The exotic animal tragedy in Zanesville made headlines around the world in October and raised concerns about the private ownership of unusual pets. A check of students at Fairmont High School reveals that a few own exotic pets, although not nearly on the scale of the animals involved in the tragedy.
For those who somehow missed the Zanesville story, it involved a man who released around 50 exotic pets, including lions, tigers, bears and wolves, before committing suicide. In the ensuing havoc, authorities shot and killed most of the animals. A small number were tranquilized and are being held at the Columbus Zoo.
Fairmont students who own exotic pets say the demands of owning an exotic pet exceed those of owning a domesticated house pet. Most of these animals require special food and care – and some of them can even be dangerous. Despite the special responsibilities and the possible dangers, however, students continue to show love to their unusual pets, and they say they plan to keep them for many years.
Alex Bilinski is a senior at Fairmont with a large collection of exotic pets.
“I have two crested eyelash geckos, one corn snake, one yellow-belly turtle, one veiled chameleon, one sun conure parrot, one parakeet, one love bird, one dwarf hamster and a Shih Tzu dog,” Bilinski said. (OK, so the Shih Tzu isn’t terribly exotic.)
Bilinski also has a large collection of fresh and saltwater fish. “I have firefish, purple gourami, black jack knife-fish, ghost fish, Oscars, Jack Dempseys, and a box puffer,” he said.
When it comes to responsibilities, Bilinski had a lot to say. “You must keep the humidity perfect, misting three times a day, using diggers. Diggers are devices that mist the cage daily. You must also keep the cage between 55-70 percent humidity. Many animals require UV lighting or their bones will become malnutritious and slowly weaken to the point of not being able to be used. You must feed them crickets, mealworms and flies,” he said.
Chameleons can’t see clear objects like water when they are standing still, so Bilinski has bought devices to keep his chameleon’s water constantly moving so it doesn’t die of dehydration. For Bilinski, even the size and shape of the cage is a vital to keeping his pets happy. “Certain animals like lizards need much more vertical height in their cages than horizontal,” he said, adding that most people have no clue about how to care for exotic pets.
Despite the responsibilities involved, Bilinski loves all of his pets. “I couldn’t imagine not having them. Everything about me revolves around different forms of art, and I love turning their cages into natural sanctuaries,” he said.
Bilinski has spent about $3,000 on these pricy pets, but he said he has no regrets.
Sophomore Quinton Mullins has a small collection of cool amphibians. “I have two pets: a salamander and a Hog Island Boa Constrictor,” he said.
Mullins also knows what to do when it comes to taking care of his pets. “For the pets that I have, there are some responsibilities – like keeping the tank warmed properly and feeding them the right food and keeping them in a healthy diet cycle,” Mullins said.
Mullins seems to know a lot about his pets, but does he have a favorite one? “No, I love all animals, even if they aren’t my pets,” he said.
Van Buren Middle School science teacher Jenn Lamlein had an unusual pet in her classroom. “I had a pet chinchilla. It was my baby and I loved everything about it,” she said. “I got my chinchilla in 2003 because I needed a class pet.”
A chinchilla is a small rodent, slightly larger than a squirrel, that is native to the Andes Mountains in South America.
Lamlein said it was important for her to do some research to understand what her chinchilla needed. “I was not familiar with chinchillas; therefore, I had to go to the pet store and read up on the animal,” she said. “I have absolutely no regrets of owning this pet; I loved it.”
However, some people who acquire exotic animals get in over their heads, and that’s led to the establishment of rescue facilities. Interestingly, one of those exotic animal rescue facilities is located in the Miami Valley.
Heaven’s Corner Zoo and Sanctuary, located near West Alexandria in Preble County, rescues abandoned and neglected exotic pets. According to their website, Heaven’s Corner “is not here to exploit these animals but to provide them a home and care now that they cannot be returned to their native habitats.” Most of the pets that come to this organization are pets that were too dangerous to be taken care of in residential areas.
One of the unique stories from Heaven’s Corner is about a pair of rescued Nile crocodiles that were found in a Chicago apartment, although the website emphasizes that each of the 150-plus animals “has a story.” The facility strives to educate people about these unusual animals and to provide a look at the dangerous side of owning exotic pets.
Heaven’s Corner operates as a seasonal zoo, and admission helps cover the cost of feed and care for the animals. It’s mostly open from April through September, but limited openings at other times of the year are listed on the website. In December, Heaven’s Corner is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 3 and Dec. 10.
For more information on Heaven’s Corner, click HERE. To see more of the photos Cole Cavanah took at the animal sanctuary, click HERE.