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Raising Lions, Tigers And Bears In Suburbia (Oh My!)

Kitty, a pet lion in Floyd County, Ky., was purchased at a flea market when he was a 5-pound cub. When he was photographed in 2006, above, Kitty weighed more than 400 pounds.
Zachary Cantrell
Kitty, a pet lion in Floyd County, Ky., was purchased at a flea market when he was a 5-pound cub. When he was photographed in 2006, above, Kitty weighed more than 400 pounds.

If you're looking to buy a tiger, camel, Burmese python or chimpanzee, head to the Internet -- or to Missouri.

"You can go online and search 'tiger for sale, lion for sale, monkey for sale' and get all sorts of opportunities," explains journalist Peter Laufer. "You can go to a state like Missouri, where although the laws are changing, basically the laws are unrestricted -- the ownership of animals of any kind is legal."

Laufer examines the world of exotic animals in suburbia -- including whether humans can own normally wild animals in a mutually safe and beneficial way -- in his new book, Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets.

In a conversation with Fresh Air contributor Dave Davies, Laufer explains how he spoke to breeders and traders who smuggle exotic animals across international boundaries and make it easy for customers to purchase and raise a tiger or camel in their backyards.

"I was originally intrigued by the issue of smuggling, but found it was becoming more interesting to try and learn: Who are these people? Why do they want these animals? And what are they doing with them?" Laufer says.

Peter Laufer is the author of several books, including The Dangerous World of Butterflies, Mission Rejected: U.S. Soliders Who Say No to Iraq and A Question of Consent: Innocence and Complicity in the Glen Ridge Rape Case. He has also written and produced several documentaries, including Garbage, a biography of household trash, and Exodus to Berlin, about the immigration of Jews from the former Soviet Union to Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Interview Highlights

On the kind of people who want exotic animals in their homes

"It seems to come down to people who want to either draw attention to themselves or want to make a statement of how consequential they are. The types include the extraordinarily wealthy, the powerful (in an underground world) like drug dealers -- those who want attention in public, like the muscle men walking down South Beach in Miami with the Burmese python around their neck along with the gold chain and the tattoos. These sound like stereotypes and they aren't. They're what I found as I looked to answer [who the people are.]"

On the legality of owning exotic animals

"We have a patchwork of laws around the country, so it depends on where you live. If you live in Texas and several other states, then sure, you can have a tiger in your yard and it's nobody's business more than it would be if you had any other animal. ... The laws differ state-to-state. Sometimes there are local and regional laws. There are no overarching federal laws to prevent you from having an exotic pet ... and the only thing that I can say to maybe make those who feel uncomfortable with all of this feel a little bit better is that the trend seems to be for more and more restrictive statewide laws making it more difficult for people to freewheelingly keep these kinds of animals."

On the people who take care of big cats such as tigers and lions

"If there were poster children for this lifestyle it would have to be Zuzana [Kukol] and Scott [Shoemaker, who own big cats in Nevada]. They have massive acreage out in the foothills and the animals themselves look well cared for ... and they seem happy (however, one would adjudicate the happiness of a caged, captive-bred animal). And maybe the best argument for them is that somebody's got to take care of them. These are animals that may have been raised initially, while captive-bred, to be so-called photo cubs. And they'd be in a shopping center and their picture would be taken with you and your kids and this would be something cute for your mantelpiece. Well, once this animal matures [and can't] be used for that purpose anymore, then where are they going to go? And there aren't enough places. So this couple likes their exotic pets, as they call them, and they keep them far from neighbors and they feed them well. It's not my lifestyle, but they seem quite happy."

On the danger of having household exotic animals

"I think [the danger] is, perhaps ... part of the intrigue. A lot of us do things that could turn sour easily, whether it is going too fast on the highway or skydiving or whatever it is we choose to do. I think that the combination of the fact that they are anthropomorphized -- the big cats, maybe not the snakes -- and they are unusual and that they do draw attention to the owners combined with that reality that something may not work right. ... It's, 'Look what I'm able to do. You're afraid of this. It could kill you. It could kill me. But it's not going to kill me because it loves me.' "

On calls for legislation

"Those who believe that this activity is wrong -- either from an animal rights standpoint or because they think it's a danger to their community or even just annoyance in their midst -- seize on these kind of events [such as the chimp who attacked a woman in Connecticut or the baby smothered by a python] and bring attention to them for the purpose of using them as publicity devices against the lack of regulation and the sporadic enforcement of regulation."

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