PAWS Magazine

Issue 44, Winter 2000

Finding Care for exotic animals

Prince seemed so cute when his "owners" purchased him five years ago as a pet. And so exotic too. Prince was an African Serval, spotted like a leopard, and at a few months old, very sweet-looking.

But looks can be deceiving. Five years of good-faith socialization and domestication couldn’t overcome 10,000 years of instinct. Prince attacked an injured his "owners" daughter, wrapping his mouth around her neck. That’s when his "owners" gave PAWS a call, asking for help finding a more appropriate home for their cat.

Prince (his name has been changed for this article to protect his original family) is just one of dozens of exotic animals that find their way to PAWS. Vicki Nelson, who helps PAWS place all of these animals, has seen it all. "This past year alone I’ve had to find homes for parakeets, sugar gliders, ferrets, snakes, and more," said Nelson.

Since 1967 PAWS has adopted 100,000 companion animals to Seattle-area homes. Working with so many cats, dogs, and rabbits has given PAWS a great deal of insight into why keeping other kinds of animals as "pets" is so unfair to them.

"It took 10,000 years to domesticate cats," said PAWS advocate Jennifer Hillman. "And if you see my cats, you’d know that they’re still kind of crazy and wild. It amazes me that people assume that they can personally domesticate a wild animal in a few months, what took 10 millennium for cats."

Most of the exotic animals that come to PAWS are brought by well-meaning individuals who did not understand the special needs of the animals. "Prairie dogs are good examples," said Nelson. "They have become a fad "pet" recently. People usually have purchased one and kept it in a cage in their home. But prairie dogs are highly social animals that usually live in communities of a 1,000 other prairie dogs or more. Keeping a prairie dog alone is just plain cruel."

Other animals have very specialized diets. Servals like Prince, in their native grasslands of Algeria, Morocco, and sub-Saharan Africa, are carnivores and typically feed on small mammals, birds, and insects. PAWS Wildlife veterinarians are investigating whether the renal problems suffered by Prince were the product of his human-style diet of cooked chicken and greens.

It’s quite easy to acquire almost any type of exotic "pet". Several local pet stores in the Seattle area have sugar gliders, Brazilian opossums, prairie dogs, and more, for sale to anyone who meets their sole requirement for buying an exotic animal: the willingness to spend money. Rainbow Pets in Yelm recently advertised their willingness to acquire just about any exotic animal for their customers. In a holiday ad that featured a tiger, Rainbow Pets encouraged its potential customers to buy exotic animals from them for Christmas. PAWS investigators visited Rainbow Pets and were told that the store was willing to ship in just about any animal possible.

Another common source for exotic animals is county fairs. Last month PAWS took in a coatimundi, a native of Mexico and the American southwest which is a close relative of the raccoon. The "owners" of the coatimundi, named Brody, had seen him for sale at the Puyallup Fair and purchased him on a whim. Decked out with a walking harness, it seems as if his "owner’s" were hoping to walk her around the neighborhood in an effort to look "cool". Unfortunately coatimundis can be aggressive and can use their adept fingers to claw and their mouths to bite. Brody’s instincts were too powerful to overcome her owner’s desire to tame her. So she came to PAWS.

PAWS offers top-flight accommodations for the dogs, cats, and rabbits who populate its companion animal shelter. And the PAWS Wildlife Center facilities in McCleary and Lynnwood are recognized as world class facilities for caring for native wildlife. But PAWS does not have the facilities to provide long-term care for most of the exotic animals that come to PAWS. Therefore PAWS has developed a growing network of groups and individuals across the country who are able to provide appropriate rescue for these animals.

Recently PAWS’ Vicki Nelson cared for Napoleon and Josephine, two homeless ferrets who needed an appropriate home. Ultimately Nelson was able to place them with the Washington Ferret Association, a ferret rescue group long-recognized as a leader in understanding the complex needs of the inquisitive animals.

Seattle’s House Rabbit Society has also worked closely with Nelson to place other small mammals. Through their "Best Little Rabbit, Rodent, and Ferret House" on Seattle’s Lake City Way, the House Rabbit Society has helped to place thousands of small mammals into appropriate homes and educate thousands of Seattleites about the proper way to view or small furry friends.

Other rescues can get more complicated. PAWS temporarily created a roomy, homey environment for Prince the serval in its shelter storage room. But ultimately PAWS wanted Prince to live in a more natural environment, with room to run and play. Nelson contacted the world famous Shambala Preserve near Los Angeles, California to see if they could provide a permanent home for Prince. Fortunately Shambala, which has dozens of big cats rescued from tragic situations around the US, had room for Prince.

PAWS Wildlife veterinarians Dr. John Huckabee and Dr. Sophie Papageorgiou cared for Prince during his stay at PAWS and performed his health check, which was required by the state of California before he could travel. Prince was suffering from a form of renal failure, and had an abscess in his mouth, but was otherwise healthy to travel. So early one morning last month Nelson, Huckabee, and Papageorgiou packed Prince up in a secure air kennel and Nelson accompanied him to his new home at Shambala.

Next up for PAWS is the coatimundi. Nelson has contacted former PAWS Executive Director Craig Brestrup, who works with a sanctuary in Texas. With Brestrup’s help, the highly social coatimundi will soon be playing with other rescued coatimundis under the warm Texan sun.

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