National Geographic : 2014 Apr
106 national geographic • april 2014 Let me come in, they seem to say. Rush does not let them in, although she did when they were babies. “I have all of these amazing animals of different species, from different continents, and the thing is, they play together,” she says, and she sweeps her hand through the air, gesturing to her multicolored menagerie sunning, sleeping, snacking. She has filmed and posted videos of them playing on YouTube, the lemurs leaping over the kangaroos, which hop and twirl and chase the primates around the yard. Despite occasional reports of wild kanga- roos attacking humans in Australia, Rush’s pets Rush herself lives a lean life, much of her own money poured into feeding her herd. And then there’s her time. She puts abundant hours into caring for her exotics. “ They’re 24/7,” she says, and then goes on to add, “but they’re my family. They need me. I can’t explain to you what that feels like. I wake up every morning and come out here, and all my animals come rushing up to greet me. I feel loved, and that feels great. “My family,” she repeats, and a shadow sweeps across her face. “All my life,” she says, “people have let me down. My animals never have.” Privately owning exotic animals is currently permitted in a handful of states with essentially no restrictions: You must have a license to own a dog, but you are free to purchase a lion or baboon and keep it as a pet. Even in the states where exotic-pet ownership is banned, “people break the law,” says Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, who keeps a running database of deaths and injuries attributed to exotic-pet ownership: In Texas a four-year-old mauled by a mountain lion his aunt kept as a pet, in Connecticut a 55-year-old woman’s face permanently dis- figured by her friend’s lifelong pet chimpan- zee, in Ohio an 80-year-old man attacked by a 200-pound kangaroo, in Nebraska a 34-year-old man strangled to death by his pet snake. And that list does not capture the number of people who become sick from coming into contact with zoonotic diseases. The term exotic pet has no firm definition; it can refer to any wildlife kept in human house- holds—or simply to a pet that’s more unusual than the standard dog or cat. Lack of oversight and regulation makes it difficult to pin down just how many exotics are out there. “ The short an- swer is, too many,” says Patty Finch of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It’s estimated that the number of captive tigers alone is at least 5,000—most kept not by accredited zoos but by private owners. And while many owners tend to their exotic pets with great care and at no small expense, some keep their pets in cramped cages and poor conditions. Commercially importing endangered species Lauren Slater is the author of The $60,000 Dog: My Life With Animals. Vince Musi often photographs animals, domesticated and otherwise. They take the uncivilized into society and in doing so assert their power. display not a hint of aggression. This may have something to do with the fact that kangaroos are naturally somnolent during daytime hours, and it may also have something to do with the fact that Rush’s kangaroos are no longer truly wild: They were bred in captivity; two of them have been neutered; they are used to human contact. Rush raised each kangaroo in diapers, bottle-fed it, and, touching the sleek suede fur continually, accustomed each animal to human hands. The $35 that Rush charges to visit what she calls her Exotic Animal Experience helps de- fray the costs involved in keeping her pets. Some exotic-animal owners spend thousands a year on fresh meat, for carnivores that dine daily on raw steak, for primates—omnivores with complex dietary needs—for snakes, which eat rat after rat after rat. In Rush’s case her kangaroos consume huge quantities of grain, while the lemurs eat mounds of fruits and vegetables.