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Press: The call of the wild - ...

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Posted by W von Papinešu on August 17, 2002 at 16:34:02:

THE GUARDIAN (London, UK) 17 August 02 The call of the wild - It might seem odd to the rest of us, but some people like the idea of keeping a dangerous animal at home. So what's the attraction? (Justine Hankins)
Lions, tigers and bears are not exactly pet material. In fact, they're so dangerous and wild that they've got their own act of parliament. The 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act contains a long list of big-clawed, sharp-fanged creatures that require a licence, among them Tasmanian devils, crocodiles and cobras. In 2000, nearly 12,000 animals were licensed under the Act by local authorities in England and Wales - mostly farmed animals such as bison, wild boar and ostrich (and believe you me, you don't want to mess with an angry ostrich).
That said, some of these fearsome beasties are likely to be kept as pets - that same year, 258 venomous snakes were licensed. But exactly how dangerous are such animals? Should we be shutting the windows and bolting the doors?
The RSPCA wants the Act extended to include large constricting snakes such as boas and pythons, but in reality it's hard to separate fact from fear. Snakes are scaly, slithering, creepy-looking things that arouse primal phobias and can inducehysteria in lily-livered individuals. In one incident last year, an RSPCA inspector was called out to find a boa constrictor that had escaped from its cage in a house in Merthyr Tydfil. The inspector later reported that "the neighbours were terrified and would not even go to bed".
No one in this country has actually been crushed to death by a constrictor, but a 2m boa could certainly give you a fright and the RSPCA is nothing if not cautious. "Should we wait for a fatality and then legislate?" asks the society's Niki Austin.
Snake keepers, not surprisingly, sense irrational panic in the air. "It is unfounded hysteria to claim that constrictors are dangerous," says Nick Smith, amateur herpetologist and owner of 27 lizards, one snake, two toads and assorted small mammals. However, he warns that, if the serpentine specimen in question exceeds 3m, you should apply extreme caution and considerable expertise before going anywhere near it.
Many animal organisations, from the respectably establishment RSPCA to the more radical Animal Aid, take a dim view of all "exotic" pets, not just the ones with venom and a firm grip. The RSPCA "does not believe exotic animals make suitable pets", while Animal Aid "wants to see the trade in exotic pets banned on the grounds of animal welfare, conservation and public health".
There are serious concerns about reptiles as pets because, even if they are bred in captivity, they may end up in the hands of inexperienced or ill-informed owners. In 2001, the RSPCA took in 3,489 "exotics" - some were cruelty cases, others were handed in by people who just couldn't cope with them. In one instance, an alligator was found living in a pond-liner in a bedroom; in another, a man paid £20 to a bloke down the pub for something he thought was a lizard but turned out to be a spectacled caiman (one of the crocodile family).
Serious "herpers" are distancing themselves from idiots such as these: the Federation of British Herpeto-logists was established in 1996 "to create and maintain a strong, positive image for private reptile keeping" and "to oppose unwelcome regulation and legislation". Smith has called on herpers to put their house in order: "Every time an unwanted or difficult exotic pet is dumped, a giant python escapes or a badly-run pet shop is closed down, we shoot ourselves in the foot. The fact that most keepers of cold-bloods diligently research their hobby is lost on the public."
No doubt the fur will continue to fly in the debate on "exotic" pets. Meanwhile, if you do see a snake on the loose, try to stay calm and collected. Usually, dogs bite harder.

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