The ownership of exotic pets poses a danger to human health, advocates say, and the recent incident in Zanesville, Ohio, highlights the need for strict laws to ban the possession of these animals by ordinary citizens.
Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed an executive order this afternoon cracking down on unlicensed exotic animal auctions, following Tuesday's (Oct. 18) incident in which Terry Thompson, of Zanesville, set loose his menagerie of lions, tigers, bears, monkeys and other animals from their cages before committing suicide. Authorities had little choice but to shoot and kill nearly 50 of the untamed animals before they injured people.
Born Free USA, a nonprofit advocacy organization that strives to end the ownership of wild animals, has documented some 1,500 attacks, escapes and other incidents involving exotic pets since 1990. The organization collects data on where each incident occurred, the type of animal involved and the fate of the animal (whether it was transferred to a zoo, euthanized or returned to its owner).
Born Free has documented 75 human deaths since it began collecting data. But this number and the number of attacks are likely underestimates, the organization said, because it relies on local and national news reports.
Besides deaths and injuries, there's also a chance these animals will transmit deadly infections to humans.
"It's not just about bites, scratches or mauling," said Adam Roberts, executive vice president at Born Free USA. "It's also about disease." Reptiles can carry salmonella bacteria, and monkeys can carry the herpes B virus, both of which can be deadly in humans.
Though he had not yet seen the text of Kasich's order, Roberts said, "It's not just about the auctions and people who sell these animals, it's about the people who keep these animals."
"Nobody should have wild animals," he said. "It's just not worth the risk."
Born Free's database is full of horrible and bizarre events involving exotic pets. On Sunday (Oct. 16), a 4-year-old boy in Texas was mauled by a pet mountain lion kept by his aunt, and hospitalized for his injuries. In September, an 80-year-old man in Ohio was attacked by a 200-pound kangaroo at an exotic animal farm. And in June, a Nebraska man in his 30s was strangled to death by his pet boa constrictor.
Over the last two decades, the number of attacks from exotic pets has been stable, Roberts said. But it's likely that more people are keeping wild animals as pets today than previously because the animals have become easier to acquire, Roberts said.
Monkeys and other primates are more dangerous to people than other exotic pets because of their tendency to bite and scratch, Roberts said. Exotic snakes and reptiles are also particularly dangerous. Born Free has tracked 443 incidents involving exotic reptiles since 1990, the most of any animal group.
Turtles, snakes and other reptiles can be carriers of salmonella. Born Free's database lists eight cases in which young children fell ill after contracting salmonella from an exotic reptile pet. Another case of disease transmission involved a 37-year-old man who contracted the fungal disease blastomycosis after being bitten by his pet kinkajou, a rainforest mammal related to the raccoon.
Opponents argue these pets offer companionship, and the right to own them should not be restricted. "Most of these fatalities are owners, family members, friends and trainers voluntarily on the property where the animals were kept," said Zuzana Kukol, co-founder and president of Responsible Exotic Animals Ownership, or REXANO, a nonprofit organization committed to protecting the rights of animal owners. "These were voluntarily accepted hazards, not a public safety issue."
Owners should take responsibility to properly care for and house their pets, REXANO says. Bans may increase the number of illegal animals and contribute to the number of animals in need of a home, the organization says.
Just what type of wild animal can be kept as a pet varies depending on where you live. Some states, including Iowa and Massachusetts, completely ban the keeping of exotic pets. Some states require owners to have a permit. And others, including Ohio, have little to no regulation at all, Roberts said.
Ohio has seen 86 incidents involving exotic pets over the last two decades, according to Born Free. The state ranks second in terms of the number of incidents that occur per capita (Florida has the most incidents of any state, many involving snakes).
But even states with strict laws, such as California, can have a large number of cases because people break the law, Roberts said.
To find out whether there are exotic animals in your neighborhood or town, Roberts recommended contacting your local law enforcement officials or Born Free, and asking if there are any known wild animal keepers or breeders in the area.
Pass it on: Exotic pets are not safe and should not be kept in homes, advocates say.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.