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Popularity of Exotic Pets Sends Maine Animal Control Officers Back to School
11/29/2012   Reported By: Patty B. Wight

When it comes to choosing a pet, the usual question is: "Dog or cat?" But increasingly, people are now asking something like, "Dog, cat - or exotic?" If you go exotic, things can go awry, and that's when an animal control officer steps in - often to uncharted territory. So today, for the first time, the Maine Department of Agriculture offered exotic animal training to about 80 animal control officers from across the state. Patty Wight has more from the class in Augusta.

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 Duration:
3:14

Argus Monitor Lizard, handler Caleb Bruss.

Caleb Bruss holds an Argus monitor lizard, native to Australia.

Most days on the job for Brunswick animal control officer Heidi Nelson are pretty much what you'd expect. "We deal with lots of dogs running at large, dog bites, cat bites, barking dogs, and we have lots of wildlife issues as well - foxes that are looking mangy, possibly rabid. Raccoons, skunks - you name it, we deal with it," she says.

Dealing with domesticated animals is the primary focus of Nelson's job. But things are starting to change. In her eight years in Brunswick, Nelson says she's getting more calls for animals of the non-domesticated variety.

"We do deal with snakes occasionally, periodically alligators when people have imported them as pets and then they get too big and then they get let loose," she says. "Lots of birds as well that get loose."

"The exotic animal black market - it's sad. Every time I say this, my voice just kinda is like, 'Oh, so sad," says Derek Small, executive director of the WILD Center and Zoological Park of New England, which takes in animals from zoos and from seizures by law enforcement. He's training the animal control officers how to handle what he says is a big problem.

"The exotic animal black market, and the private ownership of things that people should not have is the third largest illegal trade in the United States, surpassed only by guns and drugs, as measured by financials," Small says.

It's unclear why exotic pets are becoming more popular. Some say it's because people see them on reality TV and other shows. Whatever the reasons, Small says when it comes to dealing with exotics, animal control officers have to expect the unexpected - and be comfortable with it.

"This guy is Gus," says Caleb Bruss, holding a hissing lizard. "He's an Argus monitor lizard native to Australia. Hey buddy. We like to call him Grumpy Gus."

Gus is a common exotic pet and he's big, easily filling handler Caleb Bruss's arm in girth, and extending beyond it in length. While Bruss assures the hissing is only a tough guy act, these lizards are intimidating. Bruss says they can stand up on their hind legs, run, and even lunge at you.

It's the type of behavior that can strike fear into the hearts of people like Bill Campbell. He's the chief of police and the animal control officer in Fort Fairfield, and he remembers his own run-in with a reptile. "It was a 13-and-a-half-foot Burmese python," he says.

Campbell says the owner thought it was loose in some woods where kids were playing. After lots of searching, the python turned up inside the owner's apartment, in a drawer in a captain's bed - all 13 feet of him, and not happy.

Patty Wight: "Did you discover him?"

Bill Campbell: "No, the owner did. I stood in the threshold and offered moral support!"

Campbell's goal today was to get over his reptilian fears and handle one on his own. The animal control officers got to see and touch lots of different animals - from reptiles, to a hedgehog, even a wallaby, which elicited happy sighs from the class

Naples-area animal control officer Bobby Silcott says in his profession, you can't just do the same old, same old cat and dog trainings anymore. Both the animals - and the job itself - are changing.

"The days of the dog catcher are gone, and this kind of demonstrates that here today," Silcott says. "We're compassionate people, we're empathetic people. We really care." Whether it's a dog, cat - or a boa constrictor.

Photo by Patty Wight.



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