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A quiet evening at the lakehouse.

There has been a debacle in Ohio, where a private owner released his animals and then shot himself, leaving his animals to be shot in turn by local authorities, to the horror of all involved. This is really sad for all of us – for those animals, and for all the responsible exotic animal owners and the animals who live because of their dedication. Many people seem to believe that all exotic animal owners are ignorant, eccentric thrill seekers. However, I happen to know many of these owners and many of them are dedicated animal professionals who got started owning animals privately because zoos must breed animals to keep viable populations, and they cannot house them all -particularly the males. Most wild animals have stable female groups with fewer males in the group than females. Some groups only tolerate one male in the group. So, all those male animals are ‘surplus’. The zoo professionals know these individuals and don’t want to see them euthanized because there are not enough resources for them. One solution is to provide a private home for them. Some of these private facilities rival those of the best zoos. Why not? Some of these people work for the best zoos in the world!

I was one such owner. I worked on a project training monkeys to aid quadriplegics. The project was discontinued. I was given a choice. I could purchase the monkey or she would be returned to the research colony from whence she came. There she would become part of a terminal malaria project, where her sacrifice would hopefully help humans.

I offered her a home for the next thirty one years. And, from the time I was 22 years old, I lived my life around this monkey. She met two presidents and their wives, Jacques Cousteau, James Brady, Ben Vereen, John Denver, Ruth Buzzy and innumerable other celebrities and dignitaries. She participated in many events and was exposed to thousands and thousands of people. She retained all her teeth and sexual organs. She reliably learned not to bite. She helped rear my nieces and nephews. She was family. It was on a family outing, February 19, 2009, when she swiftly, suddenly, silently, slipped away. We were driving to my sister’s lakehouse, with a carload of friends. We had lunch, then stopped for a few groceries. While the others went into the store to shop, I stayed in the car to be with, and talk to my friend. I turned to talk to her, and she lay quietly in her travel kennel. She looked like she was sleeping, but she was dead. She had already passed, and her body was already cooling. In the fifteen minutes it took to drive to the store, she was gone – at the age of 32+. After a lifetime of shared adventures and memories.

During our shared life, I had offered my friend opportunities to have relationships with other monkeys – including intact males. She turned down the option of a male escort. I cannot say why although it crossed my mind that the cross cultural upbringing, being a monkey in a human world. may have biased her. I mean, she was used to driving in cars, meeting lots of people, doing interesting work…. Perhaps when she met the male monkeys, she did not want to leave her world for theirs.

Anyway, she had a full, adventurous, wonderful life. But, she had the life of a domesticated animal – living intertwined with a human family. And, she was treated like an intelligent, independent, responsible being. A different being, but a sovereign being. (photo shows her relaxing at the lakehouse with her close friend, Anthony Garske) I did not intend to add a monkey to the family, but when the situation came up, of course I did – happily. If something had happened to one of my sisters, I would have gladly offered a home to any or all of my nieces and nephews. I was not prepared, but I would rise to the occasion.

So, it is with sadness that I watched the Ohio situation unfold. I feared a raging backlash against exotic animal owners – and the option they offer animals without other options. That backlash is occurring, with reactive legislation in response to a freak occurrence – a first of it’s kind. And it is with hesitance that I talk about my life with the animal whose very existence I ended up keeping as quiet as possible, to protect us all from potential vandalism and harassment.

Well, guess what, countrymen? We are amongst you. We are where you don’t expect us to be. We have different beginnings, but we are dedicated to providing for exotic animals within our lives. And, there are over 15,000 privately owned tigers alone in America.

And how many deaths from tigers each year, in America?? Less than one, on average.

How about the number of deaths from other humans? An average of 17,000 murders per year!!!

So, let’s be logical and forget about exotic animals, and crack down on living amongst humans. That is the more dangerous condition.

The average number of deaths from all animal causes combined, in a year, is less than 150. That includes from wasp and hornet stings. It turns out that these are the most dangerous animals amongst us! Oh, and pit bulls? Less than 75 deaths per year. It just seems like more because they are sensationalized out of all proportion. If we are going to crack down on animals being around people, logically, we should start by outlawing hornets and bees. Oh wait, we are already decimating their numbers in other ways.

Anyway, the legislative reaction is swift, emotional and is likely to have repercussions that people that work with animals will regret for the rest of their lives. I will regret them for the rest of my life.

A colleague brought up the shallow sightedness of many legislators. I believe she is correct in that we must strive to trace out the implications, ramifications, effects and realities of our laws and policies. A major problem: we often already have laws in place, but they are not enforced, often because there is not enough money to enforce them. I have been told: “the law states … but we don’t enforce it unless a neighbor complains.” So, someone perceives a need and makes a NEW law, which also won’t be enforced anyway.

And just as we don’t test the impact of our legislative ideas, we may be similarly myopic when we promote our own truths from our limited perspectives. And our opinions and observations can have similarly long-reaching impacts and effects.

For example, I have been used to working in direct contact with many kinds of animals, and I still have all my digits – not to mention my life. But my reality includes some traits that help me to be successful at this, which many people do not share. I am not saying these traits make me better than others. I am saying they make me different at managing animals than most. So, one is, I tend to notice small things. I notice things that many people consider irritating details. When training other trainers, it generally takes a fair amount of time to guide them to develop their abilities to observe and be aware and to develop their ATTENTION span for awareness. With exotics, you are NEVER off guard if you are in proximity – or someone else is. Eventually, the trainers DO develop much greater perception to nuance and detail. They will comment – “I can’t believe I ever missed this information!”

So, a big problem for me as an instructor has been to explain for a different awareness. My reality is not the same reality as the next person. For example, I posted video of actual real time training with animals. Most people did not see the training occurring. The information can be difficult to track due to the speed and subtlety of the exchanges. The steps had not been isolated and identified and labeled. It was all there for anybody to see, and most did not see it. Well I see it! Trained observers learn to see it.

Conversely, when I took calculus, I found the instructor’s explanation insufficient and confusing. I complained to two friends, who raised their eyebrows and said, “yeah, but isn’t it just intuitive??” Not for me it wasn’t- I was a bit backward in that class.

Anyway, if I say “anyone can safely work in public with exotic animals – I have done it for years” I am guilty of imposing my limited perspective on a situation where it does not fit.

Ditto if I say “nobody could learn calculus from my instructor”.

Anyway, I see people have strong opinions on keeping exotic animals in captivity – at whatever level they personally deem appropriate/inappropriate. One colleague tells us he does not consider them suitable for service work. But then I think, all animals were wild at one time. I would like to see the domestication process go on with as many different animals as possible. I love the idea of animals being increasingly incorporated into our lifestyles, rather than increasingly marginalized. And I don’t think that domestication guarantees happy success in working with humans. I have seen quite a few service animals who I felt were detrimentally impacted by the incredible responsibilities of their jobs. The monkeys I worked with were third generation born and bred at Harvard University. Now, they must be around 10 generations further. These monkeys were selected due to their longstanding ethological traits and long history of being in close association with people. I am afraid we soon will not have wild monkeys – especially if they cease to be in public venues were people can see and relate to them directly. Wild cattle have long been extinct in Europe. However, their domesticated descendents are numerous. If we cannot have wild monkeys, then I hope we will have domesticated monkeys, hedgehogs, ferrets and even, tigers.

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For those who are interested, here is the link to see monkeys being trained to aid handicapped people:

If you are interested in some of the techniques professional trainers use to create close working relationships with exotic animals, you may be interested in “An Introduction to Bridge and Target Technique”, a manual which Kayce Cover has used in training professional exotic animal trainers. It is available in e-book and hard copy.

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