Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh Yeah!
Fueled by a desire to be different or by an appetite for status
(dogs and cats are so last century), some local residents are
bringing exotic animals into their homes—and lives
By Karen Gardner
Photography by Terry Goodman
When Jane was mulling over buying a pet cat, none of the usual breeds pushed her buttons. Ordinary cats—Persian, Burmese, Abyssinian, Russian Blue, even Siamese—seemed so, well, ordinary. Jane, who requested that her full name and town not be revealed, wanted a cat with more presence, more oomph—“the ultimate cat,” she called it—something that would stand out in a crowd of felines. She wanted a cat that brought to mind a Jaguar, not a Chevrolet.
She found what she was looking for when she saw a picture of a savannah. A rare hybrid between a serval, a breed of African wildcat that grows to as large as 40 pounds, and short-haired domestic cats such as the Bengal, the exotic savannah is a sort of super housecat that has the striking appearance of its wild progenitors, but without the complications of owning a truly big cat.
Jane was not put off by a savannah’s SUV-sized price tag—about $6,000 for a cat that is half serval. “When I saw the savannah’s stunning markings, I knew I’d found a special cat that was in no way ordinary,” says Jane.
I paid a visit to Jane’s home near Long Island Sound to find out why someone would plunk down enough money for a nice Mediterranean cruise for two on a rare cat. At seven months of age, Simba, the name Jane chose for her new companion, was already far bigger than an average house cat, weighing about 20 pounds (mature savannahs tip the scales at 25 pounds) and looking like a super-sized kitten. His sleek form moved with grace and agility. His golden-orange coat looked stunning, high-lighted by the black stripes running down the back of his head to his shoulders and around his legs, along with the spots known as rosettas along his back and flanks.
Settling down by my side, Simba won me over easily as he sniffed me and invited me to scratch him. Jane showed little concern as her preschool-aged son played and snuggled with Simba, at one point kissing the animal on the nose. “As much love as you can give them, they give it right back,” said Jane.
For some animal lovers, owning a pet dog or cat, even a pure-bred animal with a pedigree as long as your arm, just isn’t enough. Fueled by a desire to be different, a hunger for status, or a genuine love of wild things, more Americans are bringing exotic pets—defined by veterinarians as any house pet other than a dog or cat—into their homes, whether it’s a Savannah, a python, an iguana, a chinchilla, a ferret, a macaw, an angelfish or another wild or wooly creature. While no precise statistics exist, anecdotal evidence suggests that an increasing number of Westchesterites are sharing their lives and homes with an assortment of exotic animals.
Take Talbott and John Grimm of South Salem. They have an old English Setter, but when their children clamored for a pet to play with, they opted for a pair of African Pygmy goats. “They live outside, and the kids just love them,” says Talbott. “The goats chase them around, play with them—they’re wonderful pets.”
John Pisciotta, a veterinarian and partner at the Rye-Harrison Veterinary Hospital, says that treating exotic species now accounts for half of his workload. “I’m treating a lot more exotics than ever before and seeing a wider variety of both species and pet owner.” Sure enough, during my visit to Dr. Pisciotta’s office, I met Paco the chinchilla, Sabrina the ferret, and an assortment of reptiles, including a bearded dragon, a pancake tortoise, and a Brazilian rainbow boa. And that was just during an hour-long appointment.
Exotic pet owners range from ordinary soccer moms who’ve adopted their kids’ pet snakes to multi-millionaire hedge-fund founder Michael Steinhardt, whose 60-acre Mount Kisco estate houses a collection of 30 to 40 species of rare animals, including camels, zebras, a variety of antelope and deer, spider monkeys, ring-tailed lemurs, marmosets, servals, caracao cats, kangaroos and wallabies, in addition to many types of birds. “It’s a wonderful open place where animals mostly get along and live a peaceful existence,” Steinhardt explains. “My animals give me great joy.” Steinhardt employs a caretaker who lives on the grounds to help with his exotic pets. He estimates that his animals’ feed, upkeep and vet bills cost him at least $150,000 a year—a pittance for a man whose estimated net worth is around $500 million.
Of course, you don’t have to run a hedge fund to afford an exotic pet. Petra Vroman, a credit analyst who recently moved from Somers to Florida, NY, bought her ferrets Sabrina and Sebastian six years ago for only $600, including cages and other necessities. She and her husband, Tom, both worked during the day and a ferret’s daily schedule seemed to complement her own. “We didn’t want to leave a dog or cat crated all day,” she explains. “Ferrets sleep during the day, so it didnt seem like punishment leaving them in their cages. They’re smart and mischevious and a lot of fun. They were the perfect pet for us.”
But as the animals have aged and grown, so have the Vromans’ vet bills. Ferrets don’t normally live longer than 10 years; Sebastian died last year, and Sabrina is now prone to a variety of physical problems, which will be costly to treat. For example, the ferret recently required minor surgery to remove a hairball lodged in its intestine, at a cost of $681. “Exotics are interesting and wonderful pets, but people should do research before adopting one,” advises Vroman.
Doing your homework is essential when considering the purchase of an exotic pet. Unlike a dog or a cat, even relatively garden-variety exotic pets, like guinea pigs and rabbits, come with all sorts of unexpected costs and require special care and considerations, according to veterinarians. For example, many exotic mammals, such as ferrets, chinchillas, and sugar gliders, are nocturnal. Rodents, including rabbits, guinea pigs, and chinchillas, have teeth that never stop growing and often need filing, at a cost of $25 or more a pop. Many reptiles need to be kept under ultraviolet light, and all require heating to help their cold-blooded bodies stay warm. And birds, particularly larger birds like parrots, frequently squawk and scream as part of their normal communication. (And, since parrots frequently live 60 years or more, you’d better spell out who will inherit Polly in your will.)
“A lot of people get exotic pets and find they’ve bit off more than they can chew,” says Jim Breheny, the general curator for the Bronx Zoo. (The zoo’s World of Reptiles has a telephone recording noting that it cannot accept animals from overwhelmed pet owners.) Other unwanted exotics, especially rabbits and ferrets, wind up at the Elmsford Animal Shelter. The shelter receives so many unwanted pet rabbits that it now distributes a special sheet to inform potential bunny owners about their special care and feeding.
Kristin Pungello, the owner of a South American lizard known as a tegu, obtained her pet when a friend called to ask her help in rescuing the reptile—it had been abandoned in the bathroom of the restaurant where her friend worked. Pungello nursed the black-and-white reptile, which can grow to as long as four feet and weigh 40 pounds at maturity, back to health and named her Philomena.
That was five years ago. Pungello, a junior at Purchase College who works at a pet store in Scarsdale and has her own small pet-sitting business, dotes on Philomena. (She also owns two dogs, five geckos, a ball python, and five small Chilean rodents known as degus.) In fact, Pungello was recently told by her vet to put Philomena on a diet.
“He is like my baby, so I would feed him whenever I ate,” she says. “But reptiles don’t need to eat as often as humans do.”
According to veterinarian Paul Raiti of the Beverlie Animal Hospital in Mount Vernon, poor nutrition and lack of a proper environment are at the core of the majority of health issues for exotics.
“With a lot of lizards and even some tortoises, I see metabolic bone disease, which is the reptile equivalent of osteoporosis in humans,” says Raiti, who also pens a monthly column, “Help My Herp,” for the publication The Keeper. “The animals don’t get enough ultraviolet light, which they need to keep their bones strong.”
Acquiring an exotic pet has become more difficult in recent years, especially in the wake of notorious incidents such as the arrest of Antoine Yates, the New York City man who made headlines last year when it was discovered he was keeping a 400-pound pet tiger named Ming in his fifth-floor Harlem apartment, together with an alligator named Al. “It wasn’t like a sideshow pet; the cat was like my brother,” Yates explained to reporters after he, Ming, and Al were evicted by city public housing authorities. (Before you complain to your neighbor about the strange growls emanating from his home or apartment, consider this: the federal government in 2003 estimated that 15,000 big cats, including lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, and others, were owned by Americans outside of accredited zoos—a 500 percent increase in just six years.)
That year Congress passed the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which prohibits the interstate trade and importation of big cats as pets. “While beautiful, big cats are special creatures with special needs, they need to be properly taken care of by professionals,” says U.S. Representative Jose E. Serrano, D-NY, an advocate of the year-old Federal ban. “They do not belong in human homes.”
Meanwhile, Governor George Pataki signed a bill late last year prohibiting the ownership, trade, sale, exchange or import of a number of exotic wild animals, including big cats, monkeys, venomous snakes, and other large reptiles. Introduced in 2001, the bill had languished in Albany until the uproar over the Yates incident provided new incentives for the legislature to act. “Wild animals are just that—wild. And while they are impressive creatures, the danger they pose in an unprotected environment is great,” said State Senator Carl Marcellino, a co-sponsor of the bill.
Anyone already owning a proscribed animal is grandfathered under the new law, but there are strings attached. “Current owners will have to register the animal with
the Department of Environmental Conservation, obtain an $80 permit, and demonstrate that it is legal for them to own the animal in their locality and that they can care for their pet in an environment appropriate for the animal,” explains Deborah Peck Kelleher, director of the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee.
Fortunately for Jane, Simba and other savannahs are not affected by the recent change in state law. “Simba’s our house cat, and he’s a wonderful companion,” Jane says. While other folks might call the savannah exotic, she considers Simba a regular member of the family.
Karen Gardner, who lives in Pelham Manor, last wrote about cycling in the September 2004 issue.