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 68.

    Could the commenters please cease to condemn Americans as if it is common practice in the states to keep wild animals in the backyard next to the lawnmower? I can promise you that I don't keep my Bengal tigers next to my begonias, nor do I expect do a vast majority of Americans. This is a serious issue that should be addressed, but not representative of the nation as a whole.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Well, I'd like to own a tiger and take it for walks off-leash like so many irresponsible dog owners do in the UK. I'm sick of being confronted by out-of-control and aggressive dogs - particularly the ones bred for hundreds of years to kill for entertainment purposes that are somehow still favoured as house pets. The tiger would happily solve this problem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Why do Americans keep dangerous animals? Because they are Americans.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.


    Another ignorant comment. Most Americans do not even own exotic animals, so I'm failing to understand how you came to the conclusion that we're all clinging to our "right" to do so. In fact, there was outrage at the recent story out of Ohio (a state that has abnormally loose laws regarding exotic animal ownership) and discussions of disallowing ownership of such animals.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    Let's face it, Americans believe their rights take precedence over all else, whatever the consequences. It's their right to bear arms to, the fact thousands of people die every year because of them is irrelevent. If they want to keep exotic pets, that's their right to, regardless of the impact it has on them. Its the US Government's fault. They could easily change the law, but simply dont.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    People who purchase these animals as 'pets' often don't realise what they're letting themselves in for until it's too late.

    I did some vet training back in the 90's. A tiger came in that had been on a diet of KFC and hotdogs. It got so calcium deficient that it's entire body was riddled with stress fractures! We had to put it down as it was in constant pain and would never recover.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    @ 57

    In the current economic climate, exotic animal ownership is not at the forefront of the average person's mind, especially as exotic animal ownership is relatively rare. Therefore, it's silly to suggest that because there hasn't been a big fuss made about it, people must not care. It's just one of many issues that need to be addressed. Also, people HAVE taken an interest in stopping it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    There should be a worldwide ban on people having exotic animals as pets. People who own these animals are sick, selfish, egotistic, narcissistic, self-important, boastful and egomaniacal... Wish one could lock up those people in the same environment as their pets for three months and see how they feel!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    Innocent humans are caged too!
    One might argue that humans have choice. No they don't! There are many innocent humans who have no choice, who have to endure a caged existence so that the rest of us can enjoy cheap products. We are all guilty. The caged animals are a symbol to us, to highlight our own collective immorality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.


    I should have been clearer. Some people only have the American media as a representation of America, simply because they've never been to the US or know Americans, and some who do not care to find out. Perhaps the media should represent thier countires better, including ours.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    This is really ridiculous. Don't people care about the welfare of these animals? The animals in the incident last week could have been saved if a tranquiliser was used. As for keeping chimpanzees as pets, I wonder if Monkey World knows about this? They spend much of their time trying to get people to give them their pets so that they can have a more natural life. Shameful...

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    If the majority Americans don't agree with the keeping of exotic animals, why don't they campaign to stop it? Also, North Carolina still has bear baiting with dogs. Shocking, yet the public do nothing about it. Is that because they don't really care?

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    @ #55

    Does that not say more about the people who believe that everything they see in the media is reality? Funnily, the tendency to make generalizations about other countries based on what they see on TV is something typically attributed to Americans, but when generalizations are made about America and Americans, it suddenly becomes acceptable. Not a jab at you, Daniel_san; just an observation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.


    "It is a big and diverse country and we are not ALL insane, although sometimes I get the feeling the rest of the world thinks we are."

    I do feel sorry for most Americans, as I know a few and they are not insane, but the US media is and it is them that represent you to the world. Films like 'The Hangover' (brilliant), show that it's ok and fun to own a Tiger as Mike Tyson does.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    There are disturbing similarities between stories I nowadays read about my home country Iran and the supposed land of the free America.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    The ignorant comments made here about Americans are so predictable. The fact that some people have taken this story, which applies to only a small percentage of Americans, and used it to generalize about all Americans says more about the people making these comments than Americans.

    The typical American owns NO exotic animals. I'm afraid of my neighbor's Rottweiler. Why would I want a lion?

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    Must take the biggest cans of tuna to keep a pet tiger.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Just EGO boosters -it is the usa after all.
    I feel very sorry for all animals haning to share the planet with mankind.

  • Comment number 50.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    '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.'

    The same can be applied to humans who have to endure hours in cramped conditions, working for a pittance to pay for their keep. And don't forget, young humans are regularly kept as 'pets' until they become older.

    Humans can be cruel cruel to each other too!


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