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Wild pets: is owning an exotic pet a wild idea or a beastly problem?

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Looking for the perfect pet? Most people pick traditional four-footed friends, such as a cat or a dog. Others are tempted to go for one that's more exotic. With everything from squirrel-like Australian sugar gliders to Costa Rican zebra tarantulas available at some pet stores, turning your home into a zoo might sound easy. But experts warn that you should think twice before buying a rare or unusual creature as a pet.

"People want something different, and they may think it's cool to carry a snake around their necks," says Beth Preiss, director of The Humane Society of the United States exotic pets campaign. "But it really isn't cool for the animals." Keeping exotic pets can also cause big problems for pet owners themselves.

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DANGER AND DISEASE

The term exotic animal generally refers to animals other than dogs, cats, horses, and livestock. Although some exotic animals, like hamsters, guinea pigs, and rabbits, have been domesticated, or tamed by generations of selective breeding, many other exotic species have not. Some exotic-pet owners may be in for a wild ride. Even if an exotic animal was born in captivity, it is still an untamed animal. Its unpredictable nature increases the risk bites and scratches. With some animals, the danger is obvious: A 3 meter (10 feet)-long Burmese python can crush its owner. But how could a tiny turtle be dangerous?

In the U.S., the sale of turtles with shells less than 10 centimeters (4 inches) long is illegal. The reason? Like all reptiles, turtles carry Salmonella, a type of bacteria that causes inflammation of the stomach and intestines. Touching pet turtles and then putting your unwashed hands in your mouth can lead to a salmonella infection; in small children, the infection can prove deadly. "Small turtles are especially dangerous, because they seem so harmless, and parents are more likely to let their kids play with them than a snake or a scary-looking lizard," says Preiss.

Salmonella is only one type of zoonosis, or disease that animals can transmit to people. Others include the respiratory infection psittacosis from birds, and monkeypox, a disease that can be carried by rodents and that causes rashes and high fevers. Two U.S. agencies restricted the sale of prairie dogs after dozens of people contracted monkeypox from them in 2003. One of the agencies recently lifted the restriction as it deemed the threat to be over. However, it still restricts the African rodents blamed in spreading monkeypox to the prairie dogs in the first place. Due to the potential diseases they can carry, many exotic pets--even ones as common as ferrets--are illegal in certain cities and states.

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Dr. James W. Carpenter, an exotic-animal veterinarian at the College of Veterinary Medicine, Kansas State University, points out that people can also contract diseases from domestic animals. His advice: "Make sure you know what you're getting into. I would say the majority of people who get exotic pets really do not know what they're getting."

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PETS IN PERIL When owners of exotic pets are clueless, the situation is also dangerous for the animals. "Most people can't provide the care that wild animals need if they're going to be kept in captivity," says Preiss. She points to reptiles as an example: "If the light isn't right or the temperature isn't right, they can get sick." Many exotic pets are malnourished, stressed-out, or just plain unhappy because their owners don't understand their unique needs.

Carpenter recalls a client who brought in a young reticulated python and was shocked to learn that his cute little pet could grow into a 7.5 meter (25 feet)-long monster capable of swallowing small children. Another family didn't realize that their new parrot could live for 40 or 50 years. "They had no idea what they were getting involved with in terms of time and commitment," he says. The message: think ahead. If you're not equipped to handle the animal after it grows, or if you're not sure you can provide ongoing care for an animal that will still be around when you're a grandparent, choose a different pet.

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When people can't handle their exotic pets, many set them free, which is illegal. Carpenter says, "Most exotic pets will not survive in the wild. The majority of them will either die a slow death from starvation, will be killed by humans, or will be preyed upon by predators."

SHOULD YOU GO WILD?

With so many risks, should people own exotic pets? Carpenter believes that although some exotics aren't pet material, others make good pets--for people who've done their homework. For instance, rabbits, guinea pigs, mice, geckoes, and canaries make fine companions. He says, "People really need to do research to find out how to take care of them, how big they get, how much commitment is involved, how long they live, what diseases they get, and what type of environment they need." Before you go wild, he urges making sure there's a veterinarian in your area who treats that type of animal.

Preiss goes further. "To protect their health and your health we recommend against getting any wild animal as a pet," she says. "They belong in the wild."

DID YOU KNOW?

* If exotic-pet owners release their critters into the wild, native plants and animals can suffer. Some exotics can become invasive species, or animals with no natural predators that put pressure on native plants and animals.

CRITICAL THINKING:

* Each year, 6 to 8 million cats and dogs enter U.S. shelters. What do you think can be done to combat pet overpopulation? Do you think people should be encouraged to adopt a shelter animal rather than purchase pets from a breeder or pet store? Why or why not?

CROSS-CURRICULAR CONNECTIONS:

GEOGRAPHY: Many exotic pets are imported from other countries, sometimes illegally. Research at least five exotic pets that are imported from other parts of the world. Then, create a map labeling each exotic animal's country of origin.

RESOURCE

* For more information about diseases pets can carry, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's "Healthy Pets" Web site at: www.cdc.gov/healthypets

CHECK FOR UNDERSTANDING

DIRECTIONS: Match the zoonosis, or disease that animals can transmit to people, to its likely animal carrier.
-- 1. salmonella a. turtles

-- 2. psitacosis b. prairie dogs

-- 3. monkeypox c. birds


ANSWERS

Wild Pets

1. a 2. c 3. b
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Title Annotation:LIFE: WILDLIFE
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Nov 10, 2008
Words:1072
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