America’s Pet Community: A Jungle in Itself

Have you ever wanted to be Mike Tyson for a moment and keep a Bengal tiger in your backyard? Well there are actually people in this country like him who do. Unfortunately, you would have to be richer than Tyson, because he had to give up the three tigers he owned, as they can cost up to $24,000 for the first year of care for them alone, according to Big Cat Rescue. In the United States, people own other exotic pets, including parrots, fennec foxes, monkeys, and even skunks. Although owning such animals sounds like unique stories to tell the children, the real question is if they can provide the same satisfaction and love that typical pets like a cat or dog could; being wolves are the cousins of dogs, many still believe that they have the psychology of dogs too.

Traditional pets, like dogs, cats and hamsters, are animals who’ve been intentionally bred and maintained for the purpose of human companionship over multiple generations and have reached a level of widely acknowledged popularity as pets, according to an academic journal by J. K. Reaser, E. E. Clark Jr., and N.M. Myers. Traditional pets confer considerable joy and security to their owners, and research indicates that pet companionship substantially benefits human well-being and health, such as a higher self-esteem and a greater sense of security and identity, they said. Cats and dogs have been a companion to humans dating back to ancient Roman times. These days, there are people who consider lions or bears as pets.

By definition, as said by Reaser, Clark Jr., and Myers, an exotic pet is an unusual animal, usually considered wild, that people keep in their households. Out of the 50 states in the United States, 19 completely ban them; 12 ban only some animals such as tigers; 14 require a license to own them, and five have no regulations at all. In Texas, there are more tigers in captivity than there are in the wild globally, according to the nonprofit animal advocacy organization, Born Free USA. There are three reasons why bans are placed on the owning of exotic animals in certain states, which are: public safety, public health, and animal cruelty, the site said.

Today, even wolves and wolf-dog hybrids are kept as pets. Wolves are in the canid family, serving as cousins to the dog and coyote. Pamela Brown (aka “The Wolf Teacher”), has been an expert on wolves since 1978, traveling around the country’s schools (especially in Native American reservations) and teaching the value wolves bring in nature. She has been in this business for 38 years, and is now 73 years old, and is still teaching whenever she can, whether it is through writing or the occasional high-school visit. Her mission is to teach people to respect wolves, so that way they can “stay in the environment where they belong,” which is the wild. However, that doesn’t mean that anyone should own them as pets.


Pamela Brown, A.K.A. “The Wolf Teacher,” with the wolf, Maggie

“They’re [wolves] so terrified of people, that they cringe and run the other way,” Brown says. “And if they can’t run away, they could even lose control of their bowels because their fear of us is that deep,” she jokes. Brown also stated that there is no case of a live wolf ever attacking a human, contrary to the Liam Neeson movie, The Gray, where wolves attack him in the wilderness and he retaliates with his bare fists. The reason that wolves are held in captivity is because their habitats get destroyed due to loggers and fur hunters, taking the skins of the mother and fathers, but also breeding and selling the puppies. Until 1973, when the Endangered Species Act was passed, people could openly kill, sell, and breed wolves without repercussions. This resulted in more wolves in captivity then there have been in the wild, similar to tigers. Due to the act, now the only way to legally own a wolf is for scientific or educational purposes. However, criminals have found a way to counteract this.

The difficult part in enforcing these laws is that the human population of the United States runs in the millions. “Because there are so many people, there are those who could be backyard breeders, and if anyone challenges them, they could just say it’s part-dog,” Brown explains. “They could just lie and say that it’s part husky or German Shepherd, even if it is a pure wolf, because those circumstances are not covered under the Endangered Species Act.” She was able to put a breeder out of business by writing in the column of a paper when she lived in Santa Fe, after discovering that the dog he was attempting to sell was part-wolf. Being the wolf has genetically evolved to stay within a pack, leaving a wolf alone for even an hour can cause the animal to panic. They also possess the ability to scale fences as high as 10 feet. A pure wolf has an independent brain and will not protect an owner, nor will it attack anyone, unless there is a percentage of dog genes in the animal, to which there is a chance of an attack with dog instincts predisposed. Whether you get a pure wolf or half a wolf, anyone owning it will become disillusioned, having to take care of something that has genetics meant for being in the wild.

Once someone buys a wolf-dog hybrid, it can be difficult to dispose of the animal. Brown said that in the 70’s, wolf-dogs were a trendy dog to have, but people were having trouble handling them, “dumping them left and right.” “When someone buys one that’s good (one who’s able to settle down with an owner), that’s rare. Mostly what they get are these unbalanced individual personalities that don’t satisfy their need for a dog companion,” she said. “So when they’ve had enough, the owner tries to find ways to get rid of it. But nobody wants your wolf-dog cross.” Since that happened, shelters stopped adopting wolf-dog crosses. Instead, they will euthanize it.

From what Brown has seen, exotic animals, including wolf-dogs, are popular in California because of the film industry. “There are people there who will buy a wolf-dog or other exotic animal, hoping their pet will be in the movies,” she said.

The internet has also opened more opportunities for people to sell pets, whether legally or illegally online, according to Brown. “You could even sell a rhinoceros, because that’s just how easy it is to sell and ship something online these days.” Wolf-dog crosses are no exception, because that’s how many of the breeders of today make their money, from what she said.

Typically, based on Brown’s information, the main reason people buy wolves is because they try to feed their ego. “What they aim for is to have a cross with a high content of wolf genes, because then that can impress people, and ultimately boost their ego as well.” she said. “If you have an animal just so you could show them off, there’s no reason to have that animal at all, especially an animal that’s unhappy living in captivity.”

Brown can see how unhappy exotic pets can be, even a snake that is draped around someone’s neck. To her, it’s sickening. She said that, “The general public thinks that what you have defines who you are.” “If someone has a super-duper animal no one else has, it makes them feel more important, but unfortunately, that animal has to suffer in the process.”

Wolves are not only beautiful creatures, but they also contribute to the ecosystem as a whole. “Wolves are a top predator, so if you take them out of the ecosystem, the environment stars to crumble slowly,” Brown said. “If you have an area with no wolves, then the deer population overpopulates.” Deer serve as a wolf’s main diet, and any relative of the deer such as elk or caribou is safe for deer to eat. Wolves tend to eat the deer that are weaker, because they are easier to catch, leaving the strong ones behind to reproduce.

“When you take the wolves out, the deer tend to over-browse, in other words, turn the forest into a barnyard,” she adds. Also, once the wolves are gone, the coyotes, the wolf’s cousin, take over the land. Not only do wolves control the deer population, but they also control the coyote population, by sharing the land with only a few, but killing off some of the others.

One of the reasons wolves are taken from their lands is because of trophy hunts, which are advocated by the National Rifle Association (NRA), according to what Brown says. “Anything that discourages business for them, like people protecting animals, will make them do whatever they can to get us out of their way.” She has seen two wolves, Clem and Jethro, be assassinated by poisoning in 1973, even though they were being used to educate people about why the wolf’s environment should be protected. Brown believes that the NRA could have contributed to their deaths. This occurred when she was in a wolf education group with John Harris, who was her mentor that taught her everything she knows about wolves.

From what John taught her, Brown was able to use her teachings to influence a couple who had just graduated from college (who were also wolf enthusiasts), Kent and Tracy Weber, how to properly care for one. As a result, that couple was able to open a wolf sanctuary in Colorado, as well as a teaching program called “Mission: Wolf,” while Brown was living in Santa Fe and teaching schools about wolves. Today, Mission: Wolf has 45 wolves, some of them being wolf-dog crosses. He gets requests “all over the country every week,” as Brown says, to take in more wolves. One of the most popular wolves he had was a female named Maggie, who was tossed from being in a movie, along with her sister, because the film producer only wanted male wolves to be in it. Having no place to go, Kent took them in, and Maggie happened to be a great public wolf, never being shy around people, like Clem and Jethro.

Another wolf they used for education, named Zeb, was unlike most wolves, in that he would roll over and, as Brown said, “solicit play,” wanting to be rubbed on the stomach. There were even occasions where Zeb would play with kids, almost like a dog. The kids would be shocked, where Brown repeated a kid’s words, “But I thought wolves were mean and vicious!”

After John died in 1985, Brown was teaching by herself, changing the former name “Clem and Jethro Lecture Service” to “Wolf Teacher,” a title she still uses today. On occasion, she will collaborate with Mission: Wolf to provide her insight when they teach others.

When traveling with the wolves around the country, Brown said “It is essential to have a mechanic on board, because there can always be an instant on the road where the bus or the van gives out.” Kent is the mechanic on the bus when traveling, as was John when he was alive.

As mentioned before, the movie The Gray would paint wolves in a vicious light, but Brown mentioned that at the end of the movie, there was a prompt that said how the wolves’ behavior in the movie does not reflect the behavior of ones in real life, which the film editors were required to do as a result of the Endangered Species Act. However, the damage was already dealt by depicting the wolves in that manner in the first place.

Photograph of John Harris, Pamela Brown’s old mentor, with the wolf, Slick

There is a sanctuary for wolves in South Salem, New York, called the Wolf Conservation Center, which keeps live wolves under their care and also teaches the public about them, mostly children. Their mission is to “teach about wolves, their relationship to the environment, and the human role in protecting their future.” They have 23 wolves in captivity, and aim to put them back in the wild once they are fully grown and learn how to hunt and protect themselves at the sanctuary. They don’t accept wolf-dog crosses, unlike Mission: Wolf. One of their guides, named Lois, started the tour with a presentation about wolves in a small log cabin, in front of parents and their children. She said, “Why are people so afraid of wolves? Well, none other than the Big Bad Wolf in Red Riding Hood of course!” Being wolves are typically timid around humans in reality, the fairy tale portrays them as a villain. Lois believes that the situation in Red Riding Hood where the wolf eats the grandmother would never happen, but instead would run the other way.

Contrary to what Pamela Brown said, there are two distinct wolf attacks on humans, based on what Lois said. One of the deaths was a jogger in an Alaskan mountain who stumbled upon a cave of wolves while they were eating, resulting in her being eaten as well. The other was an attack by a rabid wolf, which occurred in an unspecified location in the United States. While humans have a flight or fight system, Lois said that wolves have both, as well as a third option, which is fright. Specifically, they will try to hide from whatever they feel threatened by, only using fight mode as a last resort. Whenever she feeds the wolves, Lois never brings the food with her, but instead chucks it over the 10-foot barbed wire fence, or slips it through the holes. Going into their enclosure with the food could be dangerous for her. “These are not dogs, and I respect that,” she told the audience in front of the fence where the wolves Alawa, Nikai, and Zephyr were enclosed. Although they have only a 1% difference with the genetics of dogs, wolves do not have the psychology of a pooch, not understanding an owner/pet dynamic.

Alawa, Nikai, and Zephyr are wolves used for educational purposes at the sanctuary, so they were spayed and neutered. The wolves who are not used for education, and are just rescued ones, are allowed to breed.

Atka

The sanctuary has a fourth educational wolf named Atka, an Arctic Gray wolf who prefers solitude and aged 14 years old in May. He is now retired, but goes to one or two educational events a year. The staff are not licensed to breed educational wolves, so therefore, if they want to breed any of them, they would have to take them to a government facility to have them bred. Due to the attachment the staff has to these wolves, that is something the staff doesn’t want to do, instead keeping the wolves by their sides at all times.

For an owner’s sake, it is safer for both the animal and the person that animals which are accustomed to the wild stay in the wild. If humans did not domesticate dogs and cats in the ancient times, but suddenly starting taking them in as pets in 2016, it is likely that adjusting them to a household lifestyle would be difficult. Not only are exotic animals costly, but a loving bond between the animal and human is not a guaranteed thing, because they have evolved through many years to put survival before familial relationships. From what Brown said, it is better to have an animal that will love you unconditionally, rather than have an animal most people don’t own, because the only benefit of owning an exotic pet is to feed one’s ego. But for all the expenses and damages that could accumulate from keeping an exotic animal, the cons outweigh the pros in this situation.

Works Cited

“Get The Facts: Three Reasons for Banning the Possesion of Exotic Animals.” Three Reasons for Banning the Private Possession of Exotic Animals. Born Free USA, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <http://www.bornfreeusa.org/facts.php?more=1&p=438>.

“How Much Is That “Kitty” in the Window?” Big Cat Rescue. N.p., 12 July 2015. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <https://bigcatrescue.org/buy-a-big-cat/>.

Reaser, J. K., E. E. Clark, Jr., and N. M. Myers. “All Creatures Great and Minute: A Public Policy Primer for Companion Animal Zoonoses.” EBSCO Host. Blackwell Publishing Limited, 1 Oct. 2008. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <http://eds.a.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=b355e337-a382-42a7-b7e8-986356bbc68d%40sessionmgr4008&vid=7&hid=4202>.

“State Laws Governing Private Possession of Exotic Animals.” Born Free USA. Born Free USA, n.d. Web. 17 Oct. 2016. <http://www.bornfreeusa.org/b4a2_exotic_animals_map.php>.