PETERBOROUGH, Ont. – Tank clambers onto Gord Perry’s shoulder, rests his black and white head in the crook of the man’s neck and stays still as his back is stroked.
The lizard — an Argentine tegu about 1.2 metres long — is just one of more than a dozen exotic animals, mostly reptiles, owned by the 47-year-old resident of Peterborough, Ont.
Perry is passionate about his scaly sidekicks.
“I can’t picture life without these guys. They’re personable, they have their own personality,” says Perry, with one hand on Tank. “It’s actually kind of heartbreaking to think about.”
But not everyone understands the appeal of owning exotic animals, or the deep bond owners like Perry say they have with their pets.
Experts and animal welfare advocates point to Canada’s inconsistent laws for what appears to be a growing trend of owning wild and exotic animals.
They argue that most exotic pet owners aren’t typically equipped to properly care for wild animals — creatures they argue do not thrive in captivity, and also pose a threat to public health and safety.
But Perry says good exotic animal owners are aware of the risks that come with owning their pets and can take good care of them.
His own fascination with exotic animals began 14 years ago when his then-eight-year-old son asked for a bearded dragon. After researching the small reptile, Perry got his son the animal for Christmas.
The family’s collection grew steadily from there — Perry gradually took in wild animals, mostly reptiles, that needed a home. By 2002, the family established a reptile rescue that now shelters about 60 animals.
“Our goal is to educate … to be able to show people they’re not anything to be feared,” Perry said.
In addition to Tank, Perry’s personal collection of exotic animals includes a Burmese python named Paladin, a chameleon named Charlie and a corn snake named Flame.
“Everyone thinks a snake is a snake and a lizard is a lizard and you can’t be close to them,” he said, as Tank flicked his forked tongue across his owner’s neck. “But these animals — right now he’s nuzzling my neck, because what he wants is to get closer to me, to be with me — they do recognize people.”
His love of wild creatures has pitted Perry against the city of Peterborough. Earlier this year, the eastern Ontario community dealt with a bylaw that, among other things, placed restrictions on the number and type of exotic animals people could own. But the exotics component of the bylaw isn’t yet being enforced.
Perry and a few other reptile owners fought back. They made submissions that resulted in Peterborough’s council directing city staff to consult with exotic pet owners to better develop the new rules.
David Poingdestre was one of the other reptile owners who pushed back against the bylaw.
For the 52-year-old, the prospect of having some of his pets taken away is devastating.
“They are, at the moment, what I live for,” said Poingdestre, who suffers from chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
His many snakes, other reptiles and some amphibians — he estimates he owns about 50 animals that he’s adopted, or taken in from breeders over the years — keep him active, he said.
“When I was first diagnosed, I would actually go downstairs, I would sit down and not want to move,” Poingdestre said. “Once we started getting the snakes, I had something that I was looking after, something to connect to. I’d go down every day make sure it was fed, make sure it was watered. It just helped.”
On some days, when Poingdestre is feeling particularly stressed, he goes to his basement, which has been converted to a “reptile room,” and places one of his snakes around his neck.
“When it constricts with its movement across you, it does actually feel like a massage. And I let them do that, it calms me down,” he said. “Snakes aren’t slimy and going to size you up to eat you, they’re not going to do that.”
Experts, however, say some snakes can kill humans, and point to the case of two young boys in New Brunswick who were found dead on Aug. 5, 2013. They were asphyxiated by a 4.3-metre African rock python that escaped its enclosure.
And perhaps the most high-profile incident that thrust exotic animal ownership into the spotlight was the case of Norman Buwalda, the chairman of the now-defunct Canadian Exotic Animal Owners Association, who was mauled to death by his pet tiger in 2010.
Beth Daly, who teaches anthrozoology — the study of human-animal relationships — at the University of Windsor in southern Ontario, says exotic animal ownership is a significant concern in Canada.
“We are not a society that is equipped, for instance, to permit somebody to have tigers and lions in their backyard or monkeys in their home. It’s not good for the animal, and it often turns out to not be good for the owner. It’s just a huge growing problem.”
While statistics on exotic animal ownership in Canada are hard to come by, Daly suggests it is on the rise simply because of the availability of unusual animals.
“We want to have something that’s different and we bond with animals,” she says. “People get them because they’re unique, and because they can.”
Just like with dogs and cats, there are multiple breeders who provide a variety of captive-born exotic pets to interested buyers in Canada.
Purchases can be made directly from the breeders or at “expos” where certain exotic pets are available from vendors at booths. At a reptile expo in Toronto this summer, a type of scorpion was selling for $25, crested geckos were sold in plastic containers for $95 to $300 and a pair of rare boa constrictors were selling for $3,500.
Those interested in larger exotics can also turn to the Internet, where simple searches turn up dozens of ads for wild animals. For instance, one advertises “tamed cheetah cubs” for $2,500 from someone in Winnipeg, while someone who says they are in Nanaimo, B.C., is selling a serval cub for $7,500.
There are also pet stores that may obtain certain animals from an illegal black market, critics say. And there are animal rescues, where certain exotic animals can be adopted.
Canada’s patchwork of exotic animal ownership laws — varying by province and even by municipality — is another factor driving the interest in such pets, Daly notes.
“I think it’s trendy to have exotic pets right now,” she says. “The laws are terrible and I think the illegal trafficking is so active that these animals are readily available.”
Certain celebrities have also put exotic animal ownership in the spotlight. Canadian pop star Justin Bieber, for instance, once owned a monkey, though the animal was seized in Germany when the singer was on tour in 2013. More recently, Bieber was seen with a lion cub and a tiger during an engagement party for his father in Toronto.
But exotic animals, no matter who owns them, are not suitable pets, Daly argues, even when they’re born in captivity.
“Maybe that animal will never exhibit aggressive behaviour, that doesn’t mean it’s good for the animal. That doesn’t mean that the animal is thriving in the best environment,” she said. “Most people simply do not have the capacity, financially, intellectually — and by that I just mean the awareness and support mechanisms — to take care of exotic animals.”
Anthony Porter disagrees.
The 54-year-old who once owned a llama, a toucan and a kangaroo named Jackie, among other pets, had to give up most of his animals in 2011 due to personal and financial circumstances. The animals were sent to various farms and zoos.
Despite calling the decision “heartbreaking,” Porter says he knew it was the right thing to do and argues most responsible owners try to do right by their pets.
A key challenge, he says, is the backlash faced by exotic pet owners.
He once tried to set up a group called Animal Enthusiasts Ontario to provide a counterpoint to activists and animal welfare advocates, but couldn’t get enough people on board because they were afraid of becoming targets.
“I always feel like we get tainted like a bunch of crackpots because we want to spend time with animals,” he said. “There’s a belief that people who own these animals are trying to exploit them … but the majority of people keeping them are trying to do the right thing.”