Five Tales of Exotic Pet Ownership Gone Wrong

Every state in the U.S. has laws that restrict or ban exotic animal ownership. But that doesn’t prevent people from wanting or getting them. An estimated 50 percent of all pets in the United States are exotic species, ranging from birds and small reptiles to dangerous predators. And despite increasing legislation and crackdowns on imports, the exotic pet trade continues to grow. It’s worth an estimated $15 billion a year; a price tag plenty big enough to convince people to subvert the law.

The problem is big, and so are many of the pets. There are an estimated 10,000 big cats in the United States, and only 6 percent are in reputable zoos and centers. Many of the rest live in people’s backyards, to the detriment of the species. There are more tigers in captivity than in the wild: 3,200 of them roam free, while roughly 5,000 live in captivity in the U.S.

Exotic pet ownership isn’t just bad for the animals. Sometimes, it turns ugly for the people, too, like in these five stories of animals turning on their captors.

“He ripped her face off!”


Travis the chimpanzee was born in 1995 in a sanctuary in Missouri, but when he was just three days old, he was taken from his mother and sold – for $50,000 – to Jerome and Sandra Herold, a couple in Stamford, Connecticut.

Travis became a kind of local celebrity, and the Herolds treated him like a member of the family. Travis wore clothes, did chores, and joined the family for meals. In 2000, the Herolds’ only child was killed in an accident, and in 2004, Jerome died of cancer. Sandra Herold focused all her energy on Travis, but soon his behavior became erratic.

In 2009, Herold’s friend Charla Nash came over for a visit. Nash had known Travis since he was a baby, but that day something was very different. Travis attacked Nash, mauling her head and hands. In a frantic 911 call, Herold sobbed, “he ripped her face off! He’s eating her face!”

Police responded and Travis was killed. Nash, unbelievably, survived, though her face was shredded and she was left with brain damage. She later received a face transplant, but will need full-time care for the rest of her life.

Bear-ly contained


Kelly Ann Walz, a Pennsylvania woman, had raised the black bear she called Teddy since he was a cub. That’s probably why, when she entered his 15×15 foot enclosure to clean it one evening in 2009, she didn’t worry about separating herself from the bear. She tossed a scoop of dog food into the opposite corner to keep Teddy occupied, and started to clean.

But it was a “fatal mistake,” as a game commission officer later said. The 350-pound bear attacked, and Walz’s horrified children ran to the neighbor’s house, screaming for help. The neighbor, Scott Castone, arrived and shot the bear, but it was too late for Walz, who was pronounced dead at the scene.

Locked-up lion


A 52-year-old Illinois man named Al Abell was just doing chores around the farm in February of 2004, but his livestock was a bit unusual. Al and his wife had started an exhibition farm, which housed wolves, cougars, and bobcats. It was also home to Simba, a nearly 400-pound, 5-year-old African Barbary lion.

Abell moved Simba into a secondary pen to clean the enclosure, but in a moment of forgetfulness, forgot to lock the lion in. When Kathie Abell returned home that afternoon after running some errands, her husband was nowhere to be found, and Simba was out of his enclosure, pacing the hillside.

She called the sheriff, and officers responded. They ultimately had to put Simba down, and that’s when Kathie Abell found her husband. He’d died, the coroner’s report would later confirm, from massive blood loss due to a bite on his thigh.

Pythons and parents


It was an incident that ended with a child dead and her parents in prison. Jaren Hare and her boyfriend Charles Darnell had owned a Burmese python for almost a decade, and said the snake was “docile.” It lived in a tank with no lid; the couple kept a quilt on top, and later said the snake had escaped a number of times.

The python, named Gypsy, was also drastically underfed. At more than 8 feet long, it should have weighed close to 150 pounds, but at the time of the tragedy, it topped out at just 13. It was starving, a medical examiner would later testify, and that’s why, when it escaped its enclosure in 2009, it crawled into the bed of Hare’s 2-year-old daughter Shaianna, strangled her to death, and tried to eat her.

The couple were convicted of third-degree murder, manslaughter and child neglect, and each sentenced to 12 years in prison.

Deer-ly departed


In 2011, the sheriff’s department in Harrison County, Texas received a 911 call about a man being attacked by a deer. By the time they arrived at the home of Benjamin Gerald Rushton, 67, it was much too late.

This wasn’t just any deer; it was a male red stag deer, which weighed close to 500 pounds with a massive set of antlers, and Rushton had been keeping it in a pen. The deer had pinned Rushton against the fence, gored him with those sharp antlers, and trampled him to death.

When officers arrived, the deer was still so aggressive they had to shoot it before they could even enter the pen, and Rushton was pronounced dead.

There’s a common thread in all the stories above: the animals all died. And that’s not because they did something “wrong.” In fact, they were just wild animals behaving like, well, wild animals. Their behavior resulted in human injury and fatalities – and their own demise – simply because people decided to keep them as pets. That’s just one of the many reasons the wildlife pet trade must come to an end: it’s a matter of life or death.