One cant help but wonder if Paris Hilton knew prior to having a kinkajou that the little rainforest mammal could potentially live up to 25 years. Did she know that they can often be noisy, with shrills, shrieks, yelps, and even whistles breaking the nighttime silence? Did she know that they need lots of exercise and a tall cage with branches and ledges for climbing? Did she know that some are said to be allergic to strawberries and that citrus fruits and dairy should be off limits in their diet?
Maybe she did know. Maybe she didnt. Either way, last year her Kinkajou, Baby Luv, had enough and bit the heiress on her arm, sending Hilton to the hospital where doctors treated the wound and administered a tetanus shot.
Hilton, who eventually got rid of Baby Luv, was also spotted sporting the kinkajou on her shoulder at red carpet events and while shopping at trendy boutiques. A proper enclosure may not be the rainforest but the red carpet is even farther from it. Furthermore, the thought of a kinkajou on the streets of Beverly Hills somehow eclipses the fact that they’re not even legal in the state of California.
In todays internet age its surprisingly easy to have a dwarf caiman or lesser anteater jump from the images on the Discovery Channel to your home. Sitting in front of your computer you can purchase a Japanese squirrel for $175, a white Siberian chipmunk for $350 or a water monitor lizard for an even $100. Armed with nothing but a credit card, one of these animals could arrive at your doorstep in a matter of weeks.
Owning an exotic animal is not only a labor of love but a test in skill, patience and know-how. In an American Pet Products Manufacturers Association National Pet Owners Survey, 18.2 million Americans undertook that labor in 2005-2006. Another survey by the same association pointed toward a 1.4 million exotic pet ownership jump in the three years between 2002 and 2005. According to the Humane Society of the United States, the business of exotic and wild animals as pets in the United States alone is estimated to be worth $15 billion annually.
Never Be Impulsive
Impulse buys can cost an avid shopper thousands of dollars every year. Shoes and purses though are inanimate objects that can be returned, disposed of or re-gifted. A living breathing animal is anything but.
Dr. Don J. Harris, veterinarian and director at the Miami-based Avian & Exotic Animal Medical Center, urges clarity of mind when you spot that extravagant bird or small furry friend.
“I think they should stop and they should do their homework,” said Harris. “I think they should walk out and go home and research via the internet, via the library, via local professionals. They should research the appropriateness of whatever pet it is they are considering.”
Its through that extensive research that the realities of owning that particular animal become clear. If you cherish your sleep, nocturnal animals may not be a good choice. If you keep your home warm, an animal that fairs better in cooler temperatures may not be for you.
“If youre looking for a bird thats a great talker you dont buy a sun conure because the sun conure is beautiful but all they do is scream. They rarely actually talk,” Harris said. “On the other hand if you want a bird thats playful and highly social and thats the priority, you wouldnt get an African gray because theyre very anti-social.”
Homework may be the first step to getting an exotic pet but understanding what you want is also crucial. “Every species has its unique characteristics that make them right or wrong for each individual,” Harris continued.
Understanding the Husbandry
Harris explains the husbandry as nutritional and habitat requirements such as lighting and temperature. Your pre-purchase research should extensively include these things. Harris explains what people should know before they take the plunge.
“They should know, not just guess, what the appropriate habitat requirements are. They should know what their nutrient requirements are,” said Harris. “The biggest problem we see here is malnutrition. Probably 70 or 80 percent of problems we see are directly or indirectly the result of malnutrition.”
Harris adds that poor habitat is also rampant in the exotic pet care world. Habitat problems range from not enough lighting, to not enough space and incorrect bedding material. Properly prepare the habitat well before the pets arrival. Understanding the husbandry also means knowing how to maintain the environment, how often to maintain it and the animals precise dietary needs.
Comprehension of the animals requirements can prevent problems that stem from poor diet or unsuitable habitat. Harris recounted a recent patient whose only problem was poor nutrition.
“An animal came in with horrible infections and abscesses in a variety of places,” Harris said. “The patient had been seen by another vet that knew little about exotics and the infection was treated directly and the underlying cause, which was malnutrition, was never identified.”
It wasnt until after Harris saw the patient that it made a full recovery. “This patient was managed and completely recovered using nothing but nutrient therapy,” said Harris.
Know the Expenses
Maleesa Losnedahl of Lansing, Ill., owner of a small grey chinchilla named Simon, purchased the furry rodent nearly four years ago for around a hundred dollars. The cage, specifically made for animals like Simon, cost another hundred dollars. Several times a month Simons cage is cleaned and new bedding is put in. The bedding can cost anywhere from $5 to $10 per bag. The chinchillas food, not even the most costly expense, adds around $20 per month. Dust bath, a unique necessity for the animal, amounts to about another $20 per month.
Chew toys, treats, cage accessories, and veterinary visits are all other expenses one can incur to simply own an animal that weighs about a pound. After at least a hundred dollars per month, Losnedahl has a happy and healthy chinchilla.
The bottom line: know your expenses beyond the preliminary purchase of the animal. Expenses shouldn’t catch you off guard.
Proper Veterinary Care
Finding proper veterinary care for your exotic is quite simple, as long as you know what to do. The “Dr. Harris Method” goes something like this.
First you get out the yellow pages. You identify all the clinics that claim to do exotics and you cross them off. You then call the clinics that dont claim to do exotics and you ask them if they do exotics. If they say yes you say thank you and hang up.
Next, you call all those clinics that dont claim to do exotics and you ask them if they do exotics. If they say no you then ask them who they recommend.
“You will discover a pattern,” Harris said. “You will discover that all the veterinarians in a given locale will know whos competent.”
Harris adds not to be fooled by large fancy ads. “If you have a full page ad in the yellow pages and it says we do exotics better than anybody else on the planet and nobody recommends them they are probably all BS.”
Know the Law
In Florida it is not necessary to obtain a permit to keep hedgehogs, chinchillas, honey possums, prairie dogs or even sugar gliders. You do need a permit to keep skunks, raccoons, and opossums though. In Maryland on the other hand, skunks and raccoons are prohibited. Ferrets can be owned in Florida with a license but in California they are flat out illegal.
At the risk of losing your pet, do the research on your states exotic pet laws. Some exotic pets require no license at all while others are completly illegal. Although government sites are a good resource to acquire your information, they have the tendency to be out of date. When in doubt, make phone calls or visit the corresponding office. Most of the time, its the fish and wildlife commission in your state that oversees these laws and permits.
“The biggest obstacle is not knowing the medicine, because almost all medicine is improvisation, but knowing the husbandry, the nutritional requirements, the habitat requirements, the lighting requirement, the temperature and all those things,” said Harris. “Thats the difficult part because the fact of the matter is I dont think we know what all the requirements are for all the animals.”
An exotic pet can be an enjoyable and rewarding experience. The important thing is to provide the exact same experience for the pet.