by Barry Kent MacKay,
Senior Program Associate
Born Free USA's Canadian Representative
Barry is an artist, both with words and with paint. He has been associated with our organization for nearly three decades and is our go-to guy for any wildlife question. He knows his animals — especially birds — and the issues that affect them. His blogs will give you just the tip of his wildlife-knowledge iceberg, so be sure to stay and delve deeper into his Canadian Project articles. If you like wildlife and reading, Barry's your man. (And we're happy to have him as part of our team, too!)
New fad puts vulnerable people at risk
Thanks to a new trend, young children, kids with autism, frail elderly people, and other folks are unknowingly facing a needless new risk of physical and psychological harm. Increasingly, organizations—companies and charities alike—are taking advantage of a very safe practice, with very real benefits, to indulge their own desire to keep exotic, and even dangerous, animals.
We know that people with autism, the sick and the elderly, hardened criminals, and innocent children can all benefit psychologically when brought into contact with therapy animals. It is now commonplace to see well-trained dogs taken by compassionate owners and handlers into various hospitals, senior citizens’ homes, and similar settings. Budgies and canaries, fish in tanks, and small mammals can all contribute to the well-being of compromised people, the stressed, and the elderly, by simple virtue of their presence. It has been reported that prisoners can benefit from caring for farm animals. Because they’re gentle, non-judgmental, dependent, cuddly, and appealing, such animals perform useful social services—and some can even benefit from the love and care they receive in return. I’ve heard warm tales of people, silent and withdrawn, who have been charmed into a healthier state of being by simply having a cat or dog nearby. A frightened, hospitalized child can be comforted by hugging a gentle dog. I’ve seen it happen in hospital wards.
But now, we have people who like to keep “exotic” animals, but need cash to do so. At best, they may be well-intentioned—but they pose a real danger. Not satisfied with animals who can be trained (such as dogs) or are harmless (such as hamsters or lop-eared rabbits), they keep a wide variety of larger animals who are normally found in zoos, and expose them—and vulnerable people—to one another. The list seems endless: flamingos, pythons, kangaroos, hornbills, tarantulas, alligators, owls, lemurs, porcupines, lynx… you name it. I know of several such organizations just in the Toronto – Hamilton area: each different, yet with similarities. First of all, they are run by people who are generally improperly trained, some including inexperienced teens. These people also seem not to be trained in psychiatry, psychology, early childhood development, or anything else that qualifies them to work with vulnerable people, or the very young. One is a former school teacher, with seemingly no training in animal husbandry, who depends on enthusiastically well-intentioned volunteers.
Before I make my next, very important point, please understand that I am not afraid of snakes or other animals. I hate seeing people made to be afraid of animals, and I spend much of my life trying to ease such fears.
With that said, too much sad experience has taught me that the situation is an unfortunate incident—possibly a tragedy—waiting to happen. The fact is that these people often seek public support by assuring everyone that they are providing good care for the animals, providing homes for otherwise unwanted animals, and teaching people about nature, conservation, the environment, and all sorts of good things—but, they are really taking advantage of the fact that most folks trust them and assume that nothing can go wrong.
And now, at least some of them are using their animals for “therapy.” When I heard the term “therapy snake” in reference to a Burmese python, I had to speak up.
It is absolutely true that a large python or boa constrictor—snakes capable of killing a child by constriction—can be conditioned to be with people, and therefore conditioned to accept being handled safely, especially if their coils are not looped around one’s neck or torso. And, if they’re too well-fed to have any desire for a large meal.
But, they are not dogs. They cannot be trained beyond a minimal and fragile level, and they can strike without warning… and THAT is my biggest fear. Their teeth are quite long, and point backwards in mouths that open wide. They can lash out in literally a fraction of a second. Even experienced snake handlers get bitten, and pulling the snake away is a difficult task. First responders have been known to have to cut the head off. And if, for whatever reason, they do loop a coil around a person’s neck or body, it takes a couple of strong people to pull the snake away. Now think, please, what the emotional effect of all of that would be on an autistic child, a frail senior, or yourself. Physical and psychological scarring are inevitable. It has already happened, just not in our region in the context of one of these organizations.
One organization has a photo on its website of a little girl, who looks to be about eight, in a sundress, with an oversized gauntlet (padded glove) over her hand, and an eagle owl (a close relative to our native great horned owl) sitting on it. She’s beaming. It’s a wonderful experience for her, no doubt. But, I’ve handled owls and hawks all of my life, and my first thought was: what if she were to slightly lower her arm and the oversized gauntlet slid off? Yes, I would agree that the owl is tame, and has no intention of hurting anyone—but it would then quite likely scramble to regain the perch, or the nearest high point (the little girl’s head), climbing up her bare arm, with talons that can crush life from a rabbit. Yes, that’s a worst case scenario… but must it happen to show the danger?
There are other concerns, including the high incidence of salmonella to be found on the surface of so many reptiles. Kids are routinely urged to feel them: a good way to help them get over groundless fears, yes, but it puts them at risk of potentially serious illness if their hands are not immediately washed (vigorously, and preferably with antiseptic soap), plus any other body part, or clothing, that came in contact with the reptiles. In the demonstrations I’ve watched, this cleaning did not occur.
A single blow from the paw of a lynx can cause a life-long scar, or worse. Unlikely, yes, but why take the chance?
One of these organizations illegally keeps its menagerie in a warehouse, in box-like cages that can’t possibly provide the husbandry needs for the wide variety of species involved. They tote these animals to anyone who will pay. Another is essentially a store-front reptile zoo, with its employees all dressed in uniforms, giving speeches about why these animals should not be kept as pets—while doing exactly that.
Whenever humans, ‘experts’ or otherwise, are killed or seriously injured by an animal quite known to be dangerous, the community reacts; police may investigate; a coroner’s report may be published; and laws may be changed. Here’s an idea; let’s not wait for that. Let’s stop it before it happens.