DAVE DAVIES, host:
It may surprise you to learn that there are tens of thousands of Burmese pythons in the Florida Everglades, a flourishing population that has naturalists worried because they're making meals of dozens of small animals native to the region.
The pythons were introduced into Florida as pets and they're among several exotic animals that our next guest, Peter Laufer, says humans have taken on as companions. In his new book, Laufer says far more Americans than we know are bringing snakes, lions, tigers, monkeys and chimpanzees into their homes, sometimes with tragic consequences.
Peter Laufer has written 12 books. His latest is "Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets."
Well, Peter Laufer, welcome to FRESH AIR. A lot of this book is about when and why and whether humans can own really unusual animals in a mutually safe and beneficial way. And you open the book with one of the most troubling cautionary tales. Tell us the story of Sandra Herold and her chimpanzee, Travis.
Mr. PETER LAUFER (Author, "Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets"): Sandra Herold's story and the story of her chimpanzee Travis really became quite a cause celebre because Travis the chimpanzee, who had been living in suburban Stamford, Connecticut, in Sandra Herold's home, for years, ran amok when she attempted to get him back into his cage in his room and needed some help, called on her friend Charla Nash, who had helped her before, as an employee with the chimpanzee. And when Charla Nash arrived at her property in Stamford, the chimpanzee attacked her. And there is a horrific 911 call that she makes to attempt to summon the police, and eventually successfully, during which she's describing this attack that left Charla Nash maimed.
And in fact, just recently two events occurred that are in some ways the culmination of this whole sorry episode. Charla Nash finally, after over a year, was released from the hospital and in the same week Sandra Herold died, her friend suggesting that she died of heartbreak. The chimpanzee, once it attacked and almost killed Charla Nash, was shot by the police who finally came, and then ran off into the woods bleeding. They followed that bloody trail that circled back into the house, into his room in the house, into the cage that was in his room in the house, where he died lying on his bloody bedding.
DAVIES: You know, and at the risk of lending a little too much graphic detail to this, describe some of the injuries that the chimp inflicted on Charla Nash.
Mr. LAUFER: She lost hands. Her face was literally torn off. And the fact that she survived at all is miraculous - that she's out of the hospital and rebuilding her life is a real testimonial to the human spirit.
DAVIES: Now, Sandra Herold said that this attack was completely out of character for her chimpanzee, Travis. Describe their relationship - that is to say, Sandra, the owner of the chimp and the chimp himself.
Mr. LAUFER: Closest way to describe, I think, would be that of a mother and child, and that's the way she described it. She lost her own child not long before this occurred, and her husband, and announced the chimpanzee as the only family that she had left. In her home she had the primitive drawings of the chimpanzee tacked up on the refrigerator the way you might have the drawings of your children displayed. And she was somewhat notorious for sleeping with the chimpanzee and sharing a glass of wine in a stemmed glass with the chimpanzee at cocktail hour.
The chimpanzee had a history of being trained for commercial work, a way that she was able to make some extra money, and was known around town because periodically they would venture out together.
DAVIES: Do we have any idea why Travis the chimpanzee reacted as he did in this case?
Mr. LAUFER: He was nervous and she was concerned about that. Apparently she gave him some kind of a sedative to try to calm him down and that did not work. Why exactly that day he ran amok is unknown, but that he ran amok is not necessarily surprising because throughout the history of this kind of private ownership of chimpanzees there is a perpetual similar story that occurs, which is once these cute cuddly animals go through adolescence, they manifest behavior that is no longer the kind that you would like to enjoy as a pet running around your living room.
And most of the private owners of chimpanzees, if not all of them - I'm trying to think right now and I can't think of one that I encountered that didn't do this - once the animals pass through adolescence, they're kept caged. They no longer run free in the household or in the yards.
DAVIES: How do people get these chimps and monkeys? Are there - do you go online and get ads which seduce you and say, oh, you know, you'll never have more fun than you will with these cute little guys?
Mr. LAUFER: Yeah, it's not even that much of a seduction, because there's enough of a marketplace, but you can go online and search tiger for sale, lion for sale, monkey for sale. You can also look through a newspaper that is oriented toward those who seek exotic pets. You can go to a state like Missouri, where although the laws are changing, it's basically unrestricted - the ownership of animals of any kind and you can go to a place as I did, like the Lolli Brothers' exotic auction in Macon, Georgia and spend a couple of days.
These auctions happen a few times a year and you can buy yourself a camel or you can buy yourself a zedonk, which is a breed - a crossbreed of a donkey and a zebra. You can buy yourself a serval or some other cat. You can buy yourself any number of monkeys.
DAVIES: So you can go and bid on a camel and if you're the winner, just ride it right off the lot?
Mr. LAUFER: If you know how to ride your camel, I guess, and if you're -there's some place you want to go. But, yes, the yard is full of trailers and camels were big the day that I was there. One after another, these amazing animals that are captive bred here in this country and are put up for sale by the breeders to those who would like to have a camel instead of a kitty or a doggie.
DAVIES: You know, we should talk a little bit about the law and regulation that affects these creatures. And I know that in addition, we've talked some about monkeys and about chimps and you visited a lot of people who own big cats, lions and tigers. Let's just look at the law. If I want to buy a tiger cub or a chimp and keep it in my yard, is that legal?
Mr. LAUFER: Well, one of the problems that exists for those who think that there should be restriction is the fact that we have a patchwork of laws around the country, so that would depend on where you live. If you live in Texas and several other states - I'm just picking Texas now for this answer - then sure, you can have a tiger in your yard and it's nobody's business anymore than it would be if you had any other animal.
The laws differ state to state. Sometimes there are local and regional laws that are much more severe than the state laws. There are no overarching federal laws to prevent you from having an exotic pet. The trend seems to be for more and more restrictive state-wide laws making it more difficult for people to free-wheelingly keep these kinds of animals.
DAVIES: So there's no federal ban, for example, on interstate commerce or transportation of the animals.
Mr. LAUFER: No, that's different.
DAVIES: That's different? Okay.
Mr. LAUFER: Yes. And that's where we get into the complexity. The Lacey Act kicks in, which has a jurisdiction over that kind of interstate movement of the animals. If, of course, the animal is an endangered species or a threatened species, then it's entirely different situation. So if you were to somehow get a smuggled wild tiger from India, then you would be violating international law and U.S. federal law. But if you were to have a captive-bred tiger that was bred, for example, in Texas or if you decided to go into the tiger breeding business in Texas, then these restrictions would not be there for you.
And, in fact, one of the great cocktail party circuit statistics that I found popping eyes when I first started researching this project is that all indications are that there are many more tigers in Texas than there are in India. The tigers in Texas are captive-bred. The tigers in India are wild. Many more in Texas.
DAVIES: Now, one of the things, I know you spent a lot of time talking to people who own big cats, like tigers and lions. And if I recall, one of these people saying to you, you know, there are people that are bitten by dogs every year. I think the statistic you quote in 2007, something like 80,000 dog bites a year that require hospitalization. And somebody said, well, you know, you can't name me a single case of a captive tiger having killed anyone.
Mr. LAUFER: And it's an intriguing way to look at it - those who are proponents of this lifestyle and of this relationship. And it's important to point out that they are passionate about the value that the animals bring to their lives and the value that they believe they bring to the animals' lives. And the numbers are, in fact, in their favor.
Sure, the Centers for Disease Control Dog Bite Register is phenomenal. And the number of fatalities, let alone attacks from big cats or great apes or the long snakes, and there have been some dramatic snake attacks in the last few years. Burmese pythons have run rampant in the Everglades and throughout Florida, causing problems. But yes, that is an interesting argument that statistically it's way over the top on the domesticated animals causing problems.
DAVIES: And, of course, there are millions of dogs out there as opposed to a few thousand tigers.
Mr. LAUFER: Of course. Of course.
DAVIES: But did these pet owners regard these animals as dangerous at all? I mean, did they believe that although they might have 364 good days with them, on the last day they might turn aggressive and be dangerous?
Mr. LAUFER: Sure. And I think that that is perhaps, as I try to analyze the motivation on some level, part of the intrigue. A lot of us do things that could turn sour easily, whether it is going too fast on the highway or skydiving or whatever it is we choose to do. And I think that the combination of the fact that they are anthropomorphized, even the cats, maybe not the snakes, and that they are unusual and that they draw attention to the owners, combined with that reality that something may not work right or maybe more than that something may not work right, it's that look what I'm able to do. You're afraid of this. It could kill you. It could kill me. But it's not going to kill me because it loves me.
DAVIES: And you got a couple of close call stories to tell over cocktails or barbecue that must be a lot of fun.
Mr. LAUFER: There are the close call stories. But the ones that do work at the cafe or the bar are the really sobering ones and that's when it goes, as you just mentioned, so sour after so many times of everything being okay. And I think about the woman who was cleaning the cage of the multiple-hundred-pound bear that she had raised from a cub. And she always did the same thing. And that particular day her kids were watching as she threw the dog food over on one side of the cage to attract the bear and she went in to clean up the cage and the bear decided that she looked more interesting than the dog food, and he killed her there in view of her children and was starting to come out toward them when a neighbor killed the bear.
And this is a horrific reality. And then again, it goes back to your set of statistics and that is, how many dogs kill how many people versus how many bears kill how many people in a year in this country?
DAVIES: You know, looking at this sort of with a broader lens, and it seems like you don't find a lot to admire in this proliferation of wild animals in - being owned and cared for by people across the country. But you talked to so many people who have these wild animals in their possession. Was there one of them who came closest to making a case to you that this is kind of okay or worth it or that you saw a relationship between the owner and the pet that seemed, I don't know, in some way uniquely valuable?
Mr. LAUFER: Well, I think about a couple in Pahrump, Nevada. Their scene, as odd as it was for me because it's so out of character from my norms, looked like everybody was living happily ever after. They were far from neighbors. They had a lot of acreage. The enclosures were clean and relatively big. They were doing things that were completely out of context from my lifestyle.
As I was getting directions on my mobile phone from the woman, she said, I hope you're not going to be grossed out when you get here. And I said, why is that? She said, well, we just killed a horse. And I got to their place and there was a horse hanging from a wood frame being bled out. The horse was going to be destroyed, and different neighbors around where they live know that they need meat. And her partner was busy preparing it for the tigers. He has to skin it because they don't want any hair or skin on it because they were captive-bred and they're used to prepared meat.
Everybody seemed to be quite happy in that enclosure there while I was there. The animals were getting the fresh meat. The horse was being disposed of in a manner that seemed better than wasting it. The two of them clearly loved their animals. I don't want to move in with them and become a roommate, but I think the criteria there meets yours.
DAVIES: Well, Peter Laufer, thanks so much for speaking with us.
Mr. LAUFER: It's a pleasure. Thank you for your interest.
DAVIES: Peter Laufer's book is "Forbidden Creatures: Inside the World of Animal Smuggling and Exotic Pets." You can read a chapter at our website, freshair.npr.org.
(Soundbite of music)
DAVIES: For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.