Zoos slam door on exotic pets looking for homes

July 17, 1995|By Douglas Birch | Douglas Birch,Sun Staff Writer

There is no room at the reptile house.

Neither is there space for all the hedgehogs, macaws, lions and piranhas that owners are trying to unload on zoos and aquariums.

Once, many zoos would accept exotic creatures. Now, many Americans own wild animals, and more are looking to get rid of them. Zoo policies and practices have changed. Getting your zebra into the zoo may be harder than getting your child into Princeton.

"People think: 'What a wonderful ending' -- to have their pet iguana come down to live in our rain forest here," said Jack Cover, curator of the rain forest exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "They think their pets will live happily ever after."

But he rarely accepts animals. "We'd have to have two or three warehouses to handle the donations we get calls on," he said. Owners plead and cajole, but are almost always turned down. "They really seem to get upset with you," he said.

Steve Bircher, curator of mammals at the St. Louis Zoo, said that "zoos were once not as restrictive as they are now." Instead of indiscriminately collecting animals, zoo officials said, they're looking to shelter endangered species or animals that fit into geographic exhibits. Or they're looking for animals of known pedigree, with documented health histories, for breeding programs.

The Baltimore Zoo's traveling collection of animals, called ZooLab, contains a large number of donated former pets -- including a couple of monitor lizards, a blue-and-gold macaw named Paco and a bull python. But the collection is crammed into the basement of the zoo's administrative building.

"Right now, I am at my peak here," said Jennifer A. Kureen, ZooLab's keeper. "I am full."

Placement seems especially tough for the owners of large snakes. Zookeepers in Maryland and around the country say they get a steady stream of offers of pythons and boa constrictors, and routinely turn them down.

"I've been offered probably one or two boas and pythons a week," said a spokesman for the National Zoo in Washington. "That's more than I've ever been offered before."

Exotic pet ownership appears to be booming in the United States. Despite stricter international controls on the wildlife trade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that wild animal shipments to this country rose from 45,000 in 1980 to 70,000 in 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available. During the same period, the value of those shipments increased from $500 million to $820 million.

"A lot of it is the pet trade," said A. B. Wade, spokeswoman for the service. Those figures don't include animals smuggled illegally or an increasing number of captive-bred animals.

Pet owners who call zoos say they want the animals to get top-notch care, and they often hope to retain visitation rights. The owner of Paco, ZooLab's raucous macaw, donated the bird more than a decade ago and recently paid him a call.

But such happily-ever-after stories are rare, especially for very large and potentially dangerous animals -- such as lions or cougars.

"If they can't dump the animal off on the nearest zoo, humane society or whatever, then they sell it privately, and the animal goes from one poor situation to the next," said Mr. Bircher of the St. Louis Zoo. "Then the new owners find they can't handle it, can't keep it any better than anybody else."

Animals are shunted from place to place. "They don't receive proper medical treatment or nutrition," he said. "I see it and hear about it all the time."

People try to dump exotic animals for many reasons. Often, the novelty of keeping an armadillo around the house wears off. Perhaps there's been a divorce, and no one wants the monitor lizards in the basement. Maybe junior is headed for college, leaving his turtles and snakes behind.

Some pet owners wake up one day and realize that their cute little critter is growing up to be a big, nasty wild animal. Bruce Hecker of the National Aquarium said he frequently gets offers of nurse sharks, sometimes sold in pet stores as 8-inch-long juveniles. The relatively docile but razor-toothed fish can reach 14 feet in length.

L There are, of course, at least 50 ways to leave your lizard.

A few enterprising owners smuggle them directly into zoo exhibits. Curators at the National Aquarium were surprised to find an unfamiliar terrapin turtle swimming around in the salt marsh exhibit several years ago. Owners of iguanas occasionally sneak the fierce-looking lizards into the aquarium's rooftop rain forest.

Several iguana were sick and "couldn't even move," Mr. Cover said. "Their bones were like rubber." Some had to be destroyed.

Keepers have also found a pet parrot and a pet cockateel, at different times, flitting among the rain forest's foliage. Both birds were netted and put in quarantine: They might have carried diseases that could have wiped out the exhibit's other fowl.

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