Off the Leash

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

Even family members balk at visiting the Burks. And anonymous complaints still bring police to the door.

"They think we're keeping a lion or tiger in here!" bellows Steve.

Fish and Game officers stop by for unannounced visits.

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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"Mr. Burk still keeps [Sasha] indoors, and I don't believe it should be so," Rey-nolds laments. He believes people with big cats — ocelots, servals, and the like — should keep them on large lots in big enclosures. He'd let them keep their claws and live in a wilder situation. The enclosure, he says, would have a double-door safety entrance so human and wild animal never share the same space, and escape is unlikely.

"If you put it in the house, well, you just lost your safety entrance."

When the Burks are outside, which is often, Sasha eyes them through the front door. Only once has he made a break for it, and he was quickly found, lounging in his own yard.

"We've been cautioned not to let him around kids under 100 pounds," Barbara says. She concedes that it's impossible to know what might look like prey to Sasha, what might "click in his brain" and make him attack. "We're very careful."

When a cat jumps onto the back of a couch you're sitting on, it's noticeable. When Sasha jumps behind you, it feels like a Rottweiler landed from a nearby rooftop. And when he playfully nuzzles against your neck, you can get just a hint of his gleaming incisor against an ear. You get a taste of what it must feel like to be a chew-toy.

"SASHA!" yells Barbara. "Down!"

The shy coatimundi
photo: C. Katz
Patrick Reynolds of the Fish and Wildlife Commission laughs, because he's talking about a state agency that was never designed to monitor exotic pets and the people who love them. When he started 27 years ago, the Florida Fish and Game Commission, as it was known, had the task of policing Florida's roadside zoos.

"They were everywhere," he says. Before the Turnpike and the Interstate, rural roads were cluttered with mini-zoos and small circuses that would winter here. "These places had unsafe conditions for animals and were more or less cruel," he says. Officers would find great apes, lions, tigers, bears, alligators, and more.

But outlawing the zoos produced another set of problems.

In Broward County, Reynolds says, at least two wild monkey colonies flourish as vestiges of old roadside zoos. One lives in the woods west of Dania Jai-Alai; another large group hangs out in the cypress swamp near the intersection of Route 441 and I-595.

"They will branch out," he says. "They will go into neighborhoods next."

That's what happened with other non-native species, like iguanas, whose proliferation here can be traced back to pet owners. Current regulations allow anyone of any age to go into a pet shop and plunk down $10 for the lizard.

In a typical scenario, Reynolds says, little Johnny finds that keeping a huge reptile is too daunting a task, so his parents bring it back to the store. But it's illegal for businessmen like Pata to buy it back.

"I can't even give you an in-store credit for fish!" he laments. "You could donate the animal, give it to me for free, but that tends to rub people the wrong way. So what do they end up doing? They let it go. Into the wild."

Luis Jimenez's black eye is finally fading, but it still looks as if he's taken a shot to the face recently. He did, courtesy of Yagui, his 4-month-old Arctic blue fox. The two were playing when Yagui slapped him — hard — with a paw that became pesky.

Jimenez works at a Wilton Manors pet shop called All My Critters, and when the store recently acquired four of the pups, he had to have one.

"I never had the usual pets." Jimenez explains. Traveling through South and Central America with his European-born father, the first animal he cared for was a caiman. All My Critters makes for a perfect workplace, with its menagerie of weirdness. Jimenez feeds a tiny mouse to a $3,500 Swanson's toucan from Central America. The black, red and green bird crushes the tiny creature in its enormous beak, softening it to mush, then sends it down his throat with a flick of the neck. A skittish coatimundi (a tiny South American relative of a raccoon) hides in a nylon hammock. And a pair of pygmy marmosets ($3,900 each) use hands the size of coffee spoons to climb up their cage bars and watch visitors with tiny, shiny primate eyes. Only a quarter-pound each, these miniature monkeys sleep in a tiny tent.

Yagui stays in a big cage during the day, but has the run of the whole place when Jimenez is there. His coat sparkles with shimmering shades of blue and gray, and his eyes gleam with the same frolicky intelligence as a dog.

"He doesn't bark," Jimenez says. When Yagui wants something — say some Carnation Instant Breakfast, or whatever Jimenez happens to be eating — he'll emit a sort of wah-wah-wah whine. Anything that is of obvious interest to his owner — wallet, keys, cell phone — is fair game for hide-and-seek.

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