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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Watch Louis Theroux: America's Most Dangerous Pets on BBC Two at 2100 on Sunday 30 October, or find out more by clicking the link below

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 108.

    Why do Americans keep dangerous animals?

    More to the point, why does my licence fee keep funding Louis' trips to America?

    Is this topic really relevant to the general public here in the UK?

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    I hardly think Mr Theroux is suggesting that every american household keeps dangerous pets. I think people are being a little oversensitive here.

    I would hazard a guess that a statistic such as "more tigers in US than in India" was enough to give the programme a focal point to discuss what is an interesting consideration...why would anyone want to do it? Healthy debate is far from persecution

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Keeping dangerous animals? I'd make it compulsory. At least for the Tea-Potty ones.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    101.makar - thread killer
    5 Minutes ago
    Do you know any Brits with pet tigers? This is a cultural thing.

    Hardly. Bear in mind that 3 million Americans would have to own large, exotic animals to account for just 1% of the population. And to be classed as 'cultural', I would expect a significantly higher percentage to be doing it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I'm guessing that the U.S. was chosen by Louis to investigate as he was less likely to be attacked, assaulted or abused than by the owners of collections in the vast number of other countries who have the same problem, where there are is little or no protection for any animal! To see this as a US problem and brand all Americans as fools makes fools only of those persons who post drivel.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    ... because they have more money than sense?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    Are the people who keep "macho" pets the same people who keep automatic rifles and other genitalia extensions?

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    The USA has a population of over 300 million. It's a little silly to focus on the eccentrics and idiots (Although I appreciate that Louis Theroux has made a good living out of it) and suggest that they are representative of the country as a whole.


    Do you know any Brits with pet tigers? This is a cultural thing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    The USA has a population of over 300 million. It's a little silly to focus on the eccentrics and idiots (Although I appreciate that Louis Theroux has made a good living out of it) and suggest that they are representative of the country as a whole.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    This is nothing but selfishness and bragging rights. Two common themes in the US I believe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    As an American my pet of choice is the Guinea Pig and I'm pretty sure the rest of us prefer dogs and cats.
    It's also worth it to mention that this is an international news site. The Americans that are going to read your insults are the ones who are interested in what is going on in the rest of the world as well as our own country. Sorry, but the people you direct your comments look at Fox news

  • Comment number 97.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    @ 6 gloomysunday

    I think "for the large part" Amercians DON'T believe the earth is 10,000 years old and God made everything for the benefit of humans etc

    You sound about as ignorant and hateful as the sort of person you're criticising.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Considering that animals in the wild are under enormous pressures owing to habitat destruction and hunting, captive stock is important. However I strongly believe that keeping animals with such specialist requirements should be left to professional organisations who can ensure it is done properly with the animals welfare and long term conservation goals at the top of the priority list.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Whilst I recognise this isn't an US wide issue, it does none the less fit with a general culture where the national attitude is one of exploiting resources. Per capita Americans are the biggest users of energy so whether it's driving gas guzzling cars or keeping exotic pets, it's all about me, me, me.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    So don't brits keep dangerous pets? look at the many privae zoos and animal parks! yes we are supposed to report them, but wake up, I would suggest we in UK have an illegal trade of animals, although I am sure it is much more hidden from full view.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Americans do some strange things. Maybe they quote Genesis/the constitution to explain keeping animals that can kill them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    Just now

    Nice provocative title. It's not like the British haven't had private zoos over the centuries.

    San Antonio, TX"

    True, but the British grew up, when will the Americans?

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I completely agree with matt-stone.
    And who are we to decide to jail animals for a lifetime?
    Absolutely outrageous...

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    I don't think keeping any animal should be banned. But I do think that all animals kept by individuals be registered on a central database. Then local authoritories know what potential dangerous animals are about and where. Procedures can then be in place if anything goes wrong, e.g. have more tranquiliser darts. Many are rare animals and just to shoot them when they've been let out is terrible.


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