In an article about exotic pets, a red fox lies on its back with its mouth open.
Listen, I think tigers are cute. We all think tigers are cute. It doesn't change the fact that they have three-inch long canines and four-inch claws. (Illustration by Mo Leclerc, Montserrat College of Art)

Owning Exotic Pets Might Not Be as Cool as You Think

Undomesticated animals like foxes and tigers have gained popularity as pets on social media, but these creatures are ultimately better suited to life in the wild.

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In an article about exotic pets, a red fox lies on its back with its mouth open.

Undomesticated animals like foxes and tigers have gained popularity as pets on social media, but these creatures are ultimately better suited to life in the wild.

People love their pets. We find comfort in our animal companions, respecting them as helpers, as workers and as friends. Each and every dog, cat, horse and cow is the result of thousands of years’ worth of selective breeding — millennia of domestication have cemented the bond between people and the animals we surround ourselves with.

Dogs and cats are far and away the most popular household pets, and the placid nature of such universally beloved companions is enough for many. Others, however, seek more variety. 

An exotic pet is any animal that is considered more unconventional than the standard dog or cat. Though the name conjures images of otherworldly beasts, an exotic pet is not necessarily so grandiose. Parakeets, snakes and guinea pigs are all considered exotic by definition, and yet the ownership of one is not usually considered out of the ordinary. 

What is considered out of the ordinary, however, are some of the more unusual options under the exotic pet umbrella. A fox or a monkey might raise the eyebrows of neighbors, but these animals and more are gaining traction on social media. With videos dedicated to exotic pets such as otters and servals often garnering millions of views, content creators on platforms like TikTok are increasingly inclined to share videos of their unique and bizarre animals.

While the ownership of an exotic pet might make for an interesting internet presence, the experience itself is different than its projected image. In comparison with the relative ease that comes with caring for a cat, an exotic pet usually requires a substantially more intensive level of maintenance and attention.

Fox ownership, for example, is a highly selective pursuit, as the animals are legal to own in only a handful of states. Costs can total upward of $5,000 for the most highly-domesticated versions, such as the Siberian-bred silver foxes. Those looking for a more economical alternative can find breeders within the United States who sell fox pups for just a few hundred dollars — but potential buyers, be warned! These American foxes are less domesticated than their Russian counterparts, making them more skittish and temperamental. 

An untamed fox may be moody, but rarely will a healthy fox display aggression toward a human without provocation. The same cannot be said for all exotic pets, however. Ownership of a big cat or great ape isn’t an everyday occurrence, with the possession of such elusive wildlife having become something of a status symbol to the avant-garde. These animals, who are by nature antithetical to the household pet, are more notorious for their aggression toward humans and other animals.

Apex predators are naturally ill-suited to domesticity — a topical example of this is the tiger. After starring in last year’s Netflix docuseries “Tiger King,” the tiger has become the textbook example of what a pet is not. A fully grown tiger can weigh over 600 pounds and comes well-equipped with teeth, muscles and claws, all of which can cause serious injury. 

There are more tigers kept as pets in the U.S. alone than there are left in the wild, and the conditions these cats are kept in cause a staggeringly low quality of life and life expectancy. Pet tigers are often kept in backyards or small enclosures, with few opportunities for enrichment. In comparison to the wide scope of a tiger’s natural habitat, man-made enclosures fall depressingly short.

Tigers can and have caused serious injury to people due to negligence. Even a playful swipe can result in real damage, and if a tiger feels genuinely threatened, its attack can be life-threatening. Over 300 tiger attacks have been recorded in the past 30 years, some of which resulted in death. A tiger is an intelligent predator, and it must be handled with extreme caution by anyone who encounters it. Only a small fraction of the tigers in the United States are registered as residents of credible reserves. The rest are held under dubious or illegal ownership.

Similar to big cats, pet apes like chimpanzees have become infamous for their aggression. Chimps are violent within their communities in the wild, and this tendency is retained even when they are reared among humans. In addition to being strong and agile, as primates, chimps have opposable thumbs, which means that their ability to grasp and toss objects can quickly become dangerous to people and property. The most infamous case of ape violence occurred in 2009, when 55-year-old Charla Nash was attacked by her friend’s chimpanzee. Nash sustained severe injuries and scarring to her face and hands, and her later appearance on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” brought the dangers of exotic pet ownership to public consciousness.

Ultimately, a fox or a tiger or a chimp is a wild animal. Whereas cats and dogs are fine-tuned to human interaction, undomesticated animals are not. Confinement to a domestic space will do harm to any animal not genetically accustomed to such a deviation from its natural environment.

Though there are individuals who are savvy to these animals’ unique needs and requirements, not all potential owners share this knowledge. When unprepared to take on the challenges of an exotic pet, these animals may get dumped on roadsides or at shelters, leading to overpopulation at sanctuaries or the introduction of an invasive species to a natural habitat. When somebody abandons their pet, they are doing a disservice both to the animal itself as well as the local environment.

Broadcasting exotic pets to a wide audience is an excellent way for people to present their beloved companions to the world, but viewers must understand the amount of care that goes into the upkeep of these animals. The impulse decision of an inspired enthusiast to buy an exotic pet is often frowned upon by wildlife experts and dedicated exotic pet owners alike. Proper care is needed in order to take care of any pet, and this is especially true in cases involving unconventional animals. Even equipped with the proper knowledge to handle an exotic pet, time, space and resources are limited for a passing hobbyist.

A wild animal will thrive best in the wild, and outside of reserves, there are few adequate opportunities for an undomesticated animal to live well among humans. Though it may be legal in some areas, it’s important to practice caution when considering the risks of owning exotic pets. 

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Beth Nipper

University of Iowa

Beth is an art major who hopes to one day be an FX animator. She loves art, history and art history. Beth is thankful for libraries.

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