Collage of Exotic Pets, Graphic Credit: Carson Elm Picard [Photo Credit: Aniket Mandish via Unsplash (photo of monkey); Christopher Alvarenga via Unsplash (photo of parrot); The New York Public Library via Unsplash (photo of snake); Carson Elm Picard (photo of wallaby and signs)]
The drive through Moore County is an inconspicuous one, characterized by swaths of longleaf pines, humble farmland and plenty of churches. Located 60 miles south of Raleigh in the sandhills of the state, the area has a particular rural, North Carolinian feel to it.
But located just off U.S. Highway 1, right before reaching Pinehurst, one blink-and-miss-it stop is where hundreds of animals native to Africa and Latin America call home.
Dunrovin Exotic Animal Sanctuary is a nonprofit organization that permanently rehomes exotic animals whose owners have given them up. Over the past seven years, the sanctuary has brought in more than 200 animals, mostly birds but also a variety of mammals and reptiles, on about an acre of land located behind a general store that’s also owned by the sanctuary. Inside, the hum of the highway is drowned out by the squawking of a colorful cacophony of macaws, parakeets and cockatoos.
North Carolina is one of only a handful of U.S. states that have no statewide laws regulating the ownership of exotic animals. Some local governments like Raleigh have regulations on keeping dangerous wild animals as pets, but often those regulations have proven difficult to enforce.
As a result, some North Carolinians can be tempted to buy an exotic pet even if they are unprepared to deal with the time and money required to properly care for these animals. Pet ownership spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic – growing to an all-time high of 70% of U.S. households in 2020 – and that in turn caused an influx of animals being given up to places like Dunrovin Exotic Animal Sanctuary after people returned to their normal routines.
“They were bored, so getting a bird seemed like a good idea at the time,” park manager Jacob Seebode said. “But then you want to go out and do stuff and your bird is depressed and lonely.”
Seebode, who has worked at Dunrovin for three years, cares for the animals at the sanctuary alongside assistant park manager Amelia Bruns. The duo has fostered bonds with creatures like Pistachio the capybara and Walter the green vervet monkey. Many of the animals at the park are former pets, while others came from zoos or breeders looking to rehome their animals. Because the animals have been raised in captivity, they cannot be released into the wild.
Dunrovin Exotic Animal Sanctuary is open to the public for free. The sanctuary is licensed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture as an exhibitor, meaning that while its animals are on display to the public, it does not breed or sell its animals.
Seebode and Bruns often work with animals that were not properly cared for before coming to the sanctuary. Both said there needed to be more accountability for people who own exotic pets and that potential owners need to be aware of the commitment they’re planning to make.
“You need to have enough time to spend with them. You need to have the financials to be with them,” Bruns said. “An emergency vet visit for a monkey could be upwards of two, three thousand dollars. So you have to make sure you’re ready to care for all aspects of their life, not just the day to day care.”
But where do exotic pet owners even go to seek care for their animals? Finding veterinarians who are willing to see exotics can be a struggle for some owners.
Tara Harrison, an assistant professor of zoological medicine at North Carolina State University, said veterinarians’ comfort levels can vary when it comes to treating exotic animals.
“The ferrets, the guinea pigs, rabbits, I think most veterinarians will see that,” Harrison said. “I think when you start getting to birds, and reptiles, then you go down, so not as many veterinarians are as comfortable with those. And then if you go to fish, then it’s like, even fewer. And then if you go to monkeys, it’s even fewer.”
Sarah Ozawa, an assistant clinical professor of avian and exotic medicine who works with Harrison at N.C. State, said that it’s easier than ever to buy and ship exotic pets online.
“I mean, I have seen exotic pets for sale on online platforms like Craigslist,” Ozawa said. “So there are a lot of opportunities for people to be faced with this question of ‘Hey, should I own that?’”
Ozawa said that before purchasing a pet, potential owners should do their research and determine if it’s feasible for them to properly care for the animal. She recommended calling veterinarians in the area to see what animals they treat.
Even the clinic at the N.C. State Veterinary Hospital won’t see every animal — venomous snakes, for example. Bruns said that Dunrovin Exotic Animal Sanctuary takes its animals to Avian and Exotic Animal Care in Raleigh because the veterinarians there are willing to treat more of their animals.
Aside from the high price tag and scarcity of qualified veterinarians, Bruns said another potential hurdle to exotic pet owners seeking treatment for their animals is fear of local regulations.
“If you start passing laws that make finding vet care more difficult, make having these pets more difficult, then people are less likely to get that care,” Bruns said.
Raleigh enacted a prohibition on keeping dangerous wild animals within the city limits in September 2022 after a zebra cobra, a snake native to Africa that’s capable of spitting venom up to 9 feet, slithered loose in a neighborhood for months after escaping its enclosure.
The cobra belonged to then 21-year-old Christopher Gifford, a snake enthusiast who had amassed over half a million followers on TikTok by posting videos of himself handling various venomous snakes. Gifford was issued a criminal summons that included counts of improper enclosures, mislabeled enclosures and failure to report escape. He pled guilty and was forced to pay $13,162 in restitution, turn over 75 snakes to the city and agree not to own any snakes for a year.
Gifford, who still actively posts videos of himself handling snakes on social media, did not respond to a request for an interview.
Ethan Ramirez, a wildlife photographer and snake enthusiast living in North Carolina, said he’s seen collectors become consumed with the thrill of handling venomous snakes.
“It was like an addiction, where they would get one copperhead or one rattlesnake, and they became hooked on the adrenaline of working with a dangerous animal,” Ramirez said. “And before you know it, they would have cobras and gaboon vipers and all this stuff that was incredibly deadly,”
The highly publicized cobra incident pushed Raleigh City Council members to pass stricter regulations on dangerous wild animals, which the city code specifies as including but not limited to “lions, tigers, leopards, cougars, jaguars, cheetahs, wolves, non-human primates, medically significant venomous snakes, crocodilians, and any hybrid or crossbreed of such animals.”
People who owned these animals before the ban went into effect were required to register them with the Animal Control Unit of the Raleigh Police Department by July 1, 2023. However, Julia Milstead, the public information officer for the Raleigh government, said that only three animals have been registered as of Jan. 31.
Reporting from WRAL in November showed that those three animals were all primates – one capuchin and two marmosets – and that two of them belonged to the same owner.
The small number of registered animals likely means that many exotic pet owners in Raleigh either don’t know about the requirement or refused to register their animals for fear of having them taken away.
Avian and Exotic Animal Care put out a social media statement shortly after the ordinances were passed.
“The ban IS NOT aimed at the vast majority of animals we see here at Avian and Exotic Animal Care, and WE WILL CONTINUE to provide veterinary care for the animals we have always treated,” read a post on the exotic animal hospital’s Facebook page.
The city’s Animal Control unit did not respond for comment when asked how the city plans to enforce its dangerous wild animal ordinances.
While the managers at Dunrovin Exotic Animal Sanctuary both expressed concern about the potential negative effects of regulating exotic pet ownership, Harrison said that she thinks regulation is generally a good thing.
“The most realistic explanation is that most of these animals should not be pets,” Harrison said. “They should be cared for by professionals who understand how to care for them.”