By Andrea Nmemtz
Images of a tiny monkey running through an Ikea parking lot in a Shearling coat went viral when Darwin escaped from his owner’s car in Toronto in December 2012. And in the summer of 2013, the world was shocked when an African rock python escaped from its enclosure and killed two small boys in New Brunswick.
There’s a growing trend to keeping reptiles, big cats, primates and other exotic animals as pets.
Experts condemn the practice, but owners are fierce in their love for the unusual creatures.
So when making his documentary Wild & Dangerous: The World of Exotic Pets, airing on CBC TV’s Doc Zone on Thursday at 9 p.m., filmmaker Jason Young strove to present a balanced portrait and to create a bit of debate.
The award-winning Nova Scotia filmmaker, discovered there’s no such thing as a stereotypical exotic pet owner.
“Some people are attracted to the status that comes with owning a tiger or a lion or an exotic snake, or it makes them feel macho,” he says, noting people choose their pets — typical or exotic — for many reasons.
Yasmin Nakhuda, who owned Darwin — now living at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary east of Toronto — looked on the Japanese macaque monkey as a human child. An emotional Nakhuda says in the documentary that she “became more human living with a wild animal.”
Denise Ryder, a Dartmouth woman who shows off pets including a black and white Argentinian tegu named Roscoe, a baby crested gecko, an Australian bearded dragon, a baby Brazilian rainbow boa, an albino bull snake and a cane toad, notes in the film the only downside to owning reptiles is that they are “just not that happy to see you when you get home.”
Like any pet, they become a member of your family, she says.
Young, whose feature-length 2003 documentary Animals followed his experience of eating only animals he raised himself and is still being shown on the festival circuit, is an animal lover.
He and his wife, Julia, live on a 10-hectare hobby farm in Sheffield Mills, with a full equestrian centre and 18 horses, two of which they own. The rest are boarders.
They recently said good bye to their 14-year-old Jack Russell terrier and brought home a rescue dog, a Japanese tosa, “a large, physically beautiful dog” named Lady.
The writer-director of Wild & Dangerous never gave exotic pets much thought until he was approached by Emmy-winning producers Rick LeGuerrier and Timothy M. Hogan of Halifax-based Dream Street Pictures who had seen his work.
“After Animals, I made a film about the life of a bank robber (2008’s Inside Time) and then made Bad Coyote about the hysteria after the guitarist (Taylor Mitchell) was killed by a coyote in Cape Breton. I wanted to put myself in different worlds with each film.
“But I thought it was a good fit, I love animals and it was a great opportunity.”
Working with Halifax-based cinematographer Wade Cornell, Young visited people including exotic animal activists Scott Shoemaker and Zuzana Kukol, who have a collection of predators on their Nevada compound, a man in the Pacific Northwest with a cougar in his living room and Mike MacDonald, the founder of Maritime Reptile Zoo in Nova Scotia, who uses the reptiles he rescues in education.
He also visited Pat Craig, who operates what is believed to be the largest and oldest wildlife sanctuary in the U.S. It is located on 290 hectares in Colorado and houses 330 carnivores including lions, tigers, bears, wolves and coyotes.
Visits were also made with Rodney Irwin, a lizard trapper in the Florida Everglades.
MacDonald also talked to experts like Ron Orenstein, a wildlife conservationist and author of eight books, Beth Daly, an anthrozoologist (study of human-animal interactions) at the University of Windsor, and Sheldon Jordan, the director General of Wildlife Enforcement for Environment Canada, among others.
Making the film, between February and October 2014, “opened my eyes to negative issues around exotic pets and it worries me,” Young says, noting many people adopt exotics as babies and don’t make a lifetime commitment, creating problems for both the animals and humans.
“Humans are all about money. We don’t have enough empathy for other creatures and keep exploiting them.”
He notes the trade in illegal animals, not only pets but animal parts harvested for a variety of uses, is ranked alongside the trade in drugs, guns and people.
“My sensitivity to animal welfare increased through making the film,” he says.
“I have a very simple goal. I want the viewer to see past the excitement and novelty of an exotic pet, … to realize that a lot of animals have suffered because of that trade and there are a whole world of issues that come with having an exotic pet.”