Off the Leash

In the exotic pet universe, it's all about whose is weirder than whose.

At one point, his face is inches away from the animal's near-snarling mouth. An almost sub-sonic growl emanates from somewhere in the big cat's throat. It sounds like a garbage disposal gnawing on a steak knife, communicating an unmistakable "get away."

That sound, the Burks admit, is what "petrifies people." Last month, the couple hosted a dinner party for 18 guests. "Almost nobody wanted to come," they concede. "Everyone is afraid of him." It's disappointing, they say, "but we have to respect that people have those fears."

Sasha can put the fear into anyone: He paces constantly, looking like a tightly wound knot of tension with immense strength. It would be so easy for him to pounce and bring down prey up to three times his weight.

Bacchus the hairless cat.
photo: C. Katz
Bacchus the hairless cat.


Editor's note: This article appeared originally in New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

See also: My Pet's Weirder Than Yours
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"He could kill me," Barbara says matter-of-factly, like discussing today's lunch. "He could get my neck and kill me." But she believes that Sasha wouldn't do anything like that, though acknowledging that even seemingly docile animals like horses can become vicious.

That concern may be behind the Burks' recent move to Southwest Ranches. When the couple lived in South Beach, Sasha was a regular fixture in Lincoln Road, where Steve often walked him on a leash.

Some people, the Burks concede, would freak out a little.

"Their neighbors didn't care for it," says Reynolds, the Fish and Wildlife inspector.

Reynolds tried to quell the fears of those who complained. "I tried to tell 'em the animal is actually fairly nice, it's pretty docile," he says. "But they didn't care."

Interestingly, Sasha wasn't the only large creature on a leash that the Burks used to elicit stares. "Ah, Barbara," Steve says suddenly, "don't bring that up." He clutches his chest, brings his hand up to wipe his eyes.

"Luther... " she begins, and Steve has to leave the room.

Luther was a huge water monitor, an Indonesian reptile that looks like a fat, red-and-black alligator with a big forked tongue. He swam in the Burks' pool, slept in their room, and walked up and down South Beach with his owners. Neighbors complained to Fish and Wildlife about Luther, too.

One day, Luther got sick. The Burks took him to a vet, "but they don't know what they're doing," Barbara says. The next day, their pet was dead. Barbara folds her hands and glances nervously into the kitchen. "Steve was — I'd never seen him like that. He was devastated. Inconsolable."

After several minutes, Steve emerges with a photograph of himself struggling to hold Luther, whose long tongue protrudes like an anteater's. "He was 75 pounds," he sniffs. "So I had something to hold."

After Luther's demise, Barbara had a suggestion:

"Let's get a dog. A regular dog like everyone else."

But Steve Burk just couldn't bring himself to do that.

Marco Zeno and his pal, Snake.
photo: C. Katz
"A dog wasn't good enough," he says, ruffling the mini-mane around Sasha's neck. "Then we'd be just like everybody else. I wanted to take a killer and turn it into something people can enjoy."

Coaxing an animal out of the wild and into your home can be a complicated process. "People don't realize what it takes," says Mary Vice, who takes in abandoned pet skunks and cares for them in her home. "They think they can throw down a bunch of cat food and be done with it."

And that happens to be a problem.

"Obesity," she says seriously, "is the number one killer of skunks."

If it's not fat skunks, it's skunks left with their gonads intact ("very, very hard on their health," says the skunk lady. "They're cranky until they get altered.")

The skunks have their scent glands removed at three to four weeks of age, even before they're plucked from their mothers and den-mates. The first year of a young skunk's life isn't easy.

"We preach patience, because you'll need more than most humans have," Vice says. "Once they're out of the baby stage, they're fine, but lots of people can't make it that long. Unfortunately, a lot of people just want a skunk purely for 'the wow factor.' "

On the other hand, some odd critters are sought not for shock value but out of necessity. Maggie Lane, a Miami firefighter, loved cats but had asthma and severe animal allergies. While researching hypo-allergenic breeds on the Internet, she discovered the sphynx, a rare and unusual cat. "It worked out pretty good," she says.

The sphynx was made possible only by manipulating its breeding and genetic make-up. Derived from the bloodline of five cats born in the 1970s, the sphynx is the product of a natural mutation; it's almost completely hairless.

This has the effect of making the sphynx look absolutely odd. As an adult, the cats resemble a starved Chihuahua. As kittens, they look like shriveled, shaved rats with huge radar ears and a long, thin, hairless tail. They don't even have whiskers.

"He's cute," adds Maggie. "But people can't figure him out. They ask what kind of animal it is."

Maggie paid $1,200 for Bacchus, her charcoal-gray Sphynx. Unlike most cats, Bacchus likes going out of the house, riding in the car, and being handled by strangers. "He lets anyone pick him up," says Maggie. "When people meet him they fall in love and say they want one — until they hear the price."

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