I’ve written numerous times about risks (mainly infectious disease risks) associated with some types of exotic pets. I’m not against all exotic pets, but I am against keeping improper pets and doing so in improper situations. The latter largely involves keeping species at high risk for certain pathogens like Salmonella in households with high-risk people (e.g children under five years of age and people with compromised immune systems). The former involves keeping pets that are just not appropriate as pets because of they are large, hard to care for or venomous, or where keeping them in captivity is otherwise risky to either the owner or the pet.

Some good examples of these issues were reported this week:

  • English snake "expert" Luke Yeomans died after being bitten by one of his pet king cobras. He kept 24 snakes in a compound behind his home and was planning on opening the space up to the public. He had stated that the trust he had built up with the snakes by feeding and caring for them ensured they would not turn on him. Famous last words.
  • A South Dakota man was bitten by his (or a visiting relative’s… there’s some controversy) pet copperhead snake. Along with what was characterized as an "exceedingly painful bite" he could face criminal charges for owning a dangerous animal. Fortunately, copperhead bites are rarely fatal, but they are far from pleasant. One expert described it as "go ahead and light your hand on fire and put the fire out with a hammer for several weeks."
  • A Florida man (note a gender bias here?) was bitten by his African Puff Adder. Neighbours heard his screams of "Help, my fingers are turning black!" as the ambulance arrived. Fortunately, a local serpentarium met them at the hospital to provide anti-venom to counteract the venom from this somewhat small but bite-prone snake that accounts for more than 50% of snake bite deaths in Africa.
  • A Putnam Lake, New York woman was found dead in her bedroom, with the prime suspect being a pet Black Mamba, one of 75 snakes she and her boyfriend kept. Black Mambas are described as one of the fastest and most venomous snakes in the world, a great combination for a predatory snake, not a good combination for a pet.

Some people may argue that these incidents are Darwin-in-action. However, while people have some degree of right to be stupid, they don’t have the right to put other people at risk. There are too many instances of dangerous exotic pets escaping, with potential risk of exposure of members of the general public. At the moment, Ipswich, UK police are on the search for a 7.5 foot boa constrictor that’s on the loose. They’ve warned that children and pets should be kept indoors, particularly since the owner describes the snake as "unfriendly" at the best of times and, having last been fed 3 weeks ago, "is due a feed." The risks to the public are limited, but people have been killed by pet constrictors in the past, so erring on the side of caution and awareness is justified.

Yes, exotic pets can be interesting and unique. People are sometimes attracted to something new and different, but often it’s the ‘look at me!’ aspect of having something completely different. However, novelty should not be a justification for keeping pets. Our ability to safety and humanely take care of them, and manage potential risks to the public have to be part of the equation.

Image: A Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) (source: http://en.wikipedia.org)