Not your average pets

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Exotic critters make unique companions

Story and photos by Josie Musico

 Tom McDowell loves his snakes.

The former Paradise Pets owner and his wife, Racheal, still keep about 20 of the slithery reptiles, plus a handful of other exotic critters.

“We care for all of them just like they were our only one,” the Fulton resident said with a hint of pride.

McDowell first developed an interest in serpents about 25 years ago. Living in Florida at the time, he found a corn snake behind some bushes at his church. Now, his collection has grown to include a yellow anaconda, Brazilian rainbow boa, ball python, bearded dragon, pixie frog and leopard gecko.

“They’re definitely our babies,” he said modestly. “We take care of them very well.”

McDowell also wants to break any misconceptions folks have about snakes. Most species are harmless, but even their venomous counterparts play a role in the ecosystem. The exotic pet owner loves breaking the ideas that snakes are slimy and all are dangerous or aggressive.

“Most of the stereotypes that you hear about reptiles are not true,” he said.

Adopting an exotic pet often requires more legal hassle than a dog or cat. Depending on the type of pet, you’ll need a certain type of special permit. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires you to follow various laws such as the Lacey Act and Endangered Species Act. For example, you won’t necessarily be allowed to keep a pet bald eagle.

And federal law is only part of a wide-ranging net of guidelines. You might compare the set of laws to layers of an onion. Federal, state, city and county all apply, and you must adhere to whichever is strictest.

Local government agencies can create ordinances that are more – but not less – restrictive than state and federal law. For example, if Holts Summit City Council or Cole County Commissioners wanted to pass a law allowing their residents to skip the exotic species permitting process and purchase cobras without paperwork, they would be out of luck. Establishing an outright ban on those species within city or county limits, on the other hand, could be easier.

Owning non-venomous reptile species such as McDowell’s boas is legal in Missouri. Even keeping a native species can mean extra work if it’s a nontraditional pet. Tyler Brown, a Camden County based game warden, described how to obtain a confined wildlife permit.

“It’s a pretty extensive process,” he said. “You don’t just get one by submitting an application.”

A class 1 permit covers ownership of wild but non-dangerous native species such as deer and pheasants.

A class 2 permit is required to keep more aggressive critters such as rattlesnakes and mountain lions. Both require the owner to prove the animals came from a legal source, and meet confinement standards.

“There’s a whole number of regulations that pertain to getting one of those permits,” Brown said. “It’s a very detailed and well-defined process.”

But why go through that trouble? Most exotic pet owners keep those critters for the same reasons others keep cats and dogs: they’re lovable, fun and great companions.

Ashley Detwiler, another local pet owner, treats her parrot like a family member. Bernie, a 22-year-old Congo African grey, originally came from an abusive home and still has a hesitancy to warm up to people.

“They get stressed out very easily,” she said. “Because Bernie is standoffish, he tends to bite every chance he gets.”

Bernie’s favorite foods are chicken, berries, watermelon and papaya. He can blow kisses, whistle and make various other noises. Like other birds, Bernie has sensitive lungs. That means keeping the thermostat at a constant 60 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and avoiding smoking, candles and incense in the home.

“There’s a lot that goes into having a bird,” Detwiler said. “It’s a lifetime commitment.”

And like any exotic pet, it helps to remember the animal’s wild background. Even the most careful owner can still be attacked. After it strikes, keep in mind your local hospital might not have exotic species antivenin on hand, so curing the bite wound could be time-consuming and costly.

McDowell is quick to remind other wild animal lovers they won’t become domesticated overnight.

“You can never assume that just because you’re handling them they’re gonna be like a house cat,” he said. “They’re always gonna be a wild animal.”

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Molly Morris

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