New Yorkers love their exotic pets, but they can cause a lot of havoc

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The masked bandit chased the lady into her candy store and cornered her behind the gum drops and Tootsie Rolls. Fortunately, she grabbed a broom, and at precisely the right moment, a customer opened the door and the storekeeper chased the intruder out onto the street where he hightailed it for about 75 feet , turned a corner -- and ran up a tree.m

The Emergency Unit of the New York City Police Department tried every means at their disposal, including a dart-gun tranquilizer, to take the culprit into custody. They finally had to call the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals for assistance. The ASPCA got the raccoon down without further trouble.

Similar incidents -- involving so-called "exotic pets" from pythons to pigs -- are taking place with all too much regularity in the city these days, according to Fern Goldfeder, chief spokesman for the ASPCA here.

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Officer Jack Cipolla at the police department's Emergency Service Unit traces New Yorkers' affinity for these not-so-playful "pets" to the "desire have something different than a dog or cat." But what people fail to realize, he says , is that the keeping most exotic pets is illegal in New York, and can be dangerous.

The practice also is cruel to the animals, affirms ASPCA's Goldfeder, who explains that both wild animals and more-docile farm animals are accustomed to wide-open spaces and are unhappy in the tight quarters of New York City apartments or hotels. This discomfort causes the animals not only to try to break out, but sometimes to lash out at those who try to stop them.

After police or animal-welfare groups recover the animals, the question remains of what to do with them. Officials at the Bronx Zoo, New York's largest , say they have little space for such critters, but occasionally a home is found there.

"It's very rare that we are able to find a home for these exotic pets at the zoo," says James Doherty, chief curator of the Bronx Zoo, one of the nation's largest and considered one of the best by zoologists.

"It's more difficult to find a home for the mammals than it is for the birds, " he continues. "Take monkeys, for example. Often, these are animals that have been around people for years and don't know how to get along on their own. . . . We're very strongly against people keeping exotic annimals as pets. We get calls from people who want them as pets. We will not recommend them, nor will we tell [people] where to get them."

Dr. John Kulberg, executive director of the New York chaper of the ASPCA, says 400 to 500 exotic animals have been turned over to or captured by the ASPCA here in the past year. These range from a Mexican red-legged trantula to a freshwater shark to an African butterfly fish to a "treed lion."

In fact, he adds, "We're finding more and more exotics here in New York and its gotten to be such a problem that we have opened up a special department to handle th em all."

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