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Exotic Pet Lovers Upset Over Impact of Monkeypox Scare - 2003-06-20

The recent outbreak of monkeypox in the American mid-west, and its connection to prairie dogs that were kept as pets, has focused attention on so-called "exotic pet ownership." Here in America, it's not at all unusual for people to keep domesticated animals like dogs, or cats, or horses as pets. But prairie dogs are wild animals, and because of that, some people believe they shouldn't be owned. But as VOA's Maura Farrelly found out, dogs aren't the only wild animals being brought into American homes.

Lance Mitchell is an interesting character. He's a hair colorist by trade, who lives with his wife in a fairly typical suburban apartment complex just outside Washington, D.C. He has tattoos on both arms and rings in both ears. He enjoys bicycling, and exploring caves, and says he was raised by Druids, practitioners of an ancient Celtic religion that emphasizes the connection between humans and other animals. That upbringing is one of the reasons Lance Mitchell feels so passionately about his snakes, one-meter and three-meter-long pythons, Georgie and Bert, and his two-meter-long boa constrictor, Medusa.

"Snakes don't have an overly developed brain. They have your basic, primal feelings," he said. "They understand things that they like and dislike. They don't hate. They simply know what they like, and they simply know what they dislike. And that's one of the ways that you tend to develop a relationship with the snake, is by getting the snake to enjoy you, to enjoy your company and enjoy being around you."

Lance Mitchell knows a lot about snakes. He didn't used to. But when a former colleague said she couldn't take care of her boa constrictor anymore, Mr. Mitchell took the snake in, and started reading. About a year later, he rescued two pythons from a situation he calls "abusive". Georgie and Bert, it seems, belonged to a man who just wasn't willing to give them the time and attention they needed.

Lance Mitchell says a snake is much more of a commitment than a dog or a cat. He has to use special heat lamps to make sure the cold-blooded animals stay warm. For the safety of the two house cats he owns, Mr. Mitchell has had to train the snakes to associate food only with one particular cage, and make sure the cats don't go anywhere near that cage. Lance Mitchell also knocks out the live rats he feeds his snakes, because he says it would be irresponsible for him to allow a rat to hurt one of the snakes by fighting back.

"They're a lot of work, they're a lot of care and a lot of loving, and it's a lot of discipline," he said. "These snakes live to be 25, 30 years old. The first snake that I had, he will grow up to be about four and a half meters in length. That's a large reptile for somebody to be handling for thirty years. That's a big, big responsibility. It's like having children in your life. If you're not a very disciplined person, don't get a reptile."

Many animal rights activists, who believe non-domesticated species belong in the wild, have condemned so-called "exotic" pet ownership. An increasing number of U.S. cities and counties have banned the ownership of certain wild animals, like mountain lions and wolves, for public safety reasons. And the connection between monkeypox and prairie dogs is causing some people to question whether any wild animals should be kept as pets.

It's a suggestion that angers exotic pet owners, like Mary Robbins, who runs a refuge in Texas for spider monkeys. She's also a spokesperson for a group called the National Alternative Pet Association. "For those who say that no one should be allowed to keep an exotic animal for any reason, bear in mind that we would have no domestic animals had not man been bringing in exotic animals for everything from food to companionship, and domesticating them since time began," he said.

Mary Robbins does acknowledge that snakes and monkeys and prairie dogs aren't for everyone. She says when you own a domesticated animal, it's a pet, but when you own a wild animal, it's a way of life. And while she vehemently opposes any laws that make the ownership of wild animals illegal, she says she could support laws that would require people to educate themselves about an animal before they could own it.

"If a handbook were made up, giving full details of what was needed, not just required by the government, but what was needed to keep any exotic pet, and every exotic pet buyer was made to take the handbook home for three days, and then return to get the pet, I believe that probably a very large percentage of the people would not get the pet," she said.

And abusive situations like the one Lance Mitchell found his snakes in could be avoided. Until the recent monkeypox outbreak, exotic pet ownership, and the question of whether it should be restricted, or even allowed at all, wasn't a major issue for most American lawmakers, in spite of attempts by animals rights groups to make it one. But in the wake of the pox outbreak, the U.S. government banned the sale of prairie dogs entirely. And at least one animal rights group, the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, is pointing to monkeypox as a reason for why all exotic pets should be banned.