On February 16 a 15-year-old chimpanzee named Travis seriously mauled a woman who was visiting the animal's owner -- Sandra Herold -- at a home in Stamford, CT. Herold made a terrified, shrieking 911 call, and tried stabbing Travis with a butcher knife.
When police arrived the chimp went after them, going so far as to open a cruiser door. He was shot several times, and eventually succumbed. Travis' victim was treated for serious injuries, including massive blood loss from the face. Travis had been a beloved pet who once appeared in major TV commercials, who was known and loved in the community, and who was toilet drained, dressed and bathed himself, and ate at the family dinner table (including sipping his own wine from a glass).
Travis' story is horrific and tragic. Luckily that kind of thing isn't common, but it does remind us of the tangled mess of problems, dangers and ethical questions surrounding the exotic pet trade, as well as our larger relationship to other intelligent species. We've all seen the moving images of reunification of Christian the released lion and his rescuers, but sadly that kind of happy reintroduction story is rare, too. For the most part, exotic animals do not make good pets, and the industry that supports them leaves a heavy toll on human and animal health, as well as the environment.
We're not talking about wild animal attacks, which have always happened, because we have to share this small patch of blue planet with millions of other living things. Yes, the deputy mayor of Delhi was recently killed by a horde of wild monkeys. Even more recently, a five-year-old was killed by a wild crocodile. Anyone who has ever been to an ocean beach knows that swimmers and surfers face some danger of attack by sharks, just as wilderness campers know there is a small chance they will meet a hungry, curious or provoked bear or moose.
It's true some kinds of animal attacks are increasing in some areas. In America restrictions on hunting and forest preservation have increased numbers of mountain lions, which are increasingly coming into contact with joggers and hikers as human beings fan out into the landscape in ever widening circles of sprawl. In parts of Asia where elephants are being pushed out of their native habitat by development, there have been increased rampages through villages. (Learn more about big predators showing up in our backyards.)
Just as with dogs -- which undoubtedly injure more people than all other animals combined -- the vast majority of animal attacks are provoked by human beings, normally because of foolish or aggressive actions. Sometimes animals attack out of illness (rabies, distemper, Lyme disease, etc, which may explain Travis, pending an autopsy), to protect young or desperation.
Some attacks occur as fallout from hunting (see below), research or filming (see Anderson Cooper and Jeff Corwin or the late Steve Irwin). Many more occur as a result of animal training, particularly for circuses, or during zoo operations.
Warning: this video contains some scenes of violence and is intended for mature viewers.
There are some who advocate for responsible exotic animal ownership, but most mainstream conservation, animal rights and animal welfare groups oppose the practice. According to the Humane Society of the U.S., exotic animals can spread diseases (including hepatitis B, salmonella, flus or monkeypox). And the harvesting of exotic animals can threaten endangered species and habitats. Captive breeding programs can be cruel and filthy, and exotic animals are often bored. They can live nearly as long as human beings, and so require constant intensive care, often beyond what owners are able to provide (remember the tiger and gator in the Harlem apartment?).
Exotic pets are not well regulated. Those who don't breed or exhibit big cats, for example, don't have to get a license. The federal government doesn't have the right to enter property and check on exotic pets like tigers or lions (though most places require individuals to inform local law enforcement of their presence). Stronger laws could be passed that require microchipping, licenses and insurance, notes HSUS.
According to HSUS, there are roughly as many tigers living in the U.S. as in the wild in the whole world, 5,000 to 7,000, with less than 10% at professional zoos and sanctuaries. Little wonder, since collectors can pick up a cub for a few hundred dollars on the Internet or from a dealer, or even get them free from people who grow tired of them. More than one crack house and fist-pounding, self-styled gangster has attempted to use big cats as "guards."
Although a great many animal attacks occur at roadside zoos, circus photo booths, and the like, we tried to make a list that focuses on some of the worst exotic pet attacks. Note that authorities believe attacks by exotic pets often go unreported, since owners are afraid their pets will be taken away and destroyed.
The Horrific Mauling of St. James Davis by Chimps
According to this Esquire piece, St. James Davis was brutally attacked by two chimps at a sanctuary, after he and his wife arrived for a visit to celebrate the 39th birthday of Moe, the chimp they had kept as a pet for years. While Moe watched horrified from a cage, Davis was bowled over, had an eye gouged out, lost several fingers, and had his nose, lips and even teeth chewed off. One of the primates sunk his teeth into his skull while another bit his genitals off. Even a .45 couldn't stop the attack... until it was fired at very close range. Today Davis is severely disfigured and confined to a wheelchair.
Other incidents of note (Source):
August 2006, Chicago: A 14-year-old girl was hospitalized after a pet rhesus macaque monkey escaped from a cage. The girl's arm was reportedly "bitten to the bone."
June 2005, Morehead, Kentucky: A monkey reached through a car window and grabbed and bit a drive-thru worker, while the primate's owner was picking up an order.
November 2001, Cleveland, Ohio: Someone took their pet capuchin monkey out to a restaurant. It escaped and scratched up a diner, who later sued, describing the animal as ferocious and vicious.
August 2000, Jessamine County, Kentucky: A woman who was eight months pregnant was hospitalized after one of her two pet rhesus macaques attacked her when their cages were being cleaned. The woman was given anti-viral medication, a hazard to her pregnancy, due to fears the monkey might carry herpes B (as many do). She had allegedly been inspired to purchase the monkeys after seeing them ride bicycles in a circus.
April 1999, Glen Burnie, Maryland: A 2-year-old Bonnet macaque brought into a bar caused a brawl, in which several people were bitten. The owners of the animal were sued since they had been warned not to bring their pet out in public.
June 1995, Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania: An escaped pet monkey wielding a knife and cigarette lighter enters a standoff with police. The animal was eventually captured.
September 28, 199, Los Angeles, California: Actor Elizabeth Hurley was bitten in the ear by a chimpanzee while appearing on Jay Leno's Tonight Show.
Warning: this video contains some scenes of violence and is intended for mature viewers. It's hard to tell exactly what's going on here, but based on the blog linked from YouTube it is most likely in Thailand.
The Mauling of Roy Horn
Perhaps the most famous recent tiger attack occurred on Oct 3, 2003, when Roy Horn of Siegfried and Roy was bitten by the 600-pound white tiger Montecore at The Mirage in Las Vegas -- on the performer's 59th birthday no less. The seven-year-old tiger had been born in captivity and raised entirely by human beings. Although he was a performing animal, Montecore was also a close personal pet of Horn, so we thought the incident should be included. The event sparked national horror and debate about the role of exotic animals in entertainment and modern society.
10-Year-Old Girl Killed by Family Pet
In another tragic tiger encounter, a 10-year-old girl helping her stepfather groom a big cat died after the tiger clamped her head in its jaws. "No big cat can be tamed or trained to be a safe, trustworthy actor or companion," claims an HSUS spokesperson. "No matter how long you've had the animal, or how well he's behaved in the past, every moment spent in direct contact with a lion or tiger brings with it the risk of injury or death for the human handler or owner." Perhaps 15,000 people keep lions, tigers, cougars and other big cats as pets.
Child Disabled By Auto Mechanic's Lion and Tiger
In 2005 in Little Falls, Minnesota a lion and tiger owned by auto mechanic Chuck Mock reportedly bolted from their cage and pounced on a 10-year-old boy. He was seriously injured, and is now a quadriplegic and on a respirator.
10-Year-Old Dragged Under Fence to Death by Tiger
Think fences will keep you safe? In 2003 in Millers Creek, NC Ruth Bynum's 400-pound Bengal tiger dragged her 10-year-old nephew under a fence and into his cage, where the boy was mauled to death. Clayton James Eller had been shoveling snow and apparently got too close.
3-Year-Old Boy Has Arm Bitten Off by Uncle's Pet
In March 2000 in Channelview, TX a 3-year-old boy had his arm bitten off by his uncle's "pet" tiger.
Think only big cats can cause harm?
Pet Lynx Mauls Young Girl
In August 2005 in Clackamas, OR, an escaped pet lynx pounced on a six-year-old girl and began clawing her head.
Pet Bobcat Mauls Toddler
In April 1997 in Dallas a pet bobcat mauled a toddler, who lost a finger, part of his heel and a bit of his cheek.
April 1998, Reform, Missouri: A 600-pound pet black bear, who had been kept in a 15-foot-by-15-foot cage for a decade, bit and nearly severed the hand of a 6-year-old boy who tried to pet him on his grandfather's farm. The boy's hand was reattached, though it hung by only 11/2 inches of skin. The bear was killed.
December 1996, Coal County, Oklahoma: An 8-year-old girl suffered a broken arm after being clawed by a neighbor's 6-foot-tall, 300-pound pet black bear.
September 1996, Whitmire, South Carolina: An 8-year-old boy lost part of his finger to his great-grandmother's "pet" bear.
September 1993, Newberg Township, Michigan: A man was mauled to death by his brother-in-law's bear when he entered the pen during feeding time. That bear was also killed.
Then there's this genius:
February 1992/, Dane County, Wisconsin: A man has his ankle mangled after participating in a bear "wrestling" event sponsored by Jungleworld Animal Rental Agency. Bear wrestling??
Warning: this video contains some scenes of violence and is intended for mature viewers.
3-Year Old Strangled to Death by Pet Python
In August 28, 1999, in Centralia, IL, a 3 year-old-boy was strangled to death by the family's pet 7 1/2-foot African rock python. The boy had compression marks around his chest and bite marks on his neck and ears, but no evidence of struggle was apparent. He had been sleeping with an aunt and uncle near the snake's aquarium at the time. Reportedly the parents were charged with child endangerment and unlawful possession of a dangerous animal.
Venomous Snake Collector Attacked by His Menagerie
A Virginia man who was keeping 50 to 60 venomous snakes in his basement (despite the fact that he had young kids in the house) ended up "bitten" by his hobby in 2001. Tom Townsend was apparently feeding a rat to his pet spectacled cobra (which comes from India) when it lounged at him. Townsend's life was saved in the nick of time after he was airlifted for treatment with antivenom. One of Townsend's exotic vipers was allegedly so deadly that a state biologist called it a "two-stepper," meaning "You get bit, you take two steps and die."
Oregon Collector Bit After Putting Rattlesnake in His Mouth
It's a bit unclear if the rattlesnake in this incident was truly a pet, but according to accounts a young man by the name of Matt Wilkinson from Portland, Oregon had been keeping a reptile he found near the side of a road. Allegedly, Wilkinson was relaxing with his girlfriend and some beers when he decided to try to impress her by sticking the 20-inch rattler in his mouth. Perhaps surprising no one, the young man was bitten. He was rushed to a hospital and received a tracheotomy.
Turtles Cause a Quarter Million Cases of Salmonellosis in 70s
Not an attack per se, but baby turtles were blamed for the bulk of more than a quarter million cases of reptile-associated salmonellosis, primarily in children, that occurred annually during the 1970s (when the pet turtle craze was at its peak). Today reptiles are estimated to cause roughly 6% of U.S. salmonellosis cases, despite the fact that a 1976 federal law prohibits sale or distribution of turtles with shells under 4 inches (since they are most susceptible to transmitting it).
This got us thinking of this scene of, um, "death from above:"
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