Monday, July 16, 2012

FAQ – Do Wild Animals Make Good Pets?

Absolutely not!

To start with, you need to understand that I did not deliberately take wild animals for pets. When they came my way, it was because for various reasons, they could not survive on their own.  Either they were orphaned babies, they had some sort of injury that would make living in the wild impossible, or they had been confiscated by the Game Warden and brought to me for care.  I had the authority to take such animals because of my U.S.D.A. License to do so.  Most states require a permit of some sort to keep wild animals in captivity.  I also worked in direct cooperation with the Auburn University Veterinary Clinic and spent some time in training at their Raptor Barn.

In this picture you can see my raccoon, Rascal.  I was extremely careful with him and would not allow anyone to touch him.  My husband, Joe understood that a raccoon can inflict a nasty bite, and for that reason, he did not touch him either. 

In most states, if a wild pet animal bites someone, it must be tested for rabies. That means killing the animal and examining its brain.  It doesn’t matter if your pet is a squirrel, fox, bobcat, coyote, or skunk.  The law applies to all of them.  For that reason, I did not allow anyone to touch Rascal. 

Even when raised in captivity, wild animals are always wild animals. If they feel threatened for any reason, they will bite. If you do something that they see as a challenge, they will often respond by trying to fight.  You cannot correct or discipline a wild animal like you would a dog.  Usually, the person gets the worst end of it.  Then, because of foolish human error, the animal has to be destroyed.

One of the things people don’t understand is that there is a difference between a wild animal raised in captivity and a domesticated animal.  Domesticated animals have been selectively bred for thousands of years to get along with people, to understand human body language, and to cooperate with people. They instinctively understand some basic things about people that wild animals do not understand.

One of the most frustrating things I encountered as a zookeeper was people who raised baby raccoons as pet.  When they are tiny babies, they are playful and a lot of fun.  People treat them like they would a puppy or a kitten. They will roughhouse and play with them when they are little, but when the raccoon grows up, it’s a different story.

Here is what usually happens:
Now, instead of a cute little fuzz-ball mouthing and playing with them, they have a forty-pound animal with sharp teeth and claws who may leap at them from the top of a door or curtain rod. It isn’t cute or funny any more.  That fighting play was so cute when they were kits, was actually training to be a big, bad, tough old ‘coon who can whip your average dog with one paw tied behind its back. That’s what raccoons do. They tussle and fight. They don’t understand that you don’t have tough raccoon hide to protect you.

Also, they are very intelligent and curious.  They love to work puzzles and figure out how to get into things.  When you come home and find that all your kitchen cabinets have been opened and most of your food containers have been ripped apart and scattered all over the floor, it isn’t funny any more.  Punishing them won’t make any difference. That’s just part of the nature of raccoons.

Then this animal is usually exiled from the house and locked into a cage. Now he is bored and lonely. Your raccoon will spend hours figuring out how to get out of that cage.  He has nimble paws and can usually open most latches.

Raccoons are very strong. They can rip the staples out of the boards to make an opening where they can escape. As an adult, he is strong enough to rip chicken wire apart.  It takes welded wire to build a pen strong enough to hold a raccoon.

So what happens when he gets out?  If he doesn’t find a way to get back into your house, he will find some place else to go.  The problem is, wild animals raised in captivity never learn how to hunt or to take care of themselves in the wild. When they get hungry, they will eat whatever they can find. It may be your neighbor’s dog or cat food. Worse yet, it could be yours or your neighbor’s chickens. Outside of that nuisance factor, most wild animals raised in captivity usually end up getting killed.

I understood all of this before I accepted the orphaned baby raccoon.  Rascal was gently and carefully handled. I never played rough with him. I only cuddled and petted him. I made sure he had lots of puzzles and toys to play with.  Caring for a wild animal is a full-time and often expensive commitment.  Most people are not equipped or trained to do it properly.

Instead of a simple animal cage, we built him a ten-foot by ten-foot pen. It had a concreted floor and a tin roof and was enclosed with welded wire. His gate had a padlock on it.  Inside was a pool for water, a giant hollow log to sleep in, and several large branches he could climb.  It wasn’t perfect, and it wasn’t in the wild, but it was the best we could do for him. I made it my business to spend time sitting in his cage with him several times a day so he would have company and socializing. Rascal lived to the ripe old age of ten.

The thing to remember when you keep a wild animal is this:
That animal doesn’t live with you, you live with it.
You will need to learn to live by it’s rules.

If you have any questions about being a zookeeper, about my zoo Storybook Farm Petting Zoo, about animals, or about The Thwarting of Mr. Dingsnapple, please ask!

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