No rhinos in the basement, please

It was 5:30 A.M. in New York City when Roger Caras was awakened by his daughter: "DAddy, Jackie ate the toilet seat." Getting a new toilet seat wasn't all that difficult, says Mr. Caras, except when it came to explaining the problem to the building superintendent.

"I went down to the superintendent and said, 'You're not going to believe this, Leon, but a mountain lion ate my toilet seat.' He said, "That's all right. I'll send the firaffe up to fix it.' " Mr. Caras pauses for a second, frowns, and says, "I'm not sure he ever believed me."

Then he adds quickly that his family does not keep exotic pets. He explains that his children were bottle-feeding two orphaned cubs for a zoo on a strictly temporary, emergency basis.

Indeed, naturalist Roger Caras is dead set against the "exotic pet" boom in the United States. Over 5,000 people in the country own such wild animals as lions, tigers, pythons, even bison, he says. In addition to being cruel to the animals involved, it's downright dangerous for the owners and the surrounding communities.

"I've worked with big cats all my adult life. I know the attraction of these animals if you're animal lover. When my children had to return the two orphan mountain lions. . . it was heartbreaking, and I understand the passion. But [ trying to raise them as pets] is just a plain dumb idea. I would love to won a mountain lion, I adore the animals. One slept with my daughter when it was three months old -- it slept with its paws around my daughter's neck. We had nine dogs, and it used to run out and play with the dogs and the kids.

"If anybody has a right to own a mountain lion it's me, but I don't. It's not right to my community; I really don't want to spend the amount of money necessary to maintain it in a huge, fully secure enclosure; and I know that one day the animal may have to be disposed of because they do mature. And you can't tame them. Even the cat in bed with my daughter was not tame, it was socialized , and very often that's temporary."

Many people are merely intrigued with the thought of an exotic pet. Others raising lions for instance, persuade themselves that they are doing something that may preserve an endangered species. According to Mr. Caras in nearly all these cases, the people are merely deluding themselves.

"Everybody wants to get up in the morning feeling good about themselves. If someone gets up and says 'Oh, boy, what a bum I am.I've got this lion in a little cage in my basement, and I shouldn't have it; it can't run around, I don't know how to feed it properly, it's alone and should be out with the other lions playing Scrabble and here I've got it in this little box,' that's not good , you can't have a good feeling about yourself doing that. So you say, 'I'm a lion lover, and I am saving this lion from a terrible fate. I'm going to breed it with other lions (someday) and help save a species that's becoming extinct.' And all these people who are doing a terrible thing make up nice excuses.

"Lions are not endangered in the wild, and there's plethora of them in the United States as well -- a lion cub is worth about $15. They overbreed terribly in zoos, and when they're grown, many zoos euthanize them. There's even a restaurant in New York selling lion steak."

He admits, though, that there are cases where individuals are doing some good. For example, Frank Gilbert and Amanda Blake Gilbert (of "Gunsmoke" fame) have raised cheetahs for several years on their estate in Phoenix. But, says Mr. Caras, the lengths to which they're gone only prove how difficult it is for individuals to accomplish anything.

"Amanda and Frank are both totally devoted animal lovers.They have a huge piece of land in Phoenix and were prepared to take a great big orange grove and convert it entirely to this purpose. They put in several hundred thousand dollars worth of security fences, burglar alarms and back-up systems. They have individual water supplies to each enclosure, they were prepared to have a full time staff, prepared to get a federal license to experiment. They are the second private people in history to break the cheetah's breeding code -- it's extrememly complex and requires a number of animals. Now their animals are being dispensed to zoos, and zoos are learning from them."

All too often, though, people buy exotic pets merely to call attention to themselves. Once they actually have the pet, they find it's a bit more difficult than they thought. That's especialy true with snakes, for example.

According to Mr. Caras, venomous snakes are incredibly easy to obtain. They are also far from ideal pets, as some owners or their next of kin can testify. One woman died after being bitten by the pet cobra she allowed to run loose in her home. Ironically, at the time she was showing a magazine writer how safe her pet was.

Another young man was rushed to the hospital when his first venomous snake -- a Siamese cobra purchased from an Ohio pet store which also sold gila monsters, rattlesnakes and copperheads -- bit him while he was playing with it in his bedroom.

Another young man purchased a cobra through the mail, and was bitten two hours after it arrived.

"I don't think any kids, even budding naturalists should play with cobras," says Mr. Caras, who is an expert on venomous animals. "I've handled a lot of cobras in my life. . . . but I think maybe kids should start with garter snakes."

He also cautions against such things as pet tarantulas, although he admits to owning a Mexican red Knee tarantula named Gertrude.

"She's very sweet, she walks all over you and doesn't bite. Tarantulas look as if they're terribly dangerous. In fact their bite is roughly equal to a bee sting, and properly handled they shouldn't bite.

"[But] a person may be allergic to them. They're also a rip-off -- pet stores sell them for $35 and $40. Mine cost 50 cents, which is what the laboratories that use them pay for them.

"People also have to realize that they live for 25 years -- they're not something you can play with for three weeks. they need a certain amount of heat , light, and water, clean quarters and fresh live crickets or cockroaches. And most people get them for the wrong reason, as a gimmick or to scare people. I write books on venomous animals, so I feel I have the right to one tarantula."

Big cats, snakes and tarantulas are only a small fraction of the total exotic pet market, however. The big money is in exotic birds. In fact, the demand is so great that, according to Roger Caras, a person can make more money smuggling birds than smuggling drugs.

"A guy can come in with a shipment of parrots every other day on his private plane or his cabin cruiser to Miami with hyacynthine macaws from South America and he may get $7,000 to $10,000 a bird," says Mr. Caras. "There's no risk, no extraordinary elaborate planning for months with drops and boats and ducking the Coast Guard with the federal government after you, and no middlemen. The way it works out, the smuggler himself can make more money than with dope, and with no risk."

He says even when bird smugglers are caught, the punishment is extremely light.

"You get caught with $350,000 worth of parrots you're going to be fined $5, 000 or get your wrists slapped."

Who gets the smuggled birds?

He shrugs. "Folks. A very small percentage may go to a few zoo directors who are very unprofessional. Most zoo directors won't touch them, but there are a few who do. Then there are pet stores, pet owners, and private collectors."

If smuggling birds presents little risk to the smugglers, it does present a great risk to domestic poultry. Two diseased parrots smuggled into California were responsible for an outbreak of Newcastle disease which led to the slaughter of 12 million chickens at a cost to taxpayers of $56 million.

But when one talks to Roger Caras one senses his concern over exotic pets isn't because of the finances involved, or the illegality of smuggling -- it's the lack of respect for life that he feels is so wrong. That's why, although not a vegetarian, he is a non-hunter.

"I've seen perhaps thousands of elephats and hundreds of lions, but I've never seen one I wanted to kill," he says quietly. "Last year I finally realized a wish I'd long had -- to walk in among a herd of elephants. . . . To have elephants all around you, looking at you, I asked myself why would anyone want to kill one of these things. . . That to me is so foreign, I just don't understand it. IT's like getting your kicks out of going out in the street and knocking down little old ladies."

He says both his love of animals and his yen for travel go back to his childhood in Methuen, Massachusetts, where he had snakes, turtles, cats, Dogs and birds. He also embarked on periodic trips to Africa, India and China.

"My older brother says the overwhelming memory of his childhood was retrieving me," says Mr. Caras. "I left every days for Africa, and always used to walk toward Salem, New Hampshire. I always used to think Africa was in Salem. My family would call the police and a police car would come up along side and a big jolly cop would says, 'Well, it's a long walk, you ought to have something to eat first. Come on, I'll take you home to get some dinner.' So I'd climb into the police car and he'd drive me home. My mother would say, 'where were you going today?' and I'd say, 'Africa.' She'd say, 'that's nice, eat your supper.' "

Now, he says, he's been abroad 37 times, walked among elephant herds in Africa, milked the venom from deadly cobras, and spied on penguins in Antarctica. He's met Joy Adamson (of "Born Free" fame) and Jock and Betty Leslie-melville who raised Rothchild giraffes in Kenya.

"There's a nice story about them," he says as we're about leave. "When the giraffes were young, they would drink powdered milk, but only milk that came from israel, they didn't like any other kind. Betty used to mix it in a little shack that had spaces between the slats, and sometimes she'd try to use other milk instead. She'd look up, there would be this big giraffe eye staring at her through the slats, and if the animal saw her mixing the other milk it wouldn't drink it. She finally used to go in the house, pour the powdered milk into the bag with Hebrew letters on it, then go out and mix it."

He pauses for a second, then adds, "That has to be the only giraffe in the world that reads Hebrew, and it's a Rothchild giraffe."

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