Why rich people are obsessed with owning exotic animals
There’s an online marketplace where shopping for a bear, lynx, or even a Bactrian camel, is like browsing the racks at Neiman Marcus. Have $6,000 to spend? You could very well take home your own baby sloth. How about a wallaby? That’ll cost you $2,500.
“I have a 7 month old, bottle fed, Kodiak Brown Bear cub for sale,” one listing says. “Female. Bottle fed, leash broke. Extremely well behaved!!! Used daily for photo opportunities, and has been handled a lot. She really is one-of-a-kind!”
Exotic pets don’t come for cheap, yet there’s a surging demand for captive wildlife. Today, owning an exotic animal is almost a rite of passage for the rich and the famous. On social media sites such as Instagram and Tinder, chained tigers and cheetahs are flaunted next to Lamborghinis, Louis Vuitton bags, and luxury yachts; mere accessories to the one percent who can afford them.
Mike Tyson reportedly spent more than $20,000 on the purchase of three Bengal tigers. Paris Hilton once added a kinkajou, who she named “Baby Luv,” to her entourage in 2006. And Justin Bieber notoriously acquired a capuchin monkey, possibly illegally, only to leave it behind with customs officials in Munich, Germany.
Arguably, exotic pets are just another commodity available exclusively to the super rich. After all, this multi-billion dollar industry doesn’t operate on charity. But have humans always associated animals with status, or is this a uniquely modern phenomenon? Why can’t rich people just settle for cats and dogs?
“It’s ego, plain and simple,” Lisa Wathne, a captive wildlife manager at the Humane Society of the United States, told me. “Especially when you see people with tigers on leashes or giant snakes wrapped around their necks. There’s no doubt they’re thinking about themselves far more than they’re thinking about the animals.”
Thousands of years before zoos were created, menageries of strange, beautiful, and ferocious creatures were cultivated by the ultra elite. These weren’t just roadside medleys of animal exotica, they were man-made recreations of the Garden of Eden—bestiaries come to life.
In 3500 BCE, the Egyptian capital of Hierakonpolis housed a royal collection of captive elephants, hippopotamus, hartebeest, and now-extinct aurochs. Pompey, a general of Ancient Rome, allegedly marched 600 lions and twenty elephants into the Colosseum to be slaughtered for sport. The Mongol emperor Kublai Khan was said by Marco Polo to have kept leopards, cheetahs, tigers, elephants, as well as two-hundred species of birds in his own private park. And in 1210, the famous Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London was established so that members of the court could be amused by herds of odd beasts.
Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. "The menagerie in the Tower." 1808. Image: The New York Public Library Digital Collections
Many indigenous peoples also hold animals in a special, sometimes deified, regard. Among the Awá tribe, who live in Brazilian forests of Maranhão, coatis, capuchin and howler monkeys are often raised as pets. Khazakh hunters called burkitshi are known for their unique relationship with Central Asia’s golden eagles.
To certain groups, “animals, some plants and some objects had the status of moral persons. All animals exist independently and need respect,” Dr. Eugene Hunn, an ethnobiologist at the University of Washington, once told the New York Times. "That is different from contemporary pet keeping, where the animal is reduced to a child.”
However, some advocacy groups believe that owning exotic animals is not only ethical, but beneficial to wildlife. REXANO, which stands for Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership, states: “Captive breeding, especially in the private sector, has saved many animals from extinction by providing supply of captive bred animals and therefore reducing the pressures on wild populations, thus helping to conserve them in the wild.” The group also argues that only close personal contact with wild animals can promote their conservation, and because of this, venues such as circuses and fairs are good for both people and wildlife.
In order to understand the exotic pet industry, which can toe the regulatory gray area between legal and black markets, I contacted several sellers on a popular online marketplace. My intent was to learn where they got their animals, who typically bought them, and how easy it would be, if I had the money, to purchase one.
Of the six dealers who I spoke to on the phone, none were willing answer my questions. These were all self-purported USDA licensed sellers, most of whom wrote that they were always available for consultations. One woman, a Florida-based dealer who specialized in family-friendly squirrel monkeys, told me she “just brokered them” for a friend who bred the tiny primates in their home. She declined to say anything else because she believed that “exotic animals have been put in a bad light.”
When I emailed different dealers on the same site, only as a prospective customer, I received responses within a day. Most were quick to inform me of price and availability. Only one person asked if I had ever own “exotics” before.
“There’s nobody keeping track of how many exotic animals are in the United States. All anyone can do is estimate,” Wathne added. According to best guesses, there are currently five to seven-thousand tigers in the country, and fewer than 400 are housed at accredited zoos. For primates, that number is somewhere around 15,000, if not far more.
“In the pet trade, monkeys are sold as surrogate children. People get this little primate wearing diapers—a primate that should be clinging to its mother, but since it’s been torn away from her, will cling to anybody who holds it.”
As for why humans are enamored by exotic animals, the answer is as complex as our evolutionary history. Some anthropologists think that social interaction with animals, for example domestication, allowed us to develop knowledge of tools and biology. It’s believed that wolves were the first animal to be domesticated by humans, somewhere between 30,000 and 10,000 years ago in Eurasia, and since then, our two species have forged a mutually beneficial partnership; our lineages inextricably entwined.
But I suspect the true allure of owning an exotic animal, such as a lion or bear, is entirely inherent to their untamability. Unlike a cat, a lion doesn’t possess generations of selective breeding in its DNA. Bears, unlike dogs, haven’t become more docile as a result of domestication. These animals are often rare, but more importantly, they’re wild.
Perhaps to the extremely wealthy, wildness is a commodity itself. Humans have dominated our environment for millennia, though we’ve only recently started to truly conquer it. And what’s more self-affirming than a living, breathing reminder of our command over the natural world?
So, I suppose if you have enough money, you can build your own animal kingdom, with you right at the top. Though, it’d probably be a very sad one, indeed. How luxurious is that?