Owning the Wild – Part Two

So we’ve seen how humans have a taste for keeping even the most exotic wild animals as pets. The Julius Ceasar administration of Ancient Rome kept lions, hyenas, cheetahs and wolves to entertain the crowds of the Coliseum by fighting gladiators for entertainment. Arab sheiks kept cheetahs as pets because the represented a high status for the owner. Nowadays, Mike Tyson is well known for possessing tigers. Twilight’s Kirsten Stewart, somewhat unsurprisingly, owns a wolf hybrid named Jack. Even Justin Bieber is in on the wild ownership – he has a pet monkey called Mally.


Kirsten Stewart owns a wolf dog.

But what makes people believe that an unusual animal would act as a cool sidekick for their image?

The most obvious reason seems to be  the animal draws attention to its owner. In fact Mike Tyson’s public image, controversial as it may be, is significantly complemented by his association with tigers. The “Baddest Man on Earth” takes delight in relating himself to the fierceness, toughness, agility and regal nature of these big cats. In his cameo in the first Hangover movie he owns a pet tiger and in real life he has a tiger-like mural tattooed onto his face.


Mike Tyson with his white tiger cub.

On a game farm I grew up on, an orphaned cheetah was adopted and allowed to roam around the gardens inside the lodge compound. Which was all fine and well until it unexpectedly attacked a 3-year-old toddler . Sadly, but almost inevitably, the cheetah was shot to prevent any further such mishaps. While the logic of the lodges actions can hardly be called into question, I was left wondering why the lodge even kept the animal.

“It was unusual, the guests enjoyed it, they thought it was authentic Africa,” I was told.

Another prevalent theme is that wild animals are religious or status symbols. In India and other East Asian nations, elephants are enshrined in religious scriptures, such as the Hindu god Ganesh, and are highly regarded as working animals. In China, rare birds are kept by the rich and admired for their beauty. On every American government seal and dollar, the Bald Eagle can be found.

Perhaps wild animals are seen as things that people aspire to emulate – or at least emulate certain characteristics. In a romantic sense, most humans would like their bravery to be compared to that of a lion; their stealth to that of leopard; the strength to that of a bull. Almost every nation has a national animal and often their national sports teams honour wild animals: South Africa’s Springboks, the Three Lions of England or the Australian Wallabies.

Springbok_Logo england_3_lions

Great rivals at rugby as well as in the savannah – equally adored by fans: The South African Springboks and the Three Lions of England

In all cases it seems that humans have taken ownership of the wild animal. If not in a physical sense then maybe psychologically. Then it seems almost logical  the jump from owning the animal in name is hardly a hop at all. Hopefully peoples’ eagerness to take on the names of animals they treasure will translate into a greater willingness to preserve and protect the physical beings themselves – not just by remembering them on a shirt of a national sports team. Just ask Didier Drogba, captain of Les Elephants of the Cote d’Ivoire!


Owning the Wild – Part One

For some people, the average cat dog or hamster doesn’t really cut it as a sufficiently interesting pet. Thus is born the “exotic pet” owner. This doesn’t mean owning a horse, a bird (large or not) or even a cow. An exotic pet owner is the master or mistress of previously wild animals never normally domesticated – and it seems the more teeth or other weapons the animal possesses to kill the owner, the better.

While stories of alligators and turtles patrolling the underground sewerage systems of American cities may be urban legends, exotic animals are privately owned and hardly with clean records. Private individuals, for the purpose of entertainment or non-conservation specific reasons, have held tigers, primates, lions, bears, elephants and even sea dwelling animals such as killer whales in captivity. Even more bizarrely, people in continents usually different to the wild animals’ natural origin own the animals. Records of lions in North America, wolves in Africa and savannah antelopes zebra and kudu in the USA exist.

The dangers of owning wild animals are clear enough: one, your pet lion at some point might mistake you for an easy meal and kill you or your toddler; two, your harmless macaque might carry exotic diseases; three, the super-venomous snake you keep to wow your dinner guests may have found the couch to be an appropriately warm place to bed down for the night… I’ll leave what follows up to your imagination.

This doesn’t even consider the trauma and hardships the animals face. Most reptiles die in captivity, mammals starve due to malnutrition and certain birds sometimes die due to a lack of social interaction with members of their own species. Clearly, owning exotic animals is unnatural and in nearly all cases is detrimental to either guardian or animal. Additionally, according to PETA, animal wildlife trafficking is the third most lucrative criminal trade after arms dealing and drug smuggling.


Panjo the tiger at home. A big house cat – but with more tigers in captivity in the wild than in the wild, is this the possible future of these exotic cats?

A famous example of exotic animal ownership gone wrong occurred in South Africa during 2010, when a tiger named Panjo escaped from his owner’s bakkie in the Mpumalanga province, setting off a two-day, region-wide search for the missing big cat. The public was gripped by the fear that the next stray shadow they saw crossing the road at the dead of night might indeed be a hungry, 140 kilogramme Bengal tiger. Upon his recapture, owner Goosey Fernandes said Panjo was harmless and should be treated “like a dog”. Why then did Fernandes not keep a dog, if his Bengal tiger, which is a critically endangered species, was effectively reduced from a lethal hunter to a compliant canine?

Keeping an animal alive is better than killing them in most circumstances. Yet what is the point of wild animals being forced to live as pets? There are more captive or pet tigers than wild tigers left in the world. What has become of the evil Shere Khan, the baddie in the Rudyard Kipling’s, The Jungle Book, who struck the fear of God into our childhoods?



These images of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book gave me goosebumps. But the image of these majestic cats seems to have changed from frightening beasts to valuable trophies to fascinating exotic pets.