By Janice Morse
The Cincinnati Enquirer
WEST ALEXANDRIA - Elvis, an 8-foot-long alligator, used to live in a Middletown basement.
Nico, a 600-pound white Bengal tiger, once shared a home with an elderly man in St. Louis.
Their current neighbors include a diamondback rattlesnake that formerly guarded a drug dealer's stash in Dayton, Ohio - and an African rhinoceros viper blamed for killing its owner, Dayton firefighter Michael Peterman, last week.
These are among more than 70 exotic and wild animals that have found a new home in Heaven's Corner for Endangered Animals, a 10-acre sanctuary 40 miles north of Cincinnati, for unwanted creatures that otherwise would have been euthanized.
"People come and say, 'Oh, look at the wild animals!' But I don't see any wild animals here at all. To me, they're all victims; I see victims," said animal rescuer Tim Harrison, who consulted on the Peterman case.
"When people take something that's wild and keep it as a pet, it's a slap in nature's face-because they treat these animals like toys or props, not living creatures."
Although he works as a police officer and firefighter in suburban Dayton, Harrison also serves as director of Outreach for Animals Inc., a non-profit group that rescues animals and educates the public about the pitfalls of exotic-pet ownership.
Most people have no idea of the expense and troubles that come with caring for an exotic or wild animal, he said.
American alligators are very popular as pets, Harrison said, "but I bet there wouldn't be many people getting them if they knew they can live to be 80 years old, 10 feet long and 350 pounds."
One Heaven's Corner gator was pulled from the Great Miami River in Dayton. Its owner probably dumped it after it grew too large, Harrison said.
Reports of alligators being sighted near Hamilton five years ago could have been legitimate, he said, even though they were the source of a lot of jokes at the time.
"People never believe we have alligators and tigers around here - until they see a picture," Harrison said. "I know they're out there, because I'm the one they call to get rid of them."
A Middletown family called Harrison three years ago about Elvis, an alligator that had outgrown the plastic baby pool in their basement.
He now weighs about 300 pounds. When strangers approach him, Elvis shows his pointy, algae-green teeth and hisses like a vacuum cleaner winding down.
"As you can tell, he's not a friendly pet," Harrison said. "The ones that were someone's quote-unquote 'pet' are usually the meanest."
Heaven's Corner, a non-profit organization founded in 1999, is among a few places with permits to house exotic animals, Harrison said. Owner Kord McGuire couldn't be reached for comment Friday because he was transporting a leopard from North Carolina.
Without organizations like Heaven's Corner, which accepts many placements from Outreach, "there would be more human life at risk," said Russell Muntz, administrator for Outreach.
"Like with that rhinoceros viper, who else was going to go get it?"
Harrison would like to place the viper with his brother, Jim, owner of the Kentucky Reptile Zoo and Venom Research Laboratory. Located in Natural Bridge, the facility is one of only three venom-extraction centers in the nation, Harrison said. He's awaiting word from Peterman's family on what to do with the snake.
Easy to get animals
While raising exotic animals is difficult, getting them is not.
Just about any animal imaginable can be acquired for a price. They are offered for sale at flea markets, on the Internet or in printed classified advertisements. A sampling from area publications:
Someone in the 740 area code (found in Central Ohio) was asking $6,200 for a spider monkey.
A Batavia advertiser sought $2,000 for a "very tame" bearcat.
A Kettering seller promised "reptiles--anything you want!"
"People ask me, 'How can they do this?' The answer is: because nobody's stopping them," Harrison said.
Indigenous snakes: 10
Non-indigenous snakes: 64
Monitor lizards: 3
Big cats: 2
Snapping turtles: 6
Other indigenous wildlife: 173
Source: Outreach for Animals Inc.
The exotic pet trade is estimated at tens of billions of dollars a year worldwide - with international illegal animal trading second only to the illicit drug trade, the New York Times reported in 2002.
Activists blame lax enforcement and gaps in laws.
Congress is moving closer to banning the interstate transportation of exotic cats, except between zoos or other facilities with proper credentials.
The sale of big cats is a surprisingly common practice, Harrison said, citing estimates of more than 10,000 big cats being raised as pets in this country. The number of pet tigers could exceed the number of tigers living in the wild.
One Greater Cincinnati man insisted that he was going to buy a tiger, no matter what Harrison said. So Harrison invited him to practice caring for one at Heaven's Corner.
The man jumped at the chance. But it didn't occur to him that tigers eat large amounts of meat and therefore produce large amounts of waste. Very smelly waste.
Though the man didn't relish cleaning after the animal, he returned for a second day of duty - only to be doused with urine.
"He screamed, dropped his pooper scooper and ran away," Harrison said. "I tell that story because it shows people don't think. They think they're getting a cute animal. They don't think about the danger or the liability, and they sure don't think about the mess."
Which animals to save?
Harrison says he has received information about four people in Warren County raising big cats - so he doesn't think the recent reports of a lion on the loose in Deerfield Township are that far-fetched.
Just last week, a tiger cub, now at Heaven's Corner, arrived from Dayton, where two guys had dragged it into a pet store, in search of a muzzle "because it was biting them," Harrison said.
Harrison would like to see more laws clamp down on trade of exotic pets besides big cats.
He hopes Peterman's death might bring attention to the need for regulating venomous snakes.
But Harrison takes issue with anyone who says the snake "turned" on Peterman as he fed it. About 80 percent of snake bites are "dry" (without venom). Their fangs fill with venom only when they're preparing to eat or when they're defending themselves.
When the snake struck to eat its food, its venom-filled fangs may have hit Peterman's hand by accident, Harrison said.
"There is no such thing as an animal 'turning' on you," he said. "They're just doing what they would do naturally.''
Even if more regulations are passed, the real answer is education, Harrison said.
"I can't tell you how tired I am of having to decide which of these animals we can save and which has to be put down. We just don't have room for them all," he said.
"If you want to see animals like this, go to the zoo, where they know how to take care of them - or go to the countries where they came from.
"You don't need to see them in your house - or out here in cages like this.''
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