The Call of the Wild

Is America’s mania for owning wild animals destroying what makes them most magnificent?

by carly nairn

illustration by elizabeth graeber

1Brink Magazine

 

In a cavernous indoor stadium, a breathless auctioneer pounds his gavel against an old wooden desk. Below, roaming a pen that resembles a paddock crossed with a boxing ring, a seven-foot-tall camel lazily chews its cud. The auctioneer points his finger at the bidders: An Amish family of five is going up against a couple of cowboys. The bids rise higher and higher—$20,000, $22,000, $25,000—and the Amish blink first. “Going once, going twice—sold, Bactrian white female for $30,000. What’s your number, sir?” the auctioneer asks one of the cowboys with a grin.

It’s another day, another wild animal sold at the Lolli Bros. Livestock Market.

Held a few times a year in Macon, Missouri, the market is one of the largest exotic animal auctions in the country. If you have a yen to buy, sell, or trade a giraffe, a zebra, a monkey, a Gila monster, a kangaroo, or a baby exotic cat, this is the place for you. The market draws an intriguing mix of visitors: owners of petting zoos and traveling circuses, Amish families looking to increase their zebra herd, hunters in search of a living trophy, professionals who use exotic beasts as advertising, and ordinary people who just want to own a wild animal—many among them empty nesters looking for a baby surrogate. This year, baby wallabies are in. I overhear a group of women, each of whom is toting a baby wallaby in a brightly hued pouch, chattering about color choices. Why, one woman asks another, did you choose lime-green? “Because it matches her bottle!” the other woman replies.

Between the bidding rounds, I ask Indiana veterinarian Dave Brichler why he collects wild animals. “It’s a hobby,” he says. Today, his  fourth time at the market, he bought six camels that he plans to display near his clinic. But the auction is also a social event. “It’s always nice to see everyone,” he says. “It’s like a big family.”

The market, which opened its doors in 1947, is a family business, now owned by four brothers and two sisters. Its site includes the 300-seat auction area and another room stuffed with mounted trophies. The company doesn’t breed animals itself; instead, it takes a cut of the sale price—a cut that is bigger with exotic and unusual animals, which fetch higher prices. Most of the sellers have worked with the Lolli Bros. for many years, and many buyers are frequent purchasers. Most are from rural pockets of the Midwest.

In Macon, an insular community of some 5,000 people, a weekend at the Lolli Bros. is the highlight of the year. I notice people exchanging photos of previous purchases like doting parents, proudly showing how their African crested porcupine or baby kudu (a small antelope) grew up and joined their private zoo. The parking lot is crowded with RVs, the garbage cans piled with crushed Budweiser cans.

Joe Heckrode, a strongly built man decked out in full hunter-style camouflage, has come from his home in Marion, Illinois, to buy a zebra (although he usually favors the large African horned cattle called watusis). Most people who come to the auction are farmers and animal lovers, he says, but personally, he keeps wild animals “because it’s different. I don’t have kids so I’ve got to have something. So I chose animals.” Still, over ice cream sundaes in the café, he acknowledges that “a lot of people do it for the money.”

In fact, for many people at the market, their animals are their livelihood—and it’s a largely unregulated one. Few complain about this, for obvious reasons. If they’re running a dairy camel farm or a zebra-breeding ranch, they have no interest in seeing that business fall under the control of a bureaucracy. The same holds true for people who buy and sell exotic animals. When I bring up regulation, Heckrode bangs his spoon on the table and announces that the USDA controls “way too much.”

Without anyone really noticing, the buying, selling, and trading of wild animals has exploded in the United States. During the last couple of decades, Americans have been avidly acquiring primates, poisonous reptiles, rare birds, and practically every other animal you can think of. Today, there are more wild animals in the United States than remain in many wildernesses around the world. According to the World Wildlife Fund, private owners in Texas alone keep more tigers than are currently living in the wild globally. There are 15,000 exotic cats serving as pets in the U.S., an equal number of privately owned primates, and millions of captive reptiles such as monitors and venomous snakes.

As the camel auction demonstrates, these animals are expensive, and dealing in them is big business. Because uniform control of the trade does not exist and state regulations vary widely, hard figures are not available, but it’s clear that Americans spend enormous amounts every year  to acquire lions, tigers, primates, reptiles, birds, and other wild animals. The trade is most robust in rural areas of the South and Midwest, where regulation is lax and much of the populace grows up on farms or ranches, becoming familiar with animals at an early age.

With the exception of reptiles, birds, fish, and amphibians, which are difficult to breed and are mainly acquired in their native habitat, most of the wild animals bought and sold in the U.S. are bred in captivity here—a practice that started only recently. At first glance, the fact that the animals are not forcibly removed from their natural environment makes the whole enterprise seem relatively benign. In fact, defenders of the trade argue that they are protecting creatures that are increasingly threatened throughout the world. But there is something unsettling, and a little creepy, about America’s newfound mania—one shared by no other country on earth—for breeding, domesticating, and collecting wild animals. By turning tigers into living trophies and chimpanzees into pets, we run the risk of forgetting what made those creatures so magnificent in the first place: their wildness.

Cat Haven worker, Meg Pauls, cooes at and scratches Dianna, a female white tiger.
Cat Haven worker, Meg Pauls, cooes at and scratches Dianna, a female white tiger.

 

At an exotic cat park deep in the foothills of central California, a snow leopard leaps against the walls of his wire cage. Jackson is showing off for his “mother,” a middle-aged woman named Wendy Wichelman-Debbas who is sitting just outside of the 10-by-10 foot cage. Wichelman-Debbas is the copresident of Cat Haven, a facility in the small town of Dunlap that houses everything from male lions to a peculiar otter-like feline called a jaguarundi. Jackson, a rambunctious four-month-old whose pale gray fur is accented by a bright purple collar, is playing hide and seek with Wichelman-Debbas, almost tripping over his huge paws—which evolved to romp over soft snow in cold alpine regions of Central Asia, not to play in California dirt. It’s a hot afternoon, and Jackson soon flops down for a rest.

Wichelman-Debbas is the only person who can touch Jackson or play with him—if anyone else tries to get close, a throaty snarl and a swipe of a paw quickly discourage further intimacies. The bond between the two formed shortly after Jackson was born at a big-cat breeding facility in Kansas. Wichelman-Debbas took him in when his mother abandoned her litter three weeks after birth, as is common among felines, and raised him with bottle feedings every three to four hours.

Many of the 31 cats at Cat Haven have a similar bond with Wichelman-Debbas. She says that Jackson and the others were brought here for educational purposes, to showcase some of the “amazing creatures of the world.” Jackson has spent almost all of his life here in various cages. In the wild, his dependence on his mother would quickly fade as he became an independent hunter. Here, his dependence will last his lifetime.

But Wichelman-Debbas knows better than to treat Jackson like a house cat. “Even if you hand-raise them, you can still totally get hurt,” she says. “They never lose some of that wildness.”

A small but significant number of people have learned just how dangerous domestic wild animals can be. One infamous attack took place in Las Vegas in 2003, during a performance of the popular magic act Siegfried and Roy. Forty-five minutes into the show, a seven-year-old male Bengal tiger named Montecore grabbed Roy Horn by the neck after Horn slipped and fell to the floor. Shouting “No, no!” Horn struck at Montecore with his microphone, then tried unsuccessfully to wedge it between the animal’s jaws. Attendants rushed the stage, but were unable to prevent the 380-pound white tiger from dragging Horn off the stage, crushing his windpipe and severing one of his arteries. Horn suffered severe blood loss and had a stroke a few weeks after the incident. The Las Vegas show ended, and Horn remains partially paralyzed.

Whenever the wild animal industry finds itself regulated, a highly publicized violent incident was usually responsible. One of the most notorious episodes took place in 2009, on an exotic wildlife farm near Zanesville, Ohio. Debt-ridden and facing divorce, its owner, Terry Thompson, shot himself—but not before opening the cages of 49 lions, wolves, and bears. When police arrived at the compound, they were confronted by tigers slinking out of their cages and carnivores crouching between abandoned vehicles. According to reports, they couldn’t approach Thompson’s body to determine whether he was alive because a white tiger “appeared to be eating his body.” With only a few hours of daylight left, and fearful after having been charged by a tiger and a bear, the police ended up shooting all the loose animals. The bloodbath called attention to the dangers of owning exotic animals and led to a push for regulation. Now Ohio has some of the nation’s toughest regulations of the sale and licensing of exotic animals.

The USDA regulates the health of wild animals out of concern for its impact on agribusiness, but federal oversight of the trade in exotic wildlife is lax. Consequently, regulation falls to the states—resulting in zero consistency. In California,  Cat Haven undergoes USDA inspections and carries permits from the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. In Missouri, however, the Lolli Bros. can trade in exotic cats and other species because the state allows their sale with a permit and sales are overseen by the USDA. Alabama, Idaho, Nevada, North Carolina, and South Carolina don’t even require a permit to keep an exotic animal. Most of the states with lax regulation are safe havens for exotic animal auctions. It’s at these auctions that many of the big cats like Jackson are sold.

As the day’s auctions wind down, Sheila Kroeschel, a truck stop manager from Barry, Illinois, sits with her black-capped capuchin monkey, John (“like the one in Pirates of the Caribbean”), on her shoulder and watches as miniature horses are put on the block. She bought John a few years ago at the auction. A boisterous adolescent with patches of black hair that stick straight out, John demands attention. When I ask what it’s like to live with a monkey, Kroeschel enthuses, “They are very smart. They know how to give high-fives. John has a Facebook page!”

John’s high five isn’t the full five, though—three fingers of his right hand are missing. When Kroeschel bought him from a Florida breeder, he was in poor health and ended up needing to have a few digits amputated.

Like Heckrode, Kroeschel keeps her animals—she has another monkey back in Illinois—for companionship. “The kids are older now and out of the house,” she says. “And monkeys are extremely smart.”

Humans have always been drawn to beasts. We want to tame them, exploit them—and worship them. We’ve mapped them in the stars, painted them on the walls of prehistoric caves, and mythologized them in religions. We’ve turned them into beloved pets, cash cows, and, now, fetishized emblems of wildness.

It’s a quintessential American quality to regard the world and its bounty as there for the taking. America’s obsession with dominating the wilderness predates Teddy Roosevelt, but our obsession with collecting wild animals didn’t take off until the mid ‘90s, spurred by the enormous success of Steve Irwin’s TV show, The Crocodile Hunter. Viewers saw a jovial Aussie who was unafraid to wrestle with crocs or hang out with lions. That show and others like it made wild animals seem cool and fascinating—and made it easy to believe that keeping them isn’t any different than keeping Fido or Fluffy. At the same time that demand ramped up, there was an exponential increase in the number of captive-born exotic animals. The craze was on, and it is showing no signs of stopping.

Those who defend this new cultural phenomenon argue that Americans are saving endangered populations of wild animals by housing them and monitoring their breeding. It’s hard to oppose a practice that saves a species from extinction.But if conservation were really the issue, the hundreds of millions of dollars that Americans spend to buy, sell, and trade exotic cats and primates that end up caged in backyards might be better used to support conservation efforts in the animals’ natural habitats.

And beyond conservation, the larger question arises: What, exactly, are we conserving?

By taking animals out of the wild, we change their nature. As Phoenix zoo veterinarian Kevin Wright notes, domesticated wild animals do not develop normally. They lose their innate qualities: the ability to feed themselves, to have instinctive sex, to create social connections with others of their kind. The truth of Wright’s observations becomes apparent during my sojourn at Cat Haven as Wichelman-Debbas and I are visiting a cheetah named Tango. Riding up to his cage on a golf cart,  we find him lounging on a patch of grass. Wichelman-Debbas crouches and tells him, “You are so handsome. I love you, and I want to kiss you on the nose.”

Tango will never have to chase down his lunch, only to see it stolen by a hyena when he is too exhausted to defend it. He is  fed a mix of chicken wings and other meat twice a day. Wichelman-Debbas says that she would never put live food in Tango’s cage: He lacks the hunting skills—skills that his mother would have taught him in the wild—to feed himself live prey. He is a strange hybrid: not sufficiently domesticated to be a pet, but not really wild either. And all his fellow captives are hybrids, too. It’s as if we’ve bred a kind of diluted “wild animal,” an Americanized version to fit our lifestyle.

Without question, Wichelman-Debbas and many others who choose to live with wild animals have only the best intentions. They love and nurture their animals, building relationships that can be a source of comfort, devotion, and affection for both parties. But that does not change the cold truth that at bottom, a human’s relationship to a domesticated wild animal is one of an absurd captor to a wretched prisoner.

As I leave Cat Haven, I muse about what Jackson’s life would be like if he had been born in the wild, with the freedom to congregate with his family, to isolate himself when he wanted, to mate when the time came, to use those oversize paws to catch a snowshoe hare, to never know the bars of a cage—to never see a human.

As I glance back at Jackson’s cage, I notice him lying down, idle. And I wonder if he knows that something is missing.