By Alex Dropkin
Every morning, Sophia eats a handful of grapes and perks up. She stretches her legs and, on good days, takes a lap or two around the artificial forest in her enclosure.
Sophia is a two-toed sloth, and the grapes — met with a wet, black nose and long tongue — amount to dessert. Her staples are sweet potatoes, vegetables and monkey chow.
The two-toed sloth is endemic to Central and South America. Sophia has lived at Zoo Keeper Exotic Pets in North Austin for 12 years, since being rescued from an owner who had lost interest in her. Sophia has become both a public attraction and an educational tool of sorts, serving as a reminder of the consequences of Texas’ lax — some say absent — regulation of the exotic pet trade.
Texas is one of 21 states with no restrictions on private ownership of exotic animals, according to Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy group. The Texas Department of State Health Services oversees statutes on the definition and handling of dangerous animals, and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department manages nonnative species in relation to their impact on native plants and animals, but the onus of regulation is left to cities and counties.
“That just shows that in Texas, it’s considered not important enough for it to even be handled by the state,” said Lynn Cuny, founder and president of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Kendalia, “and that’s a real tragedy.”
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation receives a dozen or more calls a year to rescue primates, parrots, nonnative reptiles and larger animals from overwhelmed owners. Texas is home to more exotic animals than any other state, according to the Humane Society.
“People love the whole idea of having (an animal) in their midst who is novel, who is very unique and who is going to make them look like they’re special,” Cuny said. “It’s a very kind of sick relationship.”
Sophia is a star inside the Zoo Keeper store, at the corner of Burnet Road and U.S. 183. It sells exotic birds, snakes, turtles, insects, mammals and other unusual critters. Owner Daniel Keeper said he gets at least one customer asking to buy the sloth every day. But Sophia isn’t for sale. More....