Elephants in the Living Room – Times Publications, July 2011


By Shanna Hogan

A white picket fence hedges the front yard of a quaint, pale-yellow house on El Dorado Road in Mesa. On the front lawn, a rusty swing set gives the house an unassuming look, but as passersby quickly learn, there’s more than just lawn ornaments in this yard.

Debbie Crews-Ketterling owns more than 25 exotic pets, making her menagerie one of the most diverse in the Valley. Debbie’s pet zebra, Zoey, lives in an enclosure in the front yard of her Mesa home.

Debbie Crews-Ketterling owns more than 25 exotic pets, making her menagerie one of the most diverse in the Valley. Debbie’s pet zebra, Zoey, lives in an enclosure in the front yard of her Mesa home.

On this warm summer morning Debbie Crews-Ketterling is standing out front, holding out an apple in an attempt to entice 9-year-old Zoey to join her in the shade of a towering eucalyptus. The seemingly skittish African zebra approaches gingerly and suddenly snatches the fruit from her hand. Debbie yanks back her arm, but not fast enough. She glances down at her fingertips, which are now dripping with blood.

“It’s no big deal,” says Debbie, holding her hand awkwardly at her side to avoid staining her white skirt. “Around here you get bit, you get stomped on, it happens. I’ll just put a Band-Aid on it.”

Apparently an occasional bite or scratch is pretty common at Debbie’s house, where most of the front yard bears resemblance to a small zoo.

A sports psychologist and grandmother of four, Debbie owns more than 25 pets, making her menagerie one of the most diverse in the Valley. In addition to Zoey the zebra, a llama and three miniature horses also reside in the expansive front yard. There’s even a stable of Clydesdale horses in the barn behind the house. In her back yard, between the jungle gym and pool, a pygmy goat is roommate to a 100-pound tortoise. And two pet macaque monkeys, Daisy and Mya, share a specially designed cage which penetrates the wall of the main house, allowing them to enter and exit Debbie’s bedroom.

While zebras, llamas and monkeys may seem like unusual choices for pets, as an exotic-pet owner, Debbie Crews-Ketterling is not nearly as rare a breed as you might think. From reptiles to rodents, parrots to pygmy goats, chimpanzees to camels, unusual and often exotic animals inhabit hundreds of homes across the Valley. This growing group of pet owners says these creatures often make for compatible companions; but some animal activists warn that attempting to domesticate these otherwise wild animals can be dangerous, and that the animals should be left in their natural habitats.

Animal Encounters

Over the last several decades a wide range of exotic animals have become increasingly popular domestic pets. About 63 percent of all U.S. households, or around 71 million homes, have at least one pet, according to a 2007-2008 national pet owners’ survey conducted by the American Pet Product Association. More than 18 million of those pets are considered to be exotic animals.

“In the last thirty years there has just been tremendous growth in exotic-pet ownership,” says Dr. Kevin Wright, co-founder of Arizona Exotic Animal Hospital, the Valley’s first hospital devoted exclusively to the care of exotic pets. “Exotic pets are basically becoming more and more popular and have become a larger part of people’s lives.”

Each year Jerry and Pam Conrad throw their pet camel, Elvis, a birthday party.

Each year Jerry and Pam Conrad throw their pet camel, Elvis, a birthday party.

Today, strange pets such as sugar gliders, prairie dogs, tarantulas and bearded dragons are being sold alongside dogs, cats and gerbils in pet stores. Larger exotic pets including primates, amphibians, reptiles, wild cats and livestock can be purchased through breeders who often find a ready audience by advertising in exotic-animal publications and on the Internet.

More than 650 million critters — from kangaroos and tigers to iguanas and chimpanzees — were imported legally into the United States between 2003 and 2006, according to data from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Countless more pets are smuggled into the U.S. as part of what is estimated to be a $10 billion-a-year international black market, making it large enough to be second only to illegal drugs.

In Arizona, it is legal to own most exotic pets, though some species require permits, including non-domestic canines and felines, orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, alligators, crocodiles and a variety of snakes. Despite the restrictions, each year hundreds of dangerous illegal animals are confiscated from Valley owners, many of them ultimately being housed in animal sanctuaries.

Each year, the Phoenix Herpetological Society reportedly takes in approximately 125 non-native venomous snakes and as many as three alligators each month. Scottsdale’s Southwest Wildlife Sanctuary has become home to dozens of dangerous wild felines—including lions, bobcats and tigers—all of them once owned as domestic pets.

Many people who adopt baby exotic pets don’t realize that as the animals age, they become difficult to control, says Deana Nelson, founder and director of Rascally Rabbits Rescue and Critter Haven of Arizona, an animal sanctuary for small mammals.

“People just want something cute that they can cuddle with that doesn’t take any work,” she says. “Unfortunately, that doesn’t exist. That’s a stuffed animal, and these are real animals.”

Caring for exotic pets can be costly and time-consuming and requires a substantial commitment. However, responsible exotic-pet owners argue that even the most unusual animals can become man’s best friend.

Elvis Lives… In Phoenix

On Elvis’s first birthday Jerry and Pam Conrad threw their baby a birthday party. Pam prepared a carrot cake while Jerry put a sign on his front gate, inviting the entire neighborhood over for the celebration. More than a hundred of Elvis’s friends and admirers showed up, bringing with them balloons, birthday cards and gifts.

“We just did it as a hoot. Jerry put out a sign not knowing if two or two hundred people would show up,” says Pam. “It was hilarious. Cars were lined up and down the block. There were people everywhere.”

Today, Elvis, who happens to be a camel, is still a hit, and his birthday parties are still considered a big deal around the neighborhood. Elvis is, indeed, the most popular camel in Desert Hills.

“Everyone knows Elvis,” says Jerry, a roofing consultant. “People come by all the time to see Elvis. Everyone brings their out-of-town guests by the house to see him. We’ve had visitors from Canada, Mexico, all over.”

Pam and Jerry purchased Elvis from a breeder when he was just five days old and bottle-fed him every four hours for the first six months of his life. They later adopted another camel they named Bahtul from a Scottsdale family. Both camels live in a horse corral out in front of the Conrads’ home.

In addition to their two camels, the Conrads have two horses, three red-tailed boa constrictors, three pugs, a cat, a sea turtle and dozens of Koi fish.

“You name it, we got it—snakes, turtles, horses,” says Pam. “We’ve moved out here and just acquired one animal after another. It’s out of control!”

Elvis, who is the most social of their pets, gained his fame by playing a role in the annual nativity scene at the Conrads’ church, and for his regular appearances at schools and promotional events put on by Valley radio stations.

While people enjoy meeting Elvis, the Conrads are often asked, “Why camels?” to which Pam asks, “Why not?”

“I’ve always just been fascinated with these animals,” says Pam. “There’s just such uniqueness about camels. They’re intelligent, they’re gentle. Most people don’t get it like we get it.”

Whether a snake or a camel, Jerry says each animal has its own personality and is capable of forming a strong bond with its human owners.

Amanda Fisher poses with her pet pygmy goats, Corky and Thor.

Amanda Fisher poses with her pet pygmy goats, Corky and Thor.

“When you get an animal you have to be willing to put the investment into the relationship,” he says. “With large animals, like camels, they can be dangerous, and you have to be aware that they can hurt you. You have to be respectful with them.”

Animals Gone Wild

While the allure of exotic creatures is almost an obsession for some pet owners, attempting to domesticate wild animals can often be extremely dangerous and even deadly.

In the past 20 years, there have been more than 1,500 documented exotic-pet attacks, 76 of them resulting in human deaths, according to data compiled by Born Free USA, a national animal advocacy group. Countless other incidents involving exotic pet attacks go unreported.

In Arizona alone, dozens of exotic-animal attacks are reported each year. In November 2005, a pet monkey escaped from its cage, tore through a neighbor’s back yard in Phoenix and bit several children at a birthday party. In January 1999, a 21-year-old Phoenix man was found dead in his home from multiple snake bites, all courtesy of his pet rattlesnake. And just last year, a 3-year-old Mesa boy was bitten on the wrist by the family’s pet lemur, the resulting gash reaching all the way to the boy’s bone.

Several other high-profile exotic-pet attacks have prompted some animal-rights organizations to call for tighter regulations on the pets.

In Florida in 2009, 2-year-old Shaiunna Hare was strangled to death by the family’s pet albino Burmese python. The nearly 8-foot, 6-inch yellow-tinged snake escaped its enclosure at night, slithered into her room, wrapped itself around the girl as she lay in her crib, and squeezed her to death.

In January, a pet ferret gnawed seven fingers off the hands of a 4-month-old Missouri boy, the incident ultimately resulting in the boy’s parents, Ryan and Carrie Waldo, being charged with first-degree child endangerment.

Perhaps the most infamous exotic-animal attack occurred in 2009, when a 14-year-old pet primate savagely ripped off the nose, lips, eyelids and hands of Charla Nash, a 55-year-old Connecticut woman. Nash, who was left blind and severely deformed, recently underwent a full face transplant.

Some animals, including most primates, do not make good domestic pets, says Dr. Wright.

“I’m not comfortable with people having primates. I don’t think you can take care of them as a pet,” says Dr. Wright. “They have very complex social lives, and people just can’t provide all of their needs. They usually end up very psychotic, attacking their owners, self-mutilating and other behaviors.”

In addition to animal attacks, exotic pets often carry bacteria and viruses that can be fatal to humans. Zoonotic diseases — those that jump from animals to humans — account for three-quarters of all emerging infectious threats, according to the Center for Disease Control. An estimated 50 million people worldwide have been infected with zoonotic diseases since 2000, and as many as 78,000 have died, according to a study in the Journal of Internal Medicine.

With exotic pets, the best way to avoid dangers is by researching the animals and being educated about the risks they pose.

“There are lots of animals that I think are inappropriate for people to own, and it’s usually a question of them not understanding what they’re getting into,” says Dr. Wright. “Instead of having a pet that people think will follow them around like a dog, it becomes more of a zoo situation where you interact with the animal behind bars.”

Birds of a Feather

To warn strangers of the critters lurking in her back yard, Chandler resident Amanda Fisher has a sign on her back gate: “Beware of Goats.” The warning seems a bit comical, however, when the goats come trotting toward the fence. Standing less than two feet tall, Amanda’s goats are of the pygmy variety—a small domestic breed, typically raised on farms for their milk.

Her two goats, Corky and Thor, live in her back yard, wear dog collars and are regularly walked on dog leashes.

“They just live in the back yard and eat our grass all day, which is kind of nice because we don’t have to mow it,” Amanda says with a laugh. “I come to the door, and they’ll come up to me. They’re all over us. Thor will sit on your lap.”

Before the goats were allowed to move in, Amanda had to secure permission from her neighbors, although the soft “bah” of her goats is much quieter than a normal dog bark. Strangers who see her goats are often amused and ask to take pictures.

“They’re unique. They’re so hilarious and so cute. Seeing a dog is normal,” she says. “They run up to you and ‘bah.’ It’s ridiculous and so cute.”

For Susan Thorne, her exotic pets, a small flock of African grey parrots, make for impressive conversation pieces and, as it turns out, conversationalists themselves. At sunrise each morning inside her Chandler home, the chatter begins: “Wake up. Good morning. I love you.”

“One or two of the birds are exceptional talkers. They are almost like tape recorders,” Susan says. “They’re quite comical. They’re just a riot.”

Susan Thorne writes about her experience with her birds on her blog, www.lifeamongthegreys.com.

Susan Thorne writes about her experience with her birds on her blog, www.lifeamongthegreys.com.

Growing up with a lifelong fascination with birds, Susan purchased her first parrot in 1988 and says she has owned dozens since.

“It’s a different kind of relationship with a bird,” says Susan. “In many ways it’s like having a perpetual 2-year-old. A lot of birds will have temper tantrums and scream really loud if they don’t get their way.”

Few pets are as engaging as parrots—they’re animated, they’re social and they bond to humans, she says. However, like with most exotic animals, they come with their own unique demands.

“They’re wild animals. People don’t understand you can pet them and they will seem loving, and they’ll turn around a bite you,” she says. “You can have a relationship, but you have to be respectful. They’re wild animals and need to be treated as such.”

Zoology 101

Dressed in a white tennis skirt and yellow top, Debbie Crews-Ketterling looks as if she should be preparing to tee-off at a golf course instead of standing in her dusty yard, flanked by a llama and a zebra.

As she nurses her zebra bite, a little boy passes by the house on a bike, with his father following closely behind. The father does a double-take, staring momentarily slack-jawed at Zoey.

“Wow,” he mutters to himself. “You don’t see that every day, do you?”

It’s a pretty common reaction when people encounter a domesticated zebra.

“People come by every day to take pictures,” says Debbie. “Zoey’s a funny girl. She’s very social and she loves the people. She loves the attention.”

Living with so many exotic creatures can be chaotic, but for Debbie the adventure is worth the risk.

“The best part of all of this is when things aren’t going that great, or you’re having a bad day, you just come out here and experience the animals and suddenly it doesn’t seem so bad,” she says. “They really put things in perspective.”