By Natalie Cortez Klossner
In contemporary society, humans view exotic animals with awe and fascination, leading some to attempt to domesticate these prized creatures. Why is this so? Perhaps it is rooted in Western culture’s engrained desire to feel superior over anything that is strange and foreign by taking control of it or, perhaps, more importantly, it’s about regaining the disconnection with nature that has occurred due to modernization. This paper discusses the link between the suppression and colonization of the exotic from the sixteenth century to modern day exotic pet-keeping in New York City.
On February 16, 2015, extensive water damage at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on Manhattan’s Upper West Side killed 10 exotic pets that were encaged at the center at the time. The animal clinic is the only veterinary in New York City to solely focus on exotic animals since its grand opening in 2004. The destruction was reported on the Center’s website along with a link to its funding page . By July 23, they had raised $34,495 of the $35,000 necessary to rebuild what was lost due to the water explosion. That people would donate money in this relatively short period of time demonstrates a fascination with “exotic” animals. This interest in exoticism is not only a New York phenomenon; Western Culture has long defined itself as the dominant group and created out-groups or “the others.” In American culture otherness is based on binary logic; engrained in Western thought is the idea that something is black or white, civilized or barbaric, and in this case man or animal.
According to the Humane Society of the United States, the U.S. exotic pet trade is a multi-billion dollar industry and the second largest importer of wildlife after China (Wildlife Trade 2015). Exotic animal clinics have sprung up in the United States due to the public’s fascination with strange creatures and the unique health concerns that come along with owning one. According to the late Dr. Elizabeth A. Lawrence, a cultural anthropologist and veterinarian, as people in modern industrial societies have become more disconnected from nature; they seek the exotic animals as pets in order to reconnect with the natural world (Derr 2003). But their status as “exotic” suggests there is more to the story. Because they are rare and expensive, these creatures are more than symbols of the natural world; they are objects of visible consumption that award status to their owners.
What classifies an animal as “exotic”? The 2015 Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “exotic,” as something “originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country” and “Attractive or striking because colorful or out of the ordinary.” However, this definition carries a level of ambiguity since what constitutes foreign depends on the observer’s geographic location and the attractiveness of a creature depends on particular taste. Yet the notion of foreign origin gives the word “exotic” a rather glamorous connotation nonetheless, but in a marginalized Eurocentric way, since it is the Western world that allowed the exploitation of the term. The direct figuration behind exotic animals as commodities was largely established through a history of eighteenth-century British animal merchants (Plumb 2010, 7). Developments in animal trade–from traveling bird sellers to upscale menageries–reveal the same form of commercial and exhibitory culture of exotic pet ownership. The interest in non-native species is demonstrated by the minimal use of the word “exotic” in pre-industrial Britain; instead, more commonly, the word “foreign” was used to describe people, animals and products from faraway lands. Looking at The New and Complete Dictionary of the English Language published in 1795, the repetitive use of the word “foreign” to signify “the other” is evident (Ash 1795). The Philological Society of London would later go on to publish the first Oxford Dictionary in 1884 in order to promote Anglo-Saxon language and culture (“Brief History” 2012). Besides the diction used to describe an outsider, Westerners were the ones who through the process of world exploration defined what was elsewhere and would thus define the “exotic.”
Perhaps the greater recognition of the word “exotic” today to represent the unknown lies in the idea that it implies the envisioning of the obscure and different in a way that the word “foreign” lacks. Evidently then, “exotic” can refer to not only something belonging to a faraway land but anything or anyone that is negatively demarcated from norms established in the West. In other words, the first recorded utterance of the word “exotic” is likely rooted in Western society’s long-rooted xenophobic system—economically, politically and culturally—that clearly empowers one group over another. Even if the use of the word “exotic” is not necessarily meant to be racially destructive, and clearly not equivalent to slavery or genocide, it still suggests pain and maltreatment of animals. As such, in contemporary America, an exotic pet is generally described as an animal that is found in its “natural” state in the wild and not normally kept as a household pet thus demarcated from pet-keeping norms. These “exotic” animals have no say in their taming or conversion to domestic use; the forced separation from wildness thus causes pain and maltreatment.
Today, Americans view exotic pets with fascination and curiosity without true understanding, similar to the way exotic animals were viewed during the context of Western pre-modern exploration of the Americas, Africa and Asia. Not surprisingly, exotic pets are currently used as personal entertainment and accordingly, as commodities; the use of animals for profit-making purposes, rendering them as possessions rather than living creatures. Essentially, this “otherness” is still mostly geographical in nature since animals from distant lands, beyond the West, are more fascinating and valued. In the cultural capital of America itself, New York City, there are instances that argue in favor of this keeping of exotic pets for a sense of wonder and fascination with the unknown. Even if what is considered foreign is essentially geographic fiction, it allows a basis for the use of defaming stereotypes and a self-identity in opposition to what is labeled different.
Colonization and exploration allowed the West to transport and engrain its prejudiced ideals and values about the “exotic.” On October 12, 1492, Christopher Columbus became the first Western European to reach America, taking note of the “naked people” who “would be more easily converted to our holy faith by love than coercion” (Cummins 1992, 94). Columbus’ tone implies he saw these natives as “exotic” beings ready for colonization because of their primitive, innocent and savage demeanor (Cummins 1992). For Europeans in the fifteenth-century, the “discovery” of new land paved the way for further classification, such as civilized vs. savage and exotic vs. ordinary. Evidently then for fifteenth-century Europeans, their way of life was the only “civilized” version and thereby it was their duty to spread it to “the other” and celebrate preeminence over other humans and animals considered different. Similarly, taking a wild animal and forcing it to live like a historically domesticated animal demonstrates their superiority over “the other,” in this case an animal, supposing that exotic pets are seen as more primitive and savage than ordinary domesticated dogs and cats. A parallel is evident: people consider exotic animals to be easily transformable into pets the same way Western Europeans believed the indigenous people of the Americas could be easily Westernized. In a sense, both the indigenous people of the Americans of the early modern period and present-day exotic pets were colonized.
As Ania Loomba discusses in Colonialism/Postcolonialism, with the colonization of new lands came the expanded “contact between Europeans and anything non-Europeans, generating a flood of images and ideas on an unprecedented scale” (Loomba 1998, 58). Representations of Africa, East Asia, Middle East and the Americas were formed from the stereotypical stories told by these explorers. With images of exotic humans came images of exotic non-human species, perceived as representations of the unknown or distant.
Harriet Ritvo discusses this process in The Animal Estate. She introduces the topic of animal colonization, in the context of nineteenth-century England, when animals figured into human thinking and thereby became metaphors for mankind’s social and psychological desires. Captive animals, Ritvo claims, are “simultaneous emblems of human mastery over the natural world and of English domination over remote territories” (Ritvo 1989, 205). Ritvo shows how the use of exotic animals as tokens for submission is not a new occurrence describing how Victorian crowds flocked to menageries to see “exotic” animals on display. The word “menagerie” itself is derived from the French word menager, which has derived the English verb “to manage” (Parley 1833, 62). In other words, even the word used alludes to the “managing” of species deemed lower on the evolution spectrum, and thus requiring supervision and guidance. Ritvo further notes how these Victorian-style zoos allowed their visitors interaction with the animals, like promoting elephant or camel rides and encouraging animal feeding. The fact that the London Zoo pocketed £700 annually from selling camel and elephant back rides attests to how the public was disposed to pay to be close to the exotic (Ritvo 1989, 222). The notion that “[m]aintaining exotic animals in captivity was a compelling symbol of power” noticeably transcends through time (Ritvo 1989, 232).
For instance, in 2012, billionaire hedge-funder Phillip Falcone displayed a collection of exotic animals by carting a sloth, a king snake, a lemur, a marmocet, a hedgehog and a Brazilian aardvark into his $50 million Upper East Side home for a birthday party (Fanelli 2014). One article described the transporting of the exotic species by Long Island animal trainer Nicholas Jacinto to Falcone’s home as a “menagerie of exotic animals” (Fanelli 2014). Why would New Yorkers, like Falcone, break the law in order to simply entertain guests? Perhaps it’s because possessing exotic animals for one’s own entertainment or power is like holding a piece of a fascinating distant land akin to enclosing exotic animals in menageries. Additionally, these exotic pets can be valued because they are rare and expensive thus awarding status to their billionaire owner. However this foreign land from which the exotic animals originate perhaps embodies the imperialist attitude of perceiving the “oriental” from a Western standpoint.
Orientalism, a term coined by Edward Said, is a Eurocentric perspective that implicates the supremacy of the West over the East (the Orient) (Yang 2015). By minimizing non-Western cultures, the ideology justifies oppression and colonization of the “exotic.” As the British Empire expanded, menagerists gained access to animals from the most remote parts of the globe (Yang 2015); these strange animals became objects of fascination and awe. Crowds were fascinated with enclosures featuring animal like tigers and elephants because they were different to native European animals or in other words, “exotic.” Yet, the spectators at the menageries only knew about these exotic animals from what they had been told or, more accurately, what western colonialism had constructed for them. Falcone’s guests would experience a similar fascination and misinterpretation with the exotic animals presented at the party more than a hundred years later. Take the lemur for example; most likely, Falcone’s guests gawked about the mystery of the Madagascar animal or even related it to children’s movies, such as DreamWorks’s Madagascar. Many eighteenth-century aristocratic families created their own private menageries in order to entertain their guests like billionaire Falcone did in the twenty-first century in order to meet the curiosity of the unknown natural world. The process by which the West constructed exoticism based on pre-conceived ideas is similar to modern constructions of exotic animals.
The “colonization” of exotic animals by attempting to domesticate them is fraught with complications. According to the Humane Society, individuals should not own exotic animals because foremost the animals tend to suffer from the exotic pet trade’s poor shipping methods and generally poor care once they are purchased . When an individual keeps an exotic animal as a pet they end up containing the animal in a small space, although these animals by nature are accustomed to living freely in the open. Most New Yorkers cannot meet a wild animal’s needs; under the hands of these individuals, the animals end up suffering. Keeping a wild animal as a pet can also be dangerous for a neighborhood. George Watford, the 1988 head of rescue services for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals asserted that in his 28 years with the society he has seen alligators, bears, owls, chimpanzees, raccoons, sea turtles, tigers etc. who had all made their way into the special SPCA room marked “exotic animals” at the Manhattan shelter (MacFarquhar,1988, 22). Watford claimed that with snakes for example, an owner can wake up one morning and the snake is not in its aquarium but perhaps in the neighbor’s bathtub or under her bed. He later states how snakes are “fascinating” and “beautiful” yet “just a nick and it could kill you” (MacFarquhar, 22).
Although owning one of these wild or “exotic” animals as a pet is prohibited in New York City without obtaining a special permit, in the last five years, the health department has given out 290 violations to individuals for owning exotic animals (Fanelli). The New York legal framework for pet ownership is a direct ban, stating that no person may “knowingly possess, harbor, sell, barter, transfer, exchange, or import any wild animal for use as a pet” (McKinney’s E. C. L. 11-0512). New York defines a “wild animal” as a species of nonhuman primate, venomous reptiles, bears, non-domestic canines, and all species of crocodile. Failure to obey the rules results in a misdemeanor criminal offense. A 2005 New York Times article explores Thomas Cullen, a man who was hired to run the city eagle program although he had questionable and illegal activity regarding exotic birds that led to misdemeanors in his past (Kocieniewski, 2005, 33). According to the article, New York City set out to bring bald eagles back to a park in Manhattan and in order to do so they called up Cullen to lead the program despite his past with international bird smuggling and bird mistreatment. Interestingly, Cullen’s fascination with exotic birds began when he saw the movie “Rusty and the Falcon;” evidently then, his interest was sparked from images and ideas preconceived by the media.
The exotic animal center’s website itself suggests the harm of exotic pet keeping: “Every year thousands of pet birds, small mammals, and reptiles are rescued from NYC streets and city parks. Countless more are abandoned at local animal shelters or left outside of pet stores” . Evidently, owning animals not commonly kept as pets does not only lead owners to get frustrated with the behavior and maintenance of the creature, but also causes suffering to the animal kept and then potentially left to roam alone. Like many animal clinics, the Center also has a Yelp page that illustrates some of the inadequacies of owning an exotic pet. The first review on the site explains how the clinic treated a customer’s chinchilla after it “left his cage during the night and was acting very strangely the next morning” . In a sense, the owner was upset since her “pet” was not acting domesticated or like a “pet” by escaping out of his cage leading her to bring him to the clinic.
Humans strive to have power over the exotic by believing they can assert control over them. Although most animals not commonly kept as pets or classified as “exotic” are illegal in New York City, the law does not prohibit veterinarians from treating them . The site goes on to mention “a large percentage of the pets we treat are illegal to own in this City” and that “[v]eterinarians do not confiscate ‘illegal’ pets unless there is cruelty or negligence involved” . Clearly there is a grey space when it comes to the laws of owning wildlife in the City. Take New York’s great ape laws for example; although it is illegal to “import, possess, sell, or otherwise transfer any ape for use as a pet in New York,” individuals who possessed a pet ape on January 1, 2005 are able to keep that ape for the remainder of his or her life (Coate 2011). Human desire to own exotic animals is at times put ahead of the wellbeing of the animal, even if done clandestinely.
Besides owning an exotic animal, the Center’s website provides exotic pet owners tips on how to care for their exotic pets; however, the articles only further foster the inadequacies that come with owning an exotic animal in the first place. Its article “Spaying or Neutering your Pet Skunk,” claims that in order to limit a pet skunk’s aggression an owner should spay or neuter the animal . What gives humans the right to make decisions about another animal’s private organs, especially those animals not commonly domesticated in the first place? According to the clinic, a critical problem with owning a pet skunk is “the serious problem of biting and the potential for aggression” . Such a statement refers to the idea that colonizers are more willing to change the nature of the colonized than the nature of the way they care for them. By neutering the skunk it takes away the animal’s natural aggressive behavior. A skunk owner likes the idea of having a “wild” animal as a pet yet wants to take away the qualities that make the animal wild. The skunk’s natural aggressive behavior is perceived as savage because it does not fit with the usual docile behavior of domesticated animals, like dogs and cats.
What Westerners saw as “progress,” both pre-industrial and post-industrial, was based on subjective ideas of the unknown and on “improving” human society without taking animals in consideration, much like present-day pet owners forget to acknowledge the animals involved in their own personal desires. With the first domestication of wild species came several negative side effects, such as new diseases for humans, the changing nature of animals themselves, decrease of brain and body size, and the spread of nonnative species to different lands. (Ritvo 2004, 212). Yet, humans today continue to attempt to domesticate the exotic or wild; by the spaying or neutering of the pet skunk, one is also changing the animal’s nature. Additionally, with the practice of keeping exotic animals as pets comes appropriation. For example, the creation of a plush toy skunk for a young child creates a misrepresentation of a wild animal and commodifies, yet again, a living being. John Berger writes in his 1980 essay, “Why Look at Animals,” that exotic animals, like all animals, “appear like fish seen through the glass of an aquarium” (16). In other words, our pets are always being observed and understood in the way we wish to understand them. Pets are objects, or a commodity, of our preconceived knowledge about them. Berger goes on to explain how wildlife becomes a dream or an illusion for many people. Exotic animals cannot adjust well to captive environments because they require special care, housing, diet and maintenance that an ordinary New Yorker is not able to provide.
As seen through the City’s animal center, individuals who have exotic pets attempt to change the nature of their animal rather than the nature of the care they provide to it; owners of exotic pets appear to attempt to treat their exotic animals as if they were dogs or cats. In the Center, exotic pet owners can board their pets in cages like an owner of a dog or cat would. Yet exotic animals have not been domesticated for thousands of years like dogs or cats have been. While exotic pet owners may claim their pets are just like dogs or cats, in reality, humans tend to idealize these exotic animals. Comparably, in the nineteenth-century, zoos were “an endorsement of modern colonial power” (Berger 1980, 21). The capturing of distant animals was a symbolic representation of the conquest of the exotic. Similarly, the keeping of exotic pets expresses not only affluence, but uniqueness and power. European ideas about exotic lands and its inhabitants, human or non-human, were also generated perhaps as a way to preserve the wonders or exoticness of the natural world. While boarding pets in the Center restricts their freedom, from another angle the need to cage them suggests their continued “wildness.” As Berger reminds us: “In all cases the environment is illusionary” (Berger 1980, 25).
In fact, New York City’s public hearing on legalizing ferrets held on January 21, 2015 proved this fascination and desire for housing exotic animals. In the summer of 2014, the ferret club of NYC held a Q&A and petition-signing event at Union Square to promote their cause. The official website promoting ferret legalization, NYCferrets.com, implies that there are a substantial amount of ferret owners in the city despite it being against the law to own one. The Center even accepts ferrets for care and boarding regardless of the legality, and also provides an article on how to take care of the animal . Yet, according to the 1995 District court case New York City Friends of Ferrets against the City of New York, New York City Department of Health, “The name ‘domestic ferret’ is a zoological term, and the name does not indicate that this animal is ‘domestic’ for legal purposes unless so classified by the relevant regulatory body” . As humans, we think we have the power to tame or domesticate any non-human animal we see as cute, dangerous or simply intriguing. On December 9, 2014, the NYC department of Health and Mental Hygiene drafted a proposal to amend Article 161 of the City’s health code, which would legalize ferret pet ownership . Even if on March 10, 2015, the New York City Board of Health decided not to lift NYC’s ferret ban, clearly that would not stop some the city’s residents from keeping their ferrets as pets. For example, the Center has still maintained its page on wellness tips for ferret owners on its site .
Here, we must recount how Western cultural ideas about the exotic have not only allowed two separate worlds to come in contact but also created relations of domination and submission. An exotic ferret owner would take pride in being the dominant force over such an exotic animal, much like a menagerie owner would have in the eighteenth-century towards a lion or elephant. These animals have no say in their domestication or domination. Like previously mentioned, since the West viewed people or animals from distant lands as inferior, they also thought they had the power to in a way “tame” or “domesticate” them in whatever way they found ideal. But the question still arises: what continues to make possessing an exotic being so enthralling in the twentieth-century? Although calling an animal “exotic” is a fluid term, we must agree that certain species that have not historically cohabitated with humans or that must be caged in order to prevent serious threat to communities should stop being “domesticated.” Perhaps it’s the idea of owning another living being that is seen inferior as a novelty. Unfortunately, as colonial history has demonstrated, the Western fascination with the exotic appears to be unbreakable. It all appears to generate from a habitual desire to control others and to assert power derived from the belief that they have the right to commodify other living things because they see themselves as superior. Besides the commodity aspect of owning another living being, present-day exotic pet keeping renders a common historical theme of humans versus animals: people find a sense of wonder and fascination with nature. As humans have became more industrialized over time, we simultaneously created a greater divide with the environment thus wanting to own an exotic pet perhaps demonstrates just a longing for the natural world that we lack.
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