Where the Wild Things Are
What's lurking in your neighbor's backyard or basement?
by Bill Donahue


Glenn Whitman* remembers the recurved, needlelike teeth piercing the flesh over his left pectoral muscle, followed by the hard-as-steel coils encircling his wrist. Then, with the speed of a lightning strike, the coils wound up his arm and squeezed till the limb went numb.


“I don’t remember any pain, but I do remember how quickly it happened,” says Whitman, a public-relations professional based in Montgomery County. “It took me and two other people to unwind the coils and get the snake back in his cage.”


Whitman is—or was—what’s called a herpetoculturist, someone who collects reptiles, as in snakes, lizards, turtles, etc., as a hobby. Eight years ago his cold-blooded menagerie included two Burmese pythons (including the one that bit him, which spanned nearly 10 feet from snout to tail), two bearded dragons and a Mexican black kingsnake, all kept inconspicuously within a three-bedroom townhouse.


“I grew up loving dinosaurs … and my interest [in reptiles] never went away,” he says. “I always sort of liked the fact that most people were afraid of snakes, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t like the reaction I got when I told people I had pythons at home. … I never told my neighbors, though.”


Although the Philadelphia suburbs are mostly devoid of wildlife that could be considered dangerous, exotic animals—mammals such as African servals and Australian wallabies; reptiles such as large constrictors, crocodilians and venomous vipers; arthropods such as tarantulas and scorpions, etc.—kept as pets are abundant … and, as Whitman suggests, often unknown to their owners’ neighbors.


Perhaps surprisingly, such animals aren’t difficult to procure. Hobbyists can purchase exotic animals of all kinds online or at animal expos in Pennsylvania and out of state. Locally, venues in Pottstown and Hamburg host reptile shows several times a year, enabling an enthusiast to walk out the door as the owner of almost any species of reptile, amphibian or invertebrate—including, in some cases, venomous species such as cobras, rattlesnakes and subtropical vipers.


‘Surprisingly Rare’

Whitman’s experience of getting bitten by a large, cold-blooded constrictor may conjure nightmares in some people, but even domesticated animals such as dogs or cats will bite when stressed or threatened, often with tragic results. Each year an estimated 800,000 Americans seek medical attention for dog bites, according to the CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control.


Furthermore, despite the bad reputation created by pet owners who hoard exotic animals, house them insecurely or perhaps purchase them for the wrong reasons, the people who keep exotic animals legally and responsibly deserve to have them, according to wildlife proponents such as Joe “Jungle Joe” Fortunato, founder and executive director of the Bucks County Zoo and Conservation Society in Warminster.


“It takes a certain kind of person to keep an animal as a pet,” Fortunato says, “and it takes an even more special person to keep an exotic animal as a pet because, more times than not, your exotics are going to require more care. My opinion is that if that person has the proper training and experience, and the proper permits to go with that, then I’m OK with the private industry having exotic animals.


“In the last 20-something years, the pet industry has come a long way,” he adds. “People are much more knowledgeable than they’ve ever been. Considering the amount of snakes and constrictors and even venomous animals out there [in captivity], it’s surprisingly rare that you hear of something negative. But when you do, when that one thing happens, it makes the news.”


“Something negative” could include an owner getting bitten by a venomous animal (and dying as a result), an escape or even the purposeful release of nonnative species, thereby endangering the local fauna and flora. And when such incidents make headlines, many people—including those in positions of power—tend to overreact by suggesting blanket bans on all exotic species.


Like Whitman, Fortunato grew up as an animal lover, with a special fondness for reptiles. Years later, when his career as a police officer came to an end as a result of a debilitating neck injury, he chose to devote his energy completely to his lifelong passion. His collection of legally obtained and expertly cared-for exotics has since grown to include species from around the globe—aardvarks, lemurs, monkeys, fennec foxes, macaws, several large constrictors, an Egyptian cobra and, temporarily, a white tiger cub, among many others—which act as “ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild,” he says.


(Editor’s note: The nonprofit Bucks County Zoo, which is accredited by the Feline Conservation Association, recently found itself under seemingly unwarranted scrutiny from a local animal-rights group, alleging the animals housed there were kept in inadequate conditions. A visit by Suburban Life to the 5,000-square-foot zoo and educational facility zoo revealed animals housed in spacious, clean and safe enclosures, with ample opportunities for enrichment.)


“There are a few animals here we have adopted,” Fortunato says, including a large water monitor, which is a species of carnivorous lizard, named Fluffy. “We’re not an adoption agency, and we’re not a rehab, but we have helped people out in the past. … [As a pet owner] you have to think long term: What is the responsibility going to be for this animal? How big is it going to get? What kind of diet is it going to require when it’s full grown, or even growing up for that matter, because babies need special supplements, too? How large of an enclosure is it going to need?


“So if all those questions can be answered properly, then I’m OK with someone walking into a pet store and buying, say, a baby water monitor.”


The ‘Whim’ Factor

Whereas some states are rather liberal when it comes to the ownership of exotics, Pennsylvania tends to be somewhat restrictive. Such restrictions, sources suggest, are meant to make sure someone’s neighbor is acquiring an exotic animal for the right reasons.


To own species such as bears, wolves and big cats, for example, a person must first receive a permit from the state’s wildlife regulatory commission to make sure the animal is housed properly as a way to protect the health of the animal and the safety of the public. There are different types of permit, with varying degrees of difficulty, depending on the owner’s intentions; using the animal in an exotic animal dealership or to stock a small zoo, for instance, requires a different permit than one to simply possess the animal.


Such rules and regulations from local municipalities also prevent people from making “whim” purchases, according to Jerry Feaser, press secretary for the Pennsylvania Game Commission in Harrisburg, which regulates the private purchase of warm-blooded exotics. “Think of ‘101 Dalmatians,’” he says. “When that movie came out, everyone wanted to have a Dalmatian. Dalmatians aren’t exotic, but they are a high-strung animal, and they’re not necessarily the best with kids, and when that movie came out kennels and shelters were up to their eyeballs in Dalmatians. ... We don’t want people to have that whim kind of a purchase, especially of an exotic animal.”


Making it difficult to legally obtain such an animal also prevents what is essentially a wild animal from getting loose in densely populated areas where an interaction between man and beast could end badly. Enforced restrictions also help prevent the spread of diseases, such as ringworm and rabies, according to Feaser, as well as rarer and possibly fatal ailments such as the monkeypox virus, which first appeared in the United States earlier this decade.


“Some people have exotic animals as pets, then they move or need to get rid of them, and rather than doing the responsible thing they dump them,” he says. “In the Philadelphia area, we’ve had African servals in Chester County, and wallabies running around Ardmore. We’ve also had alligators caught in Lehigh County and Dauphin County, and we’ve had piranha in the Three Rivers area. … We once had an African serval named Mr. Bigglesworth running around Pittsburgh, and there was something called a binturong, which is a nasty-looking animal [also known as an Asian bearcat], loose in Beaver County.”


Some exotic animals are likely released intentionally, but sometimes escapes occur when an owner defies common sense by keeping an exotic pet as cavalierly as one might keep a domesticated dog or cat. A few years ago, for example, an individual living in the township of Lower Paxton, a suburb of Harrisburg, was cited for keeping a mountain lion in close quarters.


“He’d bought it in Virginia as a cub,” Feaser says. “A neighbor called us and said, ‘I know I sound crazy, but I swear to God my neighbor has a mountain lion.’ An officer was sent to investigate and knocked on the door, and sure enough the guy had a mountain lion in his one-bedroom apartment.


“A mountain-lion cub may be cute, but it can grow into something that can eat you, and it’s the same way with bears, tigers and African lions.”


As for Whitman, the one-time snake owner in Montgomery County, he has stopped collecting exotics; now his pets are strictly of the dog-and-cat kind. One of his Burmese pythons died unexpectedly in 2006, and he gave the other one—a young, banana-colored albino—to a snake breeder on the outskirts of Doylestown. (“This guy let his pythons bask in a kiddie pool right on his front lawn,” Whitman says.) The two bearded dragons went to a pet shop a few years later, and as for the other snake …


“He escaped,” Whitman says of the Mexican black kingsnake, a harmless species of colubrid whose diet in the wild comprises other snakes, including rattlesnakes. “They’re notorious escape artists. He was in his cage when I went to bed one night, and the next morning he was gone.”


* Name changed to protect privacy