A recent article in Emerging Infectious Diseases discussed infectious disease risks associated with having pets in the bedroom. It raised awareness about pets and zoonotic diseases, although some of the coverage was a bit over the top. There are risks, but for most people and most pets, the risks are quite low. Some things do increase the risk quite substantially. One is sleeping with a large predatory carnivore.
Large exotic animals such as lions and tigers are surprisingly common in small zoos, animal parks, exhibitions and even private homes. Many people get away it, but all too often it’s an accident waiting to happen, as for a 17-year-old Florida girl who sleeps with a tiger in her bed.
Felicia Frisco is part of a family of animal handlers. Her father runs an "institute" that provides animals for movies, TV shows, presentations and for the public to "cuddle." Felicia has been raising Will, a now six-month-old Bengal tiger. Part of Will’s training involves sleeping in Felicia’s bed every night.
Felicia said her friends "think it’s really cool that I have a pet tiger because most of them only have a cat or dog." Other people (the one’s with common sense) think it’s an appalling example of poor animal handling and weak regulations (along with poor parenting).
Will may be very friendly now, but that doesn’t mean he’s safe. Many people have been killed by pet lions and tigers. Sometimes it’s from attacks, but sometimes it’s just the result of normal playful behaviour. A playful swat to the head or neck from a large cat can be fatal. Think how aggressively some cats play. Scale that up a few hundred pounds and you can see the potential for injury or death. As Will gets older, the risks will increase based on his increasing size and natural instincts. Also, there may be behavioural changes associated with sexual maturity that could increase the risks.
Felicia’s father, the ringleader of the venture, seems to be in complete denial: "She may have that young cub in her room and be taking care of him and raising him, but her mother and father who are full time professional animal trainers also live there with her and have many other tigers right outside the door that are part of their living."
- Having someone in the next room doesn’t prevent an attack. They just get to see the damage first.
- Having other tigers doesn’t reduce the risk. It means there are more animals to cause problems and the potential for people to be injured getting into the middle of a cat-cat quarrel.
- Being a trainer doesn’t make you invulnerable to teeth and claws (remember Siegfried and Roy?)
He further distances himself from parent-of-the-year honours by saying "That Felicia is risk-free is by no means true but neither are most 17-year-olds behind the wheel of a car… they die like flies across the country. It’s like having an extreme sport in your life. The potential for accident and injury is certainly there."
Jack Hanna, a famous animal trainer, summed it up nicely: "Every cat has a different killing ability, the tiger it makes no difference, it’s like they can go and it’s a bomb going off wherever it hits."