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An Inside Look at America's Exotic Animal Trade

"Most of the people who buy tigers are what you could call impulse buyers."
May 20, 2014, 8:00pm

"Most of the people who buy tigers are what you could call impulse buyers. People who say, 'If I raise it from a cub, it won't bite me, will it?'"

Those are the words of Joe Taft, the director of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana, which is home to some 225 big cats that were once kept as pets and rare curios by collectors. As Taft notes in the above investigation by our VICE colleagues, the exotic animal trade is booming in the US. Caught in the balance are myriad wild animals that are kept in substandard conditions by owners more interested in the cachet of owning an exotic creature than the reality of taking care of a bear.


In the global trade in illicit wildlife, commonly estimated to be worth some $19 billion a year, a lot of focus gets put on the trade in animal parts, including ivory, rhino horntiger and bear parts, and even the adorable pangolin. And that's completely fair; large-scale poaching poses an existential threat to all of those species, just as overfishing and poaching pose threats to a wide range of fish and reptile species.

What receives less attention is the live trade in species, in which rare animals are kept, not so much as pets, but as collectibles. The unsettling thing about the exotic pet trade is that it's extremely difficult to track. Estimating elephant poaching based on ivory busts and local data isn't easy, but it's possible; gleaning data about the size of the loris trade based on an arrest of three guys with live primates in their underwear is another problem altogether, as it's impossible to tell if they came from the wild or not.

Fueling the live animal trade is a patchwork of laws whereby an imperiled species of lizard may be illegal to trade in one state and not another—and that's assuming law enforcement could reliably identify a species on sight. (As you might guess, identifying, say, drug paraphernalia is more of a focus.)

That legal mosaic was highlighted in Chris Heath's excellent GQ feature on the 2011 Zanesville zoo escape. The headline—"18 Tigers, 17 Lions, 8 Bears, 3 Cougars, 2 Wolves, 1 Baboon, 1 Macaque, and 1 Man Dead in Ohio"—sums up the death of Terry Thompson, an exotic animal collector in Ohio, who was found dead of apparently self-inflicted wounds after having released his menagerie of animals, which were all kept in small enclosures on his rural property.

At the time, laws governing Thompson's collection were largely nonexistent in Ohio, especially when it comes to buying and selling captive-bred species. As Bryan Christy explained in a 2010 National Geographic report, the CITES treaty, which governs the international trade in wildlife, "has one gaping exception: Specimens bred in captivity do not receive the same protection as their wild counterparts. CITES, after all, applies to wild life."

"Proponents of captive breeding argue that it takes pressure off wild populations, decreases crime, satisfies international demand that will never go away, and puts money in the pockets of those willing to commit to 'farming' wildlife," he continued. "But these benefits only hold in countries with enforcement policies strong enough to deter rule breakers."

As you'll see in the above video, in the United States, such enforcement policies are not always effective. And conservation concerns aside, the ethical and safety ramifications of keeping a tiger in one's backyard are enormous. But the allure of keeping a rare pet is too much for some people to turn down, even if it means keeping a leopard locked in a cage.