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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Exotic Pets: Purchase With Care

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood speaks once more to zoologist Donna Fernandes about the interest in exotic pets, and what people might consider before deciding to take one into their home or family.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Once upon a time your average American family might have been made up of a mom, a dad, three or four children, a couple of cats and a dog.

Today the family's as likely to be a single parent, one kid, and a boa constrictor or an iguana. Our choices of pets change with our culture, and today exotic pets are hot. Chinchillas, ferrets, hedgehogs, macaws. You name it and you can probably get it. Of course, this demand for unusual pets can cause problems. The populations of many endangered animals have been decimated by the illegal wildlife trade. And even when exotic animals are legally imported or bred, unprepared owners can be in for a rude awakening. To find out which exotic animals can be bought legally and which make the best pets, I headed out to the Pet Club in Dedham, Massachusetts, with zoologist Donna Fernandes.

(Bird chirps up and under)

CURWOOD: Dr. Fernandes led me first to a swarm of parakeets, a long-time favorite.

FERNANDES: They are highly social. Parakeets do make excellent pets. If you wanted to get a bird, parakeets would be a good choice because they have been bred so long for pets that they are very used to the kind of domestic situation that most households provide. That would certainly be a bird that I would recommend.

CURWOOD: Okay. Well, let's meet this fellow over here. Now a moment ago he hopped, uh, right on our microphone. And this is a macaw?

FERNANDES: Yes. And they're very popular, some of these parrots, in that group. Macaws and cockatoos and things.

(Bird calls continue)

CURWOOD: These guys are quite the character. He has a neighbor here and they're both watching us very carefully.

FERNANDES: Yeah. I can see in some ways why they would be attractive, in that they do vocalize and they can mimic human voice. So you can teach a lot of the members of the parrot family to talk, as it were. Another thing to think about when you're considering a macaw is how long-lived they are. They can live 75 years or so. So you have to better be thinking about willing this to your children. It's not something that you can just sort of have for a few years and then it's going to pass away. It's a very long-term commitment. And also a lot of work to keep them active and happy.

CURWOOD: Any special consideration with the macaws? Do you have to keep their wings clipped, or --

FERNANDES: Most people do clip their primary feathers, which are their principal flight feathers. And that way they can move around but they can't take off and fly. Another thing you often have to do is cut their toenails. That can be a little stressful if you don't know what you're doing [birds screech in the background] but because they don't get the sort of natural activity and wear that they would in the wild, they can get overgrown, and nails have to be clipped. And even beaks have to be trimmed down. Again, they're not getting the normal activities that would cause them. They typically don't have to break down their food and crack nuts any more, so they don't get the normal wear and tear. So you have to come in and trim their beak down. So it's a lot of work, and you have to know what you're doing, because they can get stressed out if you don't treat them properly.

CURWOOD: This is quite a loud crowd over here.

(Birds screech)

CURWOOD: I'm wondering what we have over here. Now these guys have sort of -- well, they look like rabbits but their ears are a little short and their tails are kinda long.

FERNANDES: Yeah, these are chinchillas. If you want to give a lot of attention to a chinchilla they'll do okay as a pet. They're very shy, so you can't just sort of jump in there and expect them to respond to you. You have to really get them very used to you and handle them very gently. And they have certain requirements; they have to have a dust bath every day so you have to provide a cage large enough to incorporate several features into their home.

CURWOOD: A dust bath?

FERNANDES: Yeah. They sort of clean themselves kicking up this gray dust. It's what they do sort of with soil in nature and they really need to do that.

CURWOOD: So what kind of person really would like a chinchilla, do you think?

FERNANDES: Um, well, I think sort of a quiet person. A lot of elderly now are getting chinchillas and rabbits because there is scientific evidence that responding and touching mammals, small animals, can lower your blood pressure and heart rate and has positive health benefits. So that's why we are going into nursing homes on our education programs with a lot of these types of animals.

CURWOOD: Where are chinchillas from?

FERNANDES: Chinchillas are from South America, but they are pretty plentiful because they are captive bred. Techniques established of course during the fur trade, so they are pretty much available.

(Birds screech)

CURWOOD: Now, when I think of an exotic pet -- somebody having something that somebody else doesn't have on the block, I think of -- reptiles, you know, snakes or iguanas or some kind of lizard. So tell me about these, uh, these fellows here.

FERNANDES: Well, iguanas have increased in popularity tremendously within the last 5 or 10 years. They also pose very -- interesting problems you have to solve if you get an iguana. Their diet changes. When they're young they eat insects. And then as they get older they switch to fruits and vegetables, and I think a lot of people don't realize that and their iguanas die during that growth period when they switch over from their diet. They need very specific lighting requirements, full spectrum lighting, in order to synthesize several vitamins which they need. And people don't keep them under the appropriate lighting. And also, with an iguana, you should very much think about its ultimate size. I wish pet stores would include a fully grown adult specimen in their exhibitry, because I think if people saw a 5-foot iguana they would think twice about getting, you know, 8-inch baby iguana.

CURWOOD: Five -- foot -- iguana?

FERNANDES: Yes. They do get quite large, and -- and again, they can be handled, even at that size, if you invest the time in working with them, and if you want a pet iguana just understand you may have to devote half of one of your rooms at home to its ultimate cage if you really want to do right by the animal.

CURWOOD: Uh huh. Now what do we have here? We have two snakes together kind of in a snake dance.

FERNANDES: Oh, this entire exhibit is filled with boas. Boas are probably the most popular animal. I think about half of all reptiles brought into this country are boas. Supposedly, you know, current estimates are that about one million live reptiles come into the international pet trade each year, and about 300 to 500,000 of those end up in the United States, and they're often caught as small, young animals, and then they get to be quite, quite big animals. And there are requirements in some states, like Massachusetts, that if you have a snake over 8 feet long you need a special permit. And usually we get requests of finding a home for about a 7-foot, 8-foot snake. Just as they're getting really big, people are tired of them and there are some herpetological societies which will try to find homes for these animals. But again, you should really understand how long they live, how big they get. And also some of the hazards they can pose. They won't necessarily recognize that your pet rabbit is your pet rabbit and not food.

CURWOOD: And how do you take care of a boa constrictor?

FERNANDES: Well, they'll eat -- live prey. Mice when they're younger, pinkies, which are baby mice, and then rats when they're older. And that's, you know, that's a big economic consideration. You have to every week go to the pet store, or some individuals then decide they want to raise the mice, so then you've got a whole entire colony of mice that you're keeping to feed your snake. So it can be quite an economic consideration as well as time consuming to keep the food available.

CURWOOD: And in other words, it's just easier to go with a cat or a dog, huh?

FERNANDES: A cat or a dog, or parakeets. Mice make actually nice pets. Domesticated rabbits. There are a lot of animals that are used to being handled, respond well to human contact, have very simple husbandry, and are not super expensive to keep. And have, you know, a life span of 8 to 10 years.

CURWOOD: And are as much fun?

FERNANDES: Oh, equally as much fun. I mean I love my dog probably more than my skink or my tarantula.

CURWOOD: [Laughs] Okay. Dr. Donna Fernandes is former vice president for programs at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo, and she's associate curator at the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York City. Thanks, Donna, for joining us.

FERNANDES: Thank you very much.



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