When "Pets" Go Bad

Have you ever thought about getting an unusual pet — maybe a venomous snake, a bear, an alligator or even a wolf? Well, think again. They can go bad, real bad!

By Ed Harp

"This is not a pet, it's a predator," Tim Harrison reminds his audience during one of his frequent public lectures. He's talking about an exotic "pet" he captured and rescued after it escaped. Or perhaps it was simply turned loose because the owner could no longer handle it. Whatever the reason, it ultimately ended up being Harrison's responsibility.

Harrison lives an interesting life. He is an exotic wildlife specialist. Put another way, he earns a living capturing other people's mistakes. His stories are endless - some funny, some tragic, all informative.

Now, you might think an exotic wildlife specialist would live in Africa, Australia, Asia or some other far-away place. Not so with Harrison. He lives in one of our nation's most urban environments - a venue made not of tall grass, native tribes and missionaries, but of tall buildings, multi-lane highways, traffic lights and apartment complexes.

His brother, Jim, is also involved. Jim owns and operates the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and Captive Born Venom Lab (http://www.geocities.com/ kentuckyreptilezoo/). The name speaks for itself.

The facility is open to the public. Reptiles can be observed in natural surroundings, adopted and photographed. Adoptions are in name only. All animals remain on the premises. Most of the residents have been rescued from one place or another. They're offered a rare chance to live out their lives in peace and harmony.

For those who are so inclined, there's an observation window that offers an excellent view of the snakes. Just about every snake on the planet is represented. More than 600 are milked each week. Visitors can watch the process from the safety of a specially constructed deck protected by glass. The venom is sold for medical research.

The brothers have decades of experience capturing, controlling or removing unwanted animals and pets. Their exploits include encounters with cobras, vipers, bears, alligators and wolves.

Some were purchased and housed by owners who kept them because it was "cool" to own something dangerous. A surprising number were purchased by people who think of themselves as animal lovers. Never mind that they don't know a thing about how to care for such an animal, don't understand the expense involved and don't appreciate the danger.

This puff adder, a kissin' cousin to the rhino viper, doesn't like to be handled. Moments after this photo was taken it escaped Jim Harrison's grasp and had to be recaptured. Photo by Ed Harp



One of Tim and Jim's more unique tales originates from what was thought, at the time, to be routine. A king cobra was reported loose in a suburban garage. (All such reports seem to involve "king" cobras.) Most such reports turn out to be harmless backyard snakes. They're usually more scared than the humans. There was no reason to believe this would be otherwise.

Upon their arrival at the house, the Harrisons were confronted by a crowd of nearly 400 people. The local TV news anchor, complete with a film crew, was standing at the ready. OK, here goes, they thought.

After clearing the crowd they entered the garage with the film crew in tow. They didn't find the expected harmless backyard snake, nor did they find a king cobra. What they did find was a monocle cobra hiding behind a folding table!

The story goes like this: A woman returned home from running a few errands and shopping. When she stepped out of her van she felt something strange under her foot. It felt like a snake. As most of us would do, she screamed and jumped back.

Looking down she saw a fully puffed-out cobra staring back at her.

She ran into the house telling her husband about it. Laughing, he got a broom and went to the garage thinking he was about to capture a cobra that would turn out to look very much like a garden snake. When he saw the cobra, he called the authorities. They called the Harrisons.

The snake was captured without incident. It was not destroyed.

Where did it come from? That's never been determined. The local zoos and reptile facilities weren't missing any monocle cobras. No private owners ever owned up to losing one. Its origin was a mystery then, as it is now. Cobras are native to Africa, Australia and Asia, so it didn't get in that garage by itself.


Another pet snake story didn't end so pleasantly, however. It seems that a metropolitan fireman had an attraction for snakes - venomous snakes. In fact, he had a snake room in his home. One of his pets was a rhinoceros viper, also known as a river jack.

Rhino vipers are extraordinarily beautiful and unusual in appearance. Their colors range from blue, black, purple and red to yellow. They have large, horn-like protrusions on their head. Rhinos are native to the rain forests of Africa and are related to the fer-de-lance. Their venom is extremely toxic and their fangs quite long. In short, they're dangerous snakes.

What he found in the residence was remarkable. Near the cage was a half-frozen rat and a pair of tongs. It appeared as if the fireman was bitten while feeding his pet. It may have been an accidental bite. Maybe the snake missed the rat. Maybe it was a defensive bite. No one will ever know.

The unfortunate man stopped breathing within minutes of being bitten. Despite heroic medical efforts, he was pronounced dead shortly thereafter. The man had a family.

Tim was able to capture the snake without anyone else being hurt. The snake currently lives in a local reptile rescue facility.

In both these stories the snakes were lucky. They were rescued by a professional and are still alive. Most such snakes are not so lucky. They are usually killed on the spot, no questions asked. Our fireman was not as lucky as his snake. He was the one killed on the spot.


How does a person acquire such a pet, you ask? It's not nearly as hard as you might think. They're legal in most jurisdictions. Venomous snakes are probably advertised in the Classified Ads of your local paper. All species are available over the Internet. And, if all else fails, there's always the local reptile swap meet.

Current Internet prices for cobras start at around $100. Rhino vipers are more expensive. A 20-inch one will set you back $199. On top of the purchase price you'll need $68 for Delta DASH shipping and another $10 for the box.

If you should be bitten by a venomous snake, don't panic. (Yes, I know, but that's what the experts say.) In many cases, the bites are dry; in others, the snake injects only a small amount of venom.

Seek medical treatment immediately. Most bites are not fatal if treated. Try to capture the snake if you can do so safely. Identification is important. Treatment varies by species.

Be wary of identifying a snake from photographs. Most photographed snakes are healthy, their colors vibrant. Pet snakes are often in poor condition with very different colors. Let experts help, if possible.

Consider this case of misidentification. Tim was once asked to treat a sick snake. "It just won't eat," was the owner's description of the problem. He was told the snake was a small constrictor purchased at a swap meet. When Tim arrived he was astounded. The "constrictor" was in fact a coral snake.

Don't, for any reason, keep a venomous snake as a pet. Don't keep any snake as a pet. "It doesn't make sense," is Tim Harrison's straightforward advice.



Bears are another problem in urban environments. Some years ago they were popular as pets. Cubs sure look cute and cuddly. The problem is, they grow up. As they mature, bears inevitably begin to display their wild animal traits.

One of Tim's best bear stories illustrates the point. Cuddles, a 200-pound black bear, lived with her master in a third-story apartment. For a time this arrangement worked out well enough.

Sure, the neighbors heard a few strange sounds coming from the apartment, but what the heck? They thought it was probably just a big dog of some sort. After all, who would keep a bear in an apartment? The thought never crossed their minds.

That is, until one of them decided to fix a little lunch one day. The neighbor thought spaghetti with strong garlic sauce sounded good. So did Cuddles.

The bear ripped through the wall separating the two apartments - studs, drywall, pictures and all - to reach his Italian dinner. As the cook screamed and ran away, Cuddles calmly ate lunch.

Violating his own rule of never disturbing a wild animal when food is nearby, Tim led Cuddles out to the animal control van with the remnants of the spaghetti.

This story ended without tragedy. Not all do. It could just have easily have ended in death or serious injury to the neighbor, not to mention Tim while he was trying to control the bear. The physical strength of such an animal is enormous. Even without trying, they can hurt you.

Cuddles now lives in a rescue facility.


Alligators are often kept as pets. Although not as cute as bears, they look harmless enough when they're little.

Unfortunately, just like bears, they grow up. Mature alligators eat a lot. They are not especially fond of their masters. In most cases, they learn to associate humans with food, not love. They need professional supervision.

The power of their jaws is almost beyond belief. They can sever an arm or a leg without breaking a sweat. Sometimes they don't do it on purpose, they just do it. That's little consolation to the victim, however.

An especially mean gator lived with a motorcycle gang in the rural suburbs of one of our major cities. It was brought back from Florida as a gift by the owner's boyfriend. A prior escape attempt had resulted in the alligator being clubbed in an attempt to kill it. It wasn't killed. Its mouth was cruelly disfigured. As a result it became mean . . . real mean.

After the beating, it lived in the basement of the gang's clubhouse. It grew to nearly 6 feet in length. The gator ate chickens. They were thrown down the basement steps to it. The residents were too afraid to do anything else.

Finally, out of desperation, the gang members called Tim's brother. He called Tim and asked him to pick up the alligator as a favor. No big deal, been there and done that, Tim thought as he drove toward the house.

After working his way down the steps, very carefully, he pulled the alligator from under a bed. After a serious tussle the alligator was subdued, its jaws secured with duct tape.

Thereafter the alligator was transferred to Jim's custody. During the transfer it broke Jim's glasses and his nose. " . . . meanest gator I've ever encountered," is Jim's printable version of the events.

The alligator lived out the rest of its days at the reptile zoo. It never got over being mean. It was that way until the last day of its life. What a shame.

The situation could have been worse. The owners could have turned it loose in the local woods, park, river, stream or lake. A lot of people do. In most cases, the released gators die a horrible death from starvation and exposure. In some cases, they live on to attack, cripple or kill a local resident. They are then killed themselves, a tragedy for both human and animal.


Wolves occupy a special category of pets all by themselves. A wolf looks very much like a dog. They feed the ego of some people.

Look like a dog they do; act like one they don't. An adult male wolf will weigh between 75 and 125 pounds. That's larger than most dogs. Their jaws can exert up to 1,500 pounds of pressure per square inch. That's twice the pressure that can be exerted by a German shepherd.

Wolves have a keen sense of smell, acute hearing and excellent eyesight. They are far-ranging animals in the wild. They can trot for hours and are capable of traveling up to 60 miles in a single day or night. Wolves are top predators within the food chain.

Under normal conditions - in the wild - they will not harm humans. In fact, they go to great lengths to avoid human contact. The stories you hear about them sneaking into houses and following people are just that, stories. Don't believe them.

A number of breeders have crossed these magnificent creatures with dogs. A German shepherd, husky or malamute is the usual choice. According to Harrison, the German shepherd and wolf cross is a bad combination. He believes it combines the worst pet traits of both - the aggression of a shepherd and the cunning and strength of a wolf.

On top of that, because of their disposition, most hybrid wolves are kept penned up or on chains. This compounds the

problem. As their attitude deteriorates, their owners spend less and less time with them. Lack of human contact makes them worse. It's a vicious cycle that rarely corrects itself.

The destructive power of these creatures cannot be overstated. They're especially dangerous around food and their pups.

Tim often tells the story of a call he received from a wolf owner saying the creature had gone "crazy." "He's tearing up everything in the house, including the walls," was the basic description of the problem.

Tim was surprised when he saw the wolf. It looked and acted normal. Then it happened. A cockroach ran across the floor and took refuge under the baseboard. The wolf, sensing a snack, ran after the bug and started ripping at the baseboard and wall. If not stopped, he would have torn down the house. He wasn't crazy. He was a wolf.

It's often said that there are no orphan wolves. The pack takes care of its own, so to speak. This should give prospective owners an insight into the problems with mother wolves and their pups. They will protect their babies, no matter the cost to themselves.

Nearly all domestic wolves and hybrid wolves are eventually killed. Most are shot when they escape and terrorize the neighborhood, others when they become unmanageable. Those that aren't killed on the spot are taken to the dog pound, where they are eventually destroyed. They are not adoptable.

If you love wolves and admire their beauty and strength, why subject them to such a fate? Keeping these animals for pets is not helpful to the species, the environment or to Mother Nature. They are wild predators. Let them live that way.

* * *

The animals described in this article should not be kept as pets. The fact is, regardless of how much you may admire them, they make poor pets. They are dangerous, hard to control, expensive to keep and require specialized skills.

"It doesn't make sense." l


Tim Harrison is the author of Wild Times, Tales From Urban Safaris. It can be purchased from Orange Frazier Press, www.orangefrazier.com.

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