A couple of months ago a child was attacked by a “pet panther’ here in Miami. Although the term I offer in quotations should be an oxymoron, the state of Florida doesn't agree. While it's legal to keep a pet panther (with a permit) it's illegal to make a pet of any pit bull--at least in Miami-Dade County where I live.

Wild animal pets and wild animals-for-hire are not uncommon here in South Florida. After all, this is a place where discarded pythons kill alligators in the Everglades and where released macaws and feral roosters serve as my alarm clock every morning.

Sadly, it took a child’s mauling to bring  even a basic level of awareness to the growing impact of wild animal pets on our community at large.

But recently the local debate has managed to stray from the advisability of keeping wild animals as pets into my territory...that of the domesticated animal: Yesterday the local media showcased some captive wild animal defenders who likened keeping big cats to owning a pit bull or Presa Canario. 

A little background…

In the incident in question, a panther (of some variety) was presented to a child as part of her birthday festivities. It was one of several wild animals trucked to a high-end party in the tony municipality of Coral Gables. The feline was apparently unimpressed by the splendor of the event. It bit the birthday girl’s face—impressing the guests, at least.

I certainly feel for this innocent child. But from my tone, I’m sure you can guess my view on showing off your money by bringing large, undomesticated carnivores into close proximity with small children. Stupid is a good word. Irresponsible is more to the point.

I have actually [inadvertently] attended some of these fancy parties where the cat is always saved for last, being considered more dramatic than an armadillo or even a tree snake. The animal arrives on the scene led by a chain leash with its handler in tow. The kids, in my experience, have always been kept at a safe distance.

I don’t know what persuaded the handler to breach his normal protocol in this big-media case (the prospect of a hefty tip?) but…needless to say, the results were predictable. The girl ended up at the emergency room and later at the plastic surgeon’s office for countless schedulings of surgery. The panther took a little trip to the crematorium. Another beautiful day in paradise. “Didn’t we all have fun, boys and girls?”

The keeping of wild animals (apart from responsible zoo settings where safety, high quality care and environmentally sound practices rule) is morally repugnant to me. I make exceptions for certain species of reptiles and birds (as long as they’re not wild-caught) and for infirmed wild-animals requiring rehabilitation. Even then, it bothers me. (That’s why I never considered a career in exotic animal medicine even after completing extensive zoo, wildlife and aquarium medicine coursework in vet school.)

Amazingly, permits are freely available for keeping most wild animals in a “safe” home environment. I’ve seen big cats in their long, pace-friendly cages (they’re not good for any other activity) and marveled that anyone could wish that life upon any creature.

Just to say you have one? Just to look upon it for a few, brief minutes every day? It’s sort of like keeping a renowned Picasso in a your private study…with one big difference…the Picasso doesn’t care where it lives.

But onto the pit bull thing…

How can anyone equate keeping any domesticated animal with a wild one? Every large wild cat is a potential human predator undeserving of a captive environment save for the needs of a breeding program. Period. Every pit bull is either a perfectly safe house pet or a domesticated animal trained and/or bred to exhibit aggressive behaviors. No contest.

To illustrate:Which room would you rather be in? The one with the most aggressive pit or Presa you’ve ever met or the one with the panther? You decide. Then tell me if the average pit or Presa is worthy of comparison.

All my defense of maligned breeds aside (see past posts on this) the larger point is this:

The problem (whether we’re talking about wild animal pets or domesticated dogs bred and raised for undesirable traits) is ultimately a human one. This is the only way in which I can justify equating the two dangerous scenarios: via their human origin. And neither is defensible because the other is allowed to persist.

I’m disgusted by how our culture assigns blame to animals when it’s our irresponsibility as a community of humans that has both created and coddled the problem. When will we learn that the ones that deserve to be behind bars or in the crematorium are not my patients or their wild cousins? The target of society’s scorn should be their owners, handlers, and anyone else that tries to force these animals to do their cruel bidding (or earn money from their suffering).

And to respond to my local media’s ignorance: If anyone deserves to endure a lifetime with a scarred face, it’s this bunch of self-serving, so-called animal lovers willing to pin the blame on anyone but their own irresponsible wild-pet subculture.