Cat Scratch Fever

People acquire exotic animals in a variety of ways—through networks of friends and like-minded collectors, publications, and even zoos. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums provides accreditation to nearly all big-city zoos, yet, say critics, most are underfunded and overcrowded. Besides that, they tend to rotate their populations according to what the public most wants to see, tending toward the new and spectacular. The unpopular or otherwise unsuitable stock ends up going through the back door and into the hands of private sellers, or worse, international body-part traffickers. Conversely, the AZA has been adamant about not accepting animals that have been raised by private parties. Testifying before the House of Representatives, AZA board member Eric Miller explained, “This type of breeding decreases the genetic viability of the species and increases the risk of tainted bloodlines getting into American zoological collections and possibly wild populations.”

And so there exist dual castes of wild-animal ownership, forever separate, but often with similar objectives. As one observer who owns and works with servals and cheetahs put it, “We’d all rather see these animals in the wild.” But as the jungle and savannah disappear, “captivity is necessary to save them.”

The web serves as a veritable exotic-pet store. Sites like Gotpetsonline.com contain countless ads for sugar gliders and hedgehogs, along with the latest fashionable exotics like binturongs, coatimundis, lemurs, kinkajous (the enviable breed that bit Paris Hilton), Patagonian cavies, fennec foxes, genets, red pandas, and wallabies. Click down far enough and out come coyotes, musk oxen, camels, elephants, zebras and, incredibly, dingoes and seals.

Searching online is also a good way for a reporter to get her hands on elusive, publicity-shy exotic-pet owners. One ad, which read, “I am looking for a tiger of any breed, male or female. It will be very well taken care of and treated with the hospitality and respect that I believe these beautiful animals deserve,” led to “Georgette” in Texas. On the phone, Georgette had an ethereal voice and dreamy demeanor. She dozily sketched out her vision of a country haven for feral cats and other creatures that would live as peacefully as Elsa, the lion in the ’60s movie Born Free. “I just thought it would be cool, you know, to have a cub to lie around with,” she said. She hoped to buy a small farmhouse in her hometown. Her utopian vision included a barn where tigers would roam freely, depending, of course, on their personalities. “There’s a comfort level with animals and [they wouldn’t need cages] as long as they didn’t reach out past the boundary,” she explained.

The Animal Finder’s Guide is the oldest and most highly regarded resource for the private exotic-animal trade. It’s a simple, newsprint catalog sold only through the mail and published eighteen times per year. What it lacks in visual sophistication, it generously supplies in unalloyed, pornographic abundance. On the first page was an ad for a USDA-licensed zoo in Ohio that was going out of business. For $2,800, a lucky buyer could own three tigers, a bear, a coyote, a timber wolf, and two mountain lions. “All are hand raised and pettable,” read the ad, but just in case, a tranquilizer gun was included in the deal.

Another ad offered five free tigers. “I need to make room,” explained Tim, when reached by phone at his home in Indiana. Tim has dedicated three of his eight acres to twelve tigers, two leopards, a cougar, four bobcats, a serval, two ocelots, a binturong, a wallaby, and several hawks and owls. When asked whether three acres wasn’t, perhaps, a little cozy for all those animals, Tim clarified: “What they fucking like and what they fucking get are two different things.”

Quite a bit more, ah, practical than Georgette, Tim has a USDA license, though he’s not sure which type. “I don’t know and I don’t give a shit. I think I have a class B, whatever the fuck that is.” Were the inspections to get the license tough to pass? “It depends. The first inspector was some little faggot who tried real hard to find citations. All he could come up with was something about how I stored my brooms and shovels. He was just trying to show his fucking power.”

Given the regulations, the potential physical danger, and the sheer expense of feeding the animals (local sheriffs tip Tim off to road-killed deer), one has to wonder why he keeps such a large collection. “Because I love animals,” he said. “I think the business is fucked up. If [the government] would regulate it right, they’d make money. Not everybody should be allowed, though. They should attend husbandry courses. There should be registration for every animal. Housing, for example, should be specific: cage size, type of floor … ” Though Tim takes in rescues from “scumbags” who don’t properly care for their animals, he has no plans to stop breeding his own tigers in order to fight overpopulation. Of a particular male tiger, he said, “I’m not gonna knock the nuts off. I love dealing with the babies.”

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