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Wild Animals Are Not Pets

Julie Burris paid $1,800 for a nine-week-old black leopard. She thought it was cute and friendly until the day it attacked her and ripped her head open. (Warning: the video above has graphic images of her stitched-together head around the 1:40 mark.) Burris's story, which she recently told to CNN, ...

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Julie Burris paid $1,800 for a nine-week-old black leopard. She thought it was cute and friendly until the day it attacked her and ripped her head open. (Warning: the video above has graphic images of her stitched-together head around the 1:40 mark.) Burris's story, which she recently told to CNN, isn't unique.



This is a pet

This is not a pet (courtesy of flickr user skipnclick)





There was the 10-year-old girl last year who was attacked by a pet mountain lion. The chimpanzee in Connecticut that mauled his owner's friend, leaving her severely disfigured. The Harlem man whose tiger and alligator were discovered in his apartment in 2003 after he went to the hospital for a "pit bull" bite. They're all lucky to be alive, though. A Pennsylvania woman died last year after being attacked by her "pet," a 350-pound black bear she raised from a cub.



In most U.S. states, private ownership of large exotic animals, such as big cats and primates, is not illegal. But unlike with domesticated cats and dogs, putting a wild animal in a home, even raising it by hand from a newborn, does not make it a pet. They are still wild animals, as the stories above tell.



Domestication is a process that occurs over many generations of animals. Over time—a lot of time in most cases—undesirable traits are bred out of a species. Even then, those animals often retain the ability to maim and kill. Four and half million people are bitten by dogs each year in the United States. And my cat frequently reminds me that she is not fully domesticated, despite a 10,000-year history of cats living with humans; I can show you the scars.



Animal behaviorist Louis Dorfman writes:

An exotic cat is an evolutionary marvel of reactions and instincts, together with a strong will. They can never be tamed in the sense we normally associate with that word. They are strongly affected by any source of stimulation, and it affects their mood and reactions. The degree of their reactions to any stimulus is also much greater than the response we would consider appropriate by our standards. These factors are crucial to understanding what must be known in order to safely be in contact with these beings on a regular basis. If one attempts to control the cat's actions, and the cat considers you a source of agitation at a time when it is already excited, nervous or already agitated, the cat may well attack or strike out at you. The fact that you raised it will not matter. Sound like it can be domesticated?


Similar things can be said about any large exotic animal. Bears, chimpanzees, lions, leopards: When they get big enough to kill you, they can kill you. That instinct never goes away.



But even if that danger is not enough to convince people to pass over these animals, there is the difficulty of caring for such a large animal. The tiger in Harlem was confined to an apartment; the neighbor below complained of urine leaking into her home. There's the story of Lucy, a chimpanzee raised by humans and taught sign language; she grew uncontrollable that her "parents" thought it best she be released to the wild, where she was likely killed by poachers. These animals require plenty of space and food and medical care; what makes anyone think they'd make good pets?
About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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