Exotic pet owners may not know what they’re getting themselves into

By Tiffany Chen
Medill Reports

In the Oscar-nominated movie “I, Tonya,” Allison Janney, who plays Tonya Harding’s mother in the film, has a pet parrot that perches on her shoulder. Sometimes Hollywood movies that feature exotic animals like these can start a trend in people wanting to have one of their own. And new owners may not know some of the challenges that birds and other species can present.

About one in 10 American households own an exotic pet, according to 2012 data from the American Veterinary Medical Association. Exotic animals refer to animals besides dogs and cats, including birds, reptiles and small animals like guinea pigs or ferrets.

“In the next ten years, [the percentage of reptiles per household] are supposed to skyrocket to about 10 percent of all U.S. households,” said Andy Babbitt, the owner of the reptile pet shop Curious Creatures. He said he had seen the number of people getting pet reptiles grow over the years.

However, these animals can easily get sick in the city. Poor housing environments that don’t simulate their natural habitat, or are not big enough to allow the animals to stretch, might put stress on them. Animals can also get sick if they’re not fed with proper food. Housing and diet are the main reasons why exotic pets get ill and their symptoms are often unnoticeable.

“The thing with exotic animals is that they hide their signs of illness,” said Tracye De La Navarre, the Hospital Manager of Animal House of Chicago. “That’s what evolution has taught them to do. Otherwise, they’ll get picked off if they look sick.”

The lack of knowledge about the behavior of animals can surprise owners. Parrots in the wild chew on wood as part of their natural behavior and they might chew on walls and furniture as an alternative. Some animals like parrots and turtles can live up to 80 years old and outlive their owners. De La Navarre says getting an exotic pet is a big commitment.

“There are so many things that are abandoned because people don’t understand the time and effort and destructiveness,” said De La Navarre. “So they give them up.”

The Greater Chicago Cage Bird Club & Rescue (GCCBC) is a shelter for abandoned parrots. Some of the birds are mentally ill due to stress, and one of the first signs that they show is plucking their own feathers. Volunteers not only clean the cage and change the water for the parrots but they also “play” with the animals. Having social interaction with people gives these birds a better chance at being adopted in the future.

“They need affection,” said Jennifer Merle, the vice president of GCCBC. “It’s literally like having a child that will never grow up, never get a job, and never move out.”

Merle cautions that before getting a pet right after watching “Finding Nemo” or “Ninja Turtles,” people should consider if they can take care of the equivalent of a never-growing child for decades to come.

Photo at top: A parrot with a bald chest, due to plucking because of stress. Feb. 6, 2018. (Tiffany Chen/MEDILL)