Exotic pets: Why do Americans keep dangerous animals?


Louis Theroux meets Joe Exotic and his dangerous pets

There are more tigers in captivity in the US than in the wild in the whole of Asia, according to some estimates. But the trade in exotic pets has dangerous consequences for man and beast alike, writes Louis Theroux.

I was in the back garden of an elegant home in rural Missouri with a ticklish question hanging in the air. Should we let the big chimpanzee out of his cage?

For several weeks I'd been on a kind of suburban safari, on the trail of America's large and growing population of exotic wild animals that are kept as pets.

In Indiana, I'd had a close encounter with a baboon called Tatiana. I'd also spent several days getting to know a few of the more than 150 tigers at an "Exotic Animal Sanctuary" in Oklahoma, though mostly through the bars.

But this chimpanzee, called Cooper, was a step up on the exotic animal danger-scale. He belonged to a couple called Jill and Brad James.

The owners of a funeral home, they'd raised two daughters when they decided to take on Cooper. Later, to give Cooper some company, they added a second, younger chimp called Tukem Kerry into the mix.

Even in the world of exotic animals, chimps are considered somewhat controversial.

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Fully grown men who would think nothing of rolling around on the ground with a lion would politely decline the opportunity to get in a cage with an adult chimpanzee. Many are mindful of the infamous "Travis incident".

Travis, a 14-year-old, 200lb (91kg) chimpanzee, had once been the star of several TV commercials. He lived in suburban Connecticut with his owner Sandra Herold, sipping wine from a stemmed glass and occasionally popping a Xanax. One day in 2009, he viciously attacked a human neighbour, ripping off her face and chewing off several of her fingers.

Chimp owners have been fighting an uphill publicity battle ever since.

Earlier in the afternoon, with a little trepidation, I'd spent some one-on-one time with the James' smaller chimp, Tukem Kerry. He is only five years old and the size of a human toddler, though much hairier and with long, powerful arms.

Tormented by visions of him biting off my nose or chewing off my testicles, I was relieved when he clambered up onto me to offer nothing more menacing than a hug.

But Cooper is two years older and close to sexual maturity. This makes him much more potentially dangerous, notwithstanding that his testicles are in a jar in Brad and Jill's garage.

In Oklahoma, Louis met tiger Sarg and owner Joe Exotic, who runs an animal park In Oklahoma, Louis met tiger Sarg and owner Joe Exotic

Exotic animal ownership is rampant in the US. According to one oft-repeated factoid, there are more tigers in Texas than in India.

Only last week in Ohio a man with a menagerie of more than 50 animals, including tigers, giraffes and bears, decided to open up his cages and then shoot himself in the head - after being convicted of animal cruelty.

Local schools were closed down while authorities tried to track down the animals. Police shot some of the tigers as they stood rather pathetically (the tigers, not the police) outside their cages.

Quite why anyone would enjoy having an animal that could easily kill him is not easy to say. Why not own a creature you can stroke and cuddle and tease with a piece of string?

Of course, you can stroke and cuddle a baby lion, tiger or chimp, and therein lies part of the problem. Animals that are cute and huggable in infancy later grow into potential man-killers.

Most tiger owners let them roam the house for the first year or so of their lives. After that they are locked up for the rest of their lives, which can be as much as 20 years.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) registered facilities are required to provide "sufficient space to allow each animal to make normal postural and social adjustments with adequate freedom of movement".

In practice, an animal that roams hundreds of miles in the wild can find itself contained in a space no bigger than a living room.

As for chimps, they get to enjoy their first eight to 10 years with direct human interaction. But after that they too tend to be locked away. Given that they can live to be as many as 60 or 65 years old, that's a pretty long stretch behind bars.

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An animal that roams hundreds of miles in the wild can find itself contained in a space no bigger than a living room”

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Some owners tire of their animals as they get older and become too unpredictable to play with. Others run out of money or pre-decease their pets.

The prices tell the story. A baby chimpanzee can go for as much as $50,000 (£31,195) or $60,000 (£37434). An adult chimpanzee has no market value.

Abandoned adult animals end up in sanctuaries. But in one of the paradoxes of the exotics world, some of the sanctuaries that rescue animals also breed animals to defray their expenses - thereby, arguably, making the problem of surplus adults even worse.

As chimp owners, Jill and Brad are in many respects paragons. They have built their hairy friends a large-ish enclosure at the bottom of the garden where they have ropes to swing on, toys and TV to watch.

They say they still spend plenty of time with them. I watched luxuriating in a warm shower, he seemed especially keen on the shampoo (drinking it more than washing with it).

Jill and Brad say they are committed to Cooper and Tukem Kerry for the long term. But even they admit that as the chimps get older, they may have to play with them "through the bars".

As for my alone time with Cooper, when the time came, though he did come out of the cage, after some soul-searching I decided to "enjoy" him from afar. From the safety of inside the James' house, with the doors locked.

I watched him as he frolicked in the garden. He rode the sit-down mower, got a coke from the pool-side cabana, then relaxed in the hot tub.

No, I didn't get to grapple with him.

But on the plus side, I've still got my face.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 48.


    "Do all your correspondents have an issue with Americans in general?"

    I don't think they do. However, America seem to have and cause a lot of issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    I feel so sorry for these animals. They're not pets! why are they technically being condemned to a life in prison? I am so surprised that the USA does not have laws to prevent people from keeping these exotic and potentially dangerous animals but yet has laws in some states to prevent under 14's drinking coffee?

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    "It will always be a wild animal; it belongs only in the wild" is something of a platitude. In just over 50 years, silver foxes in Russia were bred to tameness. Human population in the developing countries in which these wild animals naturally thrive will continue to explode, and when (NOT if) their habitats are wiped out and paved over, what will remain? Doesn't make cruelty right, of course.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    Keeping wild animals in captivity emphasises the owners emotional wish for personal freedom and power over a lesser being. Very sick. The fact that an animal is brainwashed and "well looked after" doesn't detract from the fact that its rightful place is in a protected habitat. Something the huge populace could collectively politically organise and influence for, instead of captivity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    Its as though, like cars and trucks and houses, Americans need to have as big animal as possible to show off to their friends, or to kill the biggest stag and pin the animals head on the wall. It's like they are battling an inferiority complex their whole life, even tho they maybe rich or whatever, they still will never be happy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    The problem with keeping these animals is not that they are dangerous, it is that their needs are not met. You shouldn't take on animals unless you are educated in caring for them, have the resources to care for them and are prepared to take on the commitment. This story just shows another side to humans mistreating animals without necessarily even realising it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    thankyou phillip3561 for pointing out what really matters !!! This is not a nice issue and needs to be dealt with, but is almost irrelevant in the face of the potential extinction of these creatures in the wild.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    Always love Louis' observations but, yeah, why can't we comment on the serious stuff like the continued immorality of Thatcher et al?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Yes to all the comments below , all these 'pet lovers' have no sense too much money and a mental age of 5 apparently . They've swapped stuffed toys for living creatures and are totally callous and irresponsible .
    In a country like the US keeping ANY wild animal in captivity should be illegal .
    I never visit zoos circuses etc and support WWF and other animal welfare

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    These people that cage animals? All should be taken out of their own natural habitats, caged, paraded and trained to perform themselves.

    You will positively never see me visiting a Zoo or a circus that has animals in its acts.

    These witchdoctor fools that see animals as medicines. Target them - shut them down.

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    If only all these endangered species would turn on their idiotic 'owners', we'd have a few fewer morons and a lot less trade in species that are nearly extinct.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Another pointless story to comment on. Well done BBC. Why wont you let us comment on stories like Thatcher raking in over 500k from the taxpayers since leaving her job? Your sites becoming an absoulte joke this isn't news and its certainly not worthy of a debate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    @22 Strange, I've never heard that used to excuse the Chinese... and their population is 4 times bigger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Jose15 is right. Here in Australia, dogs and cats must be microchipped, registered and not be allowed to roam free. Only zoos have the right to keep exotic animals and only registered people are allowed to keep native animals. It's pure craziness and selfishness that allows Americans to keep wild animals in pretty much whatever circumstances they so choose. I even hate seeing caged birds.

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    I find that some people who keep 'exotic' animals as pets have a very arrogant attitude. They seem to think that simply by bringing up a wild animal will wipe all the animals wild instinct from it's memory bank. This is very wrong and they shouldn't be allowed to keep the animals. Refer back to the Travis incident.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    One should remember that a sizeable proportion of the American population (including a number of those currently seeking office as US President) are fundamentalist Christians and Dominionists, who believe the Earth to be 6000 years old, and that God created every single creature on the planet, that Man [sic] should have "dominion" over them, and do with them exactly what he pleases. Nice.

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    This might be extreme in the USA, because of the amount of space people have, or disposable cash. But it is not an exclusive problem of the USA. Talk to RSPCA inspectors and you'll discover as much madness in the UK. No, it should not be allowed, absolutely under no circumstances. The efforts should be in protecting the animals natural existences and habitats.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    I guess if you came home and found a pile of bones in your back yard, you'd know you'd had burglars....Or rather, you're tiger had had burglars :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    In America there is plenty space & land to put all these wild "pets" in better conditions than in private cages. I do not see what it's so funny at keeping a bird in a crate for life, nevermind big cats & so on.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    tiger is missing


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