The Tiger Behind the Curtain

An Interview with Forbidden Creatures Author Peter Laufer

This article first appeared in Natural Awakenings, March, 2011.

By Gail Condrick

Peter Laufer, Ph.D., is the James Wallace chair in Journalism at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communications, a broadcaster and the author of 12 books. His latest, Forbidden Creatures, exposes the illegal network of hunters, traders, breeders and customers who are negatively impacting the lives of exotic animals, humans and the environment.

In Forbidden Creatures, as you explored people’s fascination with collecting exotic and forbidden animals, what did you find?
Many of us like to think that humans are the ultimate animal, and that we can tame the rest of nature. My research for the book introduced me to an engaging cast of characters, many of who fantasized not just about communing with exotic beasts, but controlling them. Such dreams can dissolve into nightmares in seconds and without warning.

Exotic animals are collected and owned by celebrities, criminals and your neighbors. In fact, there are more captive-bred tigers in private homes in Texas than in the wild in India. I found a tiger in the back of a feed store in Idaho, a colony of chimpanzees in the countryside south of St. Louis and laundry bags full of pythons at a former missile base in the Everglades. There are legal auctions of exotics animals from aardvarks to zebras in Missouri, and sales of black market chimps on the Internet.

You have stated that illegal trading of wild and protected animals is growing exponentially; how profitable is this?
Wild animal trafficking profits are estimated by Interpol to be $10 billion to $20 billion a year. It’s the third most lucrative illegal business in the world, trailing only drugs and weapons smuggling. It is easy to accomplish, the risks of capture are slim and penalties are minimal. Many amateurs also bring in animals for their own pleasure, based on their personal fascination for the exotic.
Legal trade in endangered animals also exists, along with trade that skirts the law. It is the illegal wildlife trade that further threatens already endangered species and creates a crisis for survival.

How many exotic animals are there in the United States?
No one knows the answer, because there is no census of exotic pets and the legal enforcement issues differ from state to state and by locality. In fact, while we license dogs, we have no overarching law governing exotics, or even a national registry of owners. This remains a great frustration to many people and organizations working for the benefit of the animals.

What can animal lovers do?
Education is needed to make conscious choices. Most of the people who collect exotics are ignorant of the long-term impact of owning these animals. The cute and cuddly tiger cub or baby chimp may look like an entertaining pet now, but what about the future? What will this animal be like in six months or six years?

When animals reach their adolescence and full body weight, we must ask: How will they be cared for and what will their lives be like? Chimps and other great apes grow to be stronger than a man, are overtly dangerous and must be corralled. Pythons can grow to 20 feet, endangering other pets and humans. Often, people cannot keep up with the expenses of the food and care, and release the animals to sanctuaries or simply drop them off in the wild. This creates further repercussions for society and the environment.

The reality is that exotic pets will not live happily in confinement. There are many terrifying and heartbreaking stories of captive animals attacking and even killing their owners after years of mutual affection. No one knows what makes the wild side emerge to disastrous results.

What should buyers of exotic animals understand?
I view our attempts at taming animals as little more than subjugation. That’s understandable if our own survival is at stake. But to subjugate other beings for our amusement diminishes our own self-worth.

Animal smuggling exists because there is a market for it. Decisions to purchase or own an exotic animal cannot be made in isolation; every action has an impact upstream. We need to realize that there is an environmental impact of removing creatures from their habitats and teach the benefits of seeing animals in their natural environments. Wild animals do not need us. We should leave other animals alone, and they should remain forbidden creatures.

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Copyright © Gail Condrick, 2011

Gail Condrick is a writer and lover of all things earth and ocean living in Sarasota, Florida. Write to Gail