wouldn't say that it's a huge amount, but it is a problem," Cook said. "It does happen, and a lot goes on that we don't even know about."

Many of the state's confiscated reptiles end up at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, a sanctuary built in Daniel Marchand's Scottsdale backyard. It currently houses more than 40 alligators, crocodiles and caimans and several types of venomous snakes, Gila monsters, monitors, snapping turtles and lizards.

"There's no limit to what people will keep as pets," Marchand said.

He said every year the society takes in approximately 125 non-native, venomous snakes. It also takes in as many as three alligators a month, he said.

"There are plenty of people out there who feel they are above the law and feel they have the right to have these things," Marchand said. "We already have 13 species of rattlesnakes that live here. We don't need any more venomous snakes on the loose."

Many of these reptiles are destined for a life in captivity, because they either are not native to the U.S. or have become too used to humans to be released, Marchand said.

Former pets that cannot return to the wild have placed a strain on sanctuaries with limited space and funding, said Vernon Weir, director of the Las Vegas-based American Sanctuary Association.

"Everyone is aware that there are too many dogs and cats in shelters," Weir said. "But the same problem exists with other species. In many states, it's still legal to own a tiger, a bear, even an alligator. And they are abandoned all the time."

Nick Derene, general curator for the Heritage Park Zoological Sanctuary in Prescott, said the biggest challenge for sanctuaries is finding places for animals that can't go back into the wild.

A third of the animals at Derene's zoo come from the pet trade, including a tiger named Samson who is so used to people he'll rub on his fence like a cat when a keeper approaches.

"Most nonprofits are only scraping by on donations," Derene said. "There are nowhere near enough places for them to go."

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