Zoos slam door on exotic pets looking for homes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

There is no room at the reptile house.

Neither is there space for all the hedgehogs, macaws, lions and piranhas that owners are trying to unload on zoos and aquariums.

Once, many zoos would accept exotic creatures. Now, many Americans own wild animals, and more are looking to get rid of them. Zoo policies and practices have changed. Getting your zebra into the zoo may be harder than getting your child into Princeton.

"People think: 'What a wonderful ending' -- to have their pet iguana come down to live in our rain forest here," said Jack Cover, curator of the rain forest exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore. "They think their pets will live happily ever after."

But he rarely accepts animals. "We'd have to have two or three warehouses to handle the donations we get calls on," he said. Owners plead and cajole, but are almost always turned down. "They really seem to get upset with you," he said.

Steve Bircher, curator of mammals at the St. Louis Zoo, said that "zoos were once not as restrictive as they are now." Instead of indiscriminately collecting animals, zoo officials said, they're looking to shelter endangered species or animals that fit into geographic exhibits. Or they're looking for animals of known pedigree, with documented health histories, for breeding programs.

The Baltimore Zoo's traveling collection of animals, called ZooLab, contains a large number of donated former pets -- including a couple of monitor lizards, a blue-and-gold macaw named Paco and a bull python. But the collection is crammed into the basement of the zoo's administrative building.

"Right now, I am at my peak here," said Jennifer A. Kureen, ZooLab's keeper. "I am full."

Placement seems especially tough for the owners of large snakes. Zookeepers in Maryland and around the country say they get a steady stream of offers of pythons and boa constrictors, and routinely turn them down.

"I've been offered probably one or two boas and pythons a week," said a spokesman for the National Zoo in Washington. "That's more than I've ever been offered before."

Exotic pet ownership appears to be booming in the United States. Despite stricter international controls on the wildlife trade, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that wild animal shipments to this country rose from 45,000 in 1980 to 70,000 in 1992, the most recent year for which statistics are available. During the same period, the value of those shipments increased from $500 million to $820 million.

"A lot of it is the pet trade," said A. B. Wade, spokeswoman for the service. Those figures don't include animals smuggled illegally or an increasing number of captive-bred animals.

Pet owners who call zoos say they want the animals to get top-notch care, and they often hope to retain visitation rights. The owner of Paco, ZooLab's raucous macaw, donated the bird more than a decade ago and recently paid him a call.

But such happily-ever-after stories are rare, especially for very large and potentially dangerous animals -- such as lions or cougars.

"If they can't dump the animal off on the nearest zoo, humane society or whatever, then they sell it privately, and the animal goes from one poor situation to the next," said Mr. Bircher of the St. Louis Zoo. "Then the new owners find they can't handle it, can't keep it any better than anybody else."

Animals are shunted from place to place. "They don't receive proper medical treatment or nutrition," he said. "I see it and hear about it all the time."

People try to dump exotic animals for many reasons. Often, the novelty of keeping an armadillo around the house wears off. Perhaps there's been a divorce, and no one wants the monitor lizards in the basement. Maybe junior is headed for college, leaving his turtles and snakes behind.

Some pet owners wake up one day and realize that their cute little critter is growing up to be a big, nasty wild animal. Bruce Hecker of the National Aquarium said he frequently gets offers of nurse sharks, sometimes sold in pet stores as 8-inch-long juveniles. The relatively docile but razor-toothed fish can reach 14 feet in length.

L There are, of course, at least 50 ways to leave your lizard.

A few enterprising owners smuggle them directly into zoo exhibits. Curators at the National Aquarium were surprised to find an unfamiliar terrapin turtle swimming around in the salt marsh exhibit several years ago. Owners of iguanas occasionally sneak the fierce-looking lizards into the aquarium's rooftop rain forest.

Several iguana were sick and "couldn't even move," Mr. Cover said. "Their bones were like rubber." Some had to be destroyed.

Keepers have also found a pet parrot and a pet cockateel, at different times, flitting among the rain forest's foliage. Both birds were netted and put in quarantine: They might have carried diseases that could have wiped out the exhibit's other fowl.

Some irresponsible folks just set exotic critters loose. Last month, there were sightings of a 5- to 8-foot alligator swimming in Seneca Creek near the Potomac River. A few years ago, an 8 1/2 -inch red-bellied piranha fish was caught in a crab pot in the Patuxent River.

Zoos report being inundated with people eager to donate Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs, a pet fad that recently went bust.

The pigs were advertised as compact, affectionate and tame. Breeding animals sometimes sold for thousands of dollars. But, as it turns out, the adults can weigh more than 200 pounds. Dale Riffle, head of "Pigs, A Sanctuary," a West Virginia refuge, says they often get aggressive with humans when they don't have other pigs to push around.

If you're thinking of giving Mr. Riffle your pet pot-bellied pig, think again. There's no room for any more pen pals at his 5-acre farm, which houses about 175 of the once sought-after swine.

He won't even make public his address, for fear that people will clandestinely dump the pigs on his doorstep.

Foundling pets are a nuisance for many zoos. People long have abandoned cats, rabbits, dogs, raccoons and opossums at zoo entrances, hoping the animals will find a home. (Instead, they typically are taken to animal shelters.) Increasingly, zoo officials say, they are finding tropical lizards, turtles and birds among the castaways.

Two gopher tortoises, native to the desert Southwest, were let go outside the Baltimore Zoo's fence in 1993. The animals, adapted to a hot dry climate, soon would have died if a passer-by hadn't found them and brought them to ZooLab.

A couple of months ago, someone abandoned an undernourished, 6-month-old female lion cub tied to the gate of the St. Louis Zoo. Mr. Bircher said he couldn't keep the animal: There was no room in the zoo hospital to keep it in quarantine, and it couldn't be caged with any of the zoo's adult cats. The animal wound up in Wildlife Waystation, a refuge in California.

"We just had an iguana left on our doorstep with a note, 'Please give me a good home,' " said N. Carole Brown, public service manager of the Catoctin Mountain Zoo Park of Thurmont.

The small zoo usually tries to place such animals, she said. And, unlike many larger zoos, it will accept donated pets for its collection -- when they are healthy and it can squeeze them in. But it won't grant visitation rights. And it can't take many of the animals it is offered. "We're not a rescue operation here, we're a zoo," she said.

Zoos aren't the only institutions asked to take unwanted exotic animals, of course.

Debbie Thomas, executive director of the Maryland Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, said she turned down the offer of a donation of two zebras from a farm owned by a Harford County woman. She feared the animals would attack others at the SPCA's shelter.

A friend of the owner said she is a widow who loved the zebras BTC but found them too difficult to handle. They had to be kept in a barn because they could jump the fences on her farm, near Whiteford.

Both animals eventually found a home in a Virginia zoo.

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