Two capybaras stand along the side of a path. Photo by Ezequiel Racker, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

May 1, 2023

Wildlife Don’t Make Good Pets

The recent news of a 4-foot-long alligator captured in New York City gained national headlines. Veterinarians examining the animal at Bronx Zoo found to be weak and suffering from cold shock. Alligators are native to Florida so the existence of an animal in the Big Apple is curious. Perhaps it was another unfortunate example of a pet released into the “wild” after outliving its welcome.

Two small yellow and black alligators  bask on a black railing near water.
Photo by Dakota Tweedy.

Sadly, such eye-catching news does, on occasion, feature Illinois in the headline.

On January 12, 2023, a family in Bloomington awoke to find a surprising visitor in their garage—a lemur. A primate native to the island of Madagascar and some neighboring islands, lemurs might seem like cuddly, fun-loving, cartoon creatures but they pose a risk to human, and animal, health through biting, scratching and disease transmission. Illinois Conservation Police responded to the location and enlisted the help of Miller Park Zoo staff to safely remove the animal and arrange transfer to a suitable facility. The origin of the lemur is unknown.

In 2022 a bowfisherman shot a mature capybara in Randolph County. Native to South America, the capybara is the world’s largest living rodent, reaching nearly 4.5 feet in length, standing up to 24 inches in height and topping the scales at 146 pounds. This semi-aquatic mammal is herbivorous, feeding on a variety of plants. How this animal arrived in Randolph County is a mystery.

Stan McTaggart, Furbearer Biologist with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife Resources, noted that in addition to the lemur and capybara, other exotic mammal incidents within the state in the past two decades have included vervet monkey, serval African lion, tiger, caracal and wallaroo.

“I’ve had calls from folks wanting to keep everything from a sugar glider to an opossum and from a river otter to a bat,” he noted. “Keeping wild animals in captivity is simply a bad idea, and in many instances is illegal under the Illinois Wildlife Code and/or the Dangerous Animals Act.”

The list of hazardous and dangerous animals illegally kept in Illinois as pets isn’t restricted to mammals. Cases involving the unlawful possession of dangerous reptiles and amphibians are about as diverse. And disturbing. It is not uncommon to find someone in the illegally possessing an American alligator or venomous snakes. Or both.

On average, Illinois Conservation Police annually seize around a dozen crocodilians. Officers have confiscated a variety of venomous species, including false water cobra, Gila monster, Japanese mamushi (similar to the copperhead native to Illinois), prairie rattlesnake, western diamondback rattlesnake, Mojave rattlesnake, sidewinder, black Pakistan cobra, albino monocled cobra, black forest cobra, king cobra, red spitting cobra, black mamba and Gaboon viper.

“On July 20, 2006, Illinois Conservation Police Officers in DeKalb County, along with other local law enforcement agencies, served a search warrant on a residence in Cortland,” noted Conservation Police Officer District 19 Sergeant Matt Graden. “The homeowner illegally possessed a 9-foot 1-inch American alligator weighing 355 pounds, as well as a second American alligator measuring 7-feet five-inches long and weighing 147 pounds. Officers also removed an 8-foot-long green mamba and a 7-foot-long black Pakistan cobra. Both snake species are highly venomous.”

Scott Ballard is the Illinois Department Natural Resources’ Southern Region Endangered and Threatened Species Recovery Specialist and a herpetologist who works closely with law enforcement officers on cases involving the illegal possession of species listed in the Herptiles-Herp Act.

“The snakes in the 2006 DeKalb County case were venomoid, meaning that their venom sacs had been surgically removed,” Ballard explained. “Since venomoid snakes can still produce venomous offspring, and sometimes the venomoid surgery leaves portions of the venom gland and venom duct in place, such snakes are treated as true venomous species.”

Included on the list of species defined as dangerous under the Illinois Dangerous Animals Act are lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, lynx, bobcat, jaguarundi, bear, hyena, wolf and coyote. The Herptiles-Herps Act regulates the possession of venomous snakes, various other snakes, crocodilians, monitor lizards, turtles and amphibians.

A green and gray snake coiled in a gray speckled box lined with newspaper lifts its head to peer outside the box.
Black mamba. Photo by Scott Ballard.

Both the Illinois Dangerous Animals Act and the Herptiles-Herps Act may be enforced by all law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Given the nature of these offenses, Illinois Conservation Police Officers most often are the primary investigators or are involved in such cases.

What happens to exotic animals possessed illegally and confiscated? This depends on the type of animal, it overall health and whether suitable accommodations can be found. When possible, the animals undergo health screenings, veterinary care and a period of quarantine, and are then placed with a properly licensed private individual, zoo or refuge where responsible and humane care will occur. On some occasions, circumstances require an animal to be humanely euthanized.

“Not only does the possession of exotic or dangerous animals put humans and pets at risk of injury or death, but many of these animals may transfer diseases (e.g. rabies, distemper, brucellosis, salmonella, tularemia, plague) and parasites not normally encountered in North America,” McTaggart explained. “There’s also the question of what happens to the animal if it escapes—or is released. We are always concerned about impacts to native wildlife and there are plenty of examples of invasive species thriving across the U.S. that are creating problems for native species and habitats.”

Owning any pet is a responsibility but opting for an exotic pet is a dangerous proposition that earns many pet owners an appointment before a judge. Choose your pets wisely.

Kathy Andrews Wright is retired from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources where she was editor of Outdoor Illinois magazine. She is currently the editor of Outdoor Illinois Journal.

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