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The full-color photo on the front page of Sunday's New York Times could not be ignored: It showed a gargantuan Burmese python -- something roughly as long as the Ohio Turnpike -- in the clutches of an enormously fat and happy alligator.

This scene was not captured in some far-off tropical location recently blessed with nationhood. Instead, the photo was shot in south Florida, an area where man and beast are increasingly at war -- and the beasts are more than holding their own.

South Florida has a lot of newcomers, and not all of them are on pensions. According to the Times, pythons, boas, tree frogs, monkeys and a host of other creatures live along-side retirees: Some of these creatures were brought into the port of Miami illegally, some were pets that grew too big or escaped, and -- says the paper -- "in 1992, Hurricane Andrew destroyed a number of research and breeding centers and a good portion of the Miami zoo, setting loose some 5,000 animals, from baboons and orangutans to wallabies and capybaras, known to some as hog-sized rats." (See: "Forget the Gators: Exotic Pets Run Wild in Florida," Feb. 29, 2004)

I bring this up because large and dangerous creatures are not running loose just in Miami.

In New York, as one example, a Manhattan apartment dweller kept a 250-pound tiger in his unit, something seemingly unnoticed by everyone until the owner was mauled. To add to the oddity, authorities also found a six-foot alligator in the owner's apartment.

One can understand that large cats are beautiful, as are snakes. And surely -- if your Manhattan apartment is nicely stocked with a good-sized tiger -- burglary is unlikely to be a problem.

But the ownership of such creatures is a serious issue for real estate owners, neighbors, brokers and agents, pet lovers and the animals themselves.

There are 121 million housing units across the U.S. according to the Census Bureau and most of these, at least statistically, are filled with fur of some sort. The Humane Society of the United States says we have 68 million dogs and 73 million cats -- about 40 percent of all homes have at least one dog while 30 percent have one or more cats. I'm not sure anyone has counted fish, gerbils or hamsters, but I suspect their numbers also total well into the millions, hordes which grow each day.

And therein lies a problem. Our furry friends are fabulously fertile (an expression you do not hear repeated with great frequency).

The Charlotte Humane Society says one female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 cats in 7 years while one female dog and her offspring can produce 67,000 dogs in 6 years.

Such productivity, while admirable in some respects, has a downside. As the Charlotte group explains:

  • More than 12 million dogs and cats are euthanized in shelters each year. Millions more are abandoned in rural and urban areas.
  • Approximately 61 percent of all dogs entering shelters each year are killed.
  • Approximately 75 percent of all cats entering shelters each year are killed.

I raise these numbers for three reasons.

First, if unchecked animal fertility leads very quickly to animal fatalities. It's a humane and decent thing to spay or neuter pets.

Second, if you'd like a pet, see if there's a local pet adoption group. Often there are volunteer groups that specialize in different animals and even different breeds. Such groups actively seek to place animals with good homes. Groups near you can be found by searching online -- use such terms as "pet adoption Cleveland golden retreiver."

Third, beware of pets no one should have. As the Humane Society of the United States explains, as many as "15,000 private citizens keep lions, tigers, cougars and other big cats as pets."

According to Richard Farinato with the U.S. Human Society, "The number of captive tigers living in the United States is roughly the equivalent of all the tigers living in the wild. Between 5,000 and 7,000 captive tigers are estimated to live in the U.S., where less than 10 percent of them are kept in professionally run zoos and sanctuaries. The rest live in woefully inadequate roadside menageries, circuses, traveling shows, big cat rescues, and backyards."

The Humane Society estimates that 15,000 private citizens keep lions, tigers, cougars and other big cats as pets.

"In the past five years in the United States," says the Human Society, "nine people have been killed by privately held tigers. In Texas, home to perhaps half of the nation's backyard tigers, the big cats have been responsible for a series of attacks on youngsters over the past four years. A 10-year-old girl helping her stepfather groom the animal died after the tiger clamped her head in its jaws. A 4-year-old girl's arm was torn off, and a 3-year-old boy posing for a photograph inside the cage was fatally savaged by his grandfather's pet."

The Society says such animals can be bought for as little as $300.

"The ease with which the tigers can be obtained," says the Human Society, "belies the difficulties inherent in living with an animal who's genetically programmed to range more than 100 miles a day, swim rivers, and bring down prey twice their size. Nothing can prepare a regular citizen to deal with a tiger hard-wired to attack and kill."

All of which brings us to Miller's pet ownership guidelines:

Never buy or own an endangered species. It's illegal without proper permits and often dangerous. Birds, as one example, can carry diseases no one wants. In one case, someone in Manhattan bought a bird at a major department store and promptly contracted parrot fever. The result was two months in an oxygen tent and a year on crutches.

Never have a venomous creature as a pet. Yes, Fred Smith down in the holler has been handling snakes for 40 years with nary a bite, but the one time it happens ol' Fred will be in a heap of trouble.

The probability is that with good care you won't die from the bite of a domestic U.S. snake -- but that's hardly re-assuring when you hear the rest of the news. Venoms come in two general categories, hemotoxic and neurotoxic. Hemotoxic venoms impact the blood system and, among other assaults, can cause "necrosis," a rotting of flesh at the bite site which can lead to amputation. Neurotoxic venoms effect the nervous system and can cut off such useful activities as breathing and moving.

Be aware that a venomous creature need not be big to be deadly. In the Mideast, 10-inch saw scale vipers kill people. Venom from young animals is typically more potent than from older ones in the same species.

Not all medical centers are stocked with a broad array of antivenins, a particular problem with exotic creatures. You don't want to be the first in your state to have a truly rare venomous creature -- one bite and you're out of here.

Dangerous creatures need to be protected -- if only because they may save your life. It's not widely known, but some of the most powerful painkillers are made from diluted cobra venom. If you have a blood clot that's about to kill you, prepared venom from a Malaysian pit viper has been shown to easily break up such blockages. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

For years researchers have been experimenting with venoms from various creatures because such materials contain powerful proteins that cannot be duplicated in a laboratory. No one knows if the venom of some exotic creature will one day cure a disease -- but surely this is a possibility which should interest us all.

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