Would you be surprised to learn there could be a lion, tiger or bear living right down the road in your own neighborhood? According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), hundreds of millions of exotic animals reside in the United States, so it’s not as uncommon as you might think. While most exotic pets have private lives hidden away from the public, some become legendary thanks to their famous owners.
President Gone Wild
Pets have always had a place at the White House, and while canines might be the favored companions of most first families, there have been some rather unusual pets who have called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home. Of all the pet-loving presidents, there’s one who stands out for his love of exotic creatures.
President Calvin Coolidge kept such a variety of pets that some considered the White House a zoo during his time in office. Among the regular dogs, cats, and birds lived two raccoons, which first lady Grace Coolidge reportedly walked around the White House lawn on leashes. They also had a donkey and a bobcat named Smokey, and they received many exotic animals as gifts, including lion cubs, a wallaby, and a bear. But the most famous Coolidge pet was a pygmy hippopotamus named Billy. Like most of the exotics that arrived at the White House, Coolidge donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoo but reportedly visited him on occasion. Billy was especially important, because there were very few pygmy hippos living in the United States at the time. In fact, many of the pygmy hippos living in the United States today are most likely descendants of this presidential pet.
Great Shark on the Great White Way
With several Hollywood movies and TV shows devoted to the sharp-toothed sea creatures, it was only a matter of time before people started wanting their very own sharks for pets. Several celebrities, including Nicolas Cage and Ice T, have owned sharks. But are pet sharks just another extravagance for the rich and famous? Not necessarily.
Meet Larry Saul: child psychologist, husband and pet shark owner. For many months during the summer of 2008, people passing by Saul’s New York City apartment building couldn’t help but gaze at the large, neon object lighting up his second floor window, or the occupant. It was a 2-foot-long (.6-meter-long) black tip reef shark. When journalist Mike Peed of “The New Yorker” visited Saul for a personal look, the shark owner explained that his fur allergy forced him to have exotic animals like newts or frogs as a child. His love for unusual pets carried over into adulthood, when the pets got bigger and more unusual. Some of Saul’s other pets have included a green moray eel and angelfish. Saul isn’t stopping at one shark. He and his wife are looking forward to expanding their family of unusual pets in the future.
Dali’s Odd Muse
Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali was as well known for his peculiar behavior as he was for his unusual paintings. He also loved getting attention just as much as he loved making people squirm, and he succeeded at both. Known for growing a weird mustache and wearing vampire capes, Dali’s most bizarre act might have been his choice of a pet.
In the 1960s, Dali owned an ocelot named Babou that he took with him everywhere he went. Although this South and Central American cat might look like a domestic variety, they are actually very dangerous and will fight to the death over territory. One of the most popular stories about Dali and his ocelot is that he once took the animal into a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Another customer worriedly asked about the wild cat; Dali told her Babou was really a domestic cat that he’d painted to look like an ocelot.
Giant Hamster Proves Everything’s Bigger in Texas
Deep in the heart of Texas lives a family with a giant rodent, a capybara. Melanie Typaldos and her family were on vacation in Venezuela when they saw capybaras and instantly fell in love with them. After researching and talking to breeders, Typaldos found a baby capybara and brought her home to Austin, Texas in the fall of 2007. The capybara was named Caplin Rous, with “rous” meaning “rodent of unusual size.”
Caplin Rous quickly fit in with the rest of the Typaldos’ pets, which include rainbow boa constrictors, leopard tortoises, horses, and a rabbit. Caplin has become a quasi-celebrity in recent years, thanks to her uniqueness. She has her own blog and tweets daily.
Heavyweight Champ Loves Big Cats
It’s not that unusual to learn of an athlete with an exotic pet. Many pro sports players have snakes or other reptiles, but none can top Mike Tyson. As the heavyweight champion during the 1980s, Tyson was known for his life of luxury, so it came as little surprise when he acquired three white Bengal tigers in the mid-90s.
One of Tyson’s tigers, Storm, was purchased by a tattoo artist in Gary, Indiana. Storm lived at the tattoo shop with two other tigers until the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confiscated them in the spring of 2010. The tiger now lives at an unknown sanctuary overseen by the USDA, and Tyson has a new love – one that’s much easier to care for: pigeons.
The Heart of a Lion
The YouTube video of the 1972 reunion between a lion and his two human caretakers gained international notoriety in 2008. It tells the story of John Rendall, Ace Bourke, and a lion cub called Christian. Although the story was just recently discovered, it all began in 1969 in London, when Rendall and Bourke found an energetic 3-month-old lion cub for sale at Harrod’s department store and brought him home to live in the basement of the furniture store at which they worked.
Christian soon formed a bond with his new owners and liked to travel with them in the back of their Bentley. As much as Rendall and Bourke loved Christian, they realized he was quickly outgrowing his surroundings and began looking for a more suitable, permanent home for the lion. Refusing to sentence Christian to a captive life in a zoo or circus, they searched until they met actors Bill Tavers and Virginia McKenna, who introduced them to lion conservationist George Adamson.
After many months of negotiating with the Kenyan government, Christian finally got approval to move to the Kora Nature Reserve in Nairobi, Kenya. There, Adamson began the process of introducing Christian to the wild with two other lions – an orphaned cub and another adult male. Rendall and Bourke returned a year later, which is when the now famous reunion was filmed. They did have one last visit with Christian in 1974, but he was never seen again after that. According to Adamson, Christian had completely assimilated into the wild and finally become the king of his pride.