Sue Ogrocki / AP

Exotic animal trade flourishes in Missouri

Legal but clandestine market thrives in rural Missouri, where you need more paperwork to buy a car than a chimpanzee

MACON, Mo. — An African crested porcupine sold for $650. The macaw went for $850. An adult kangaroo, $1,350.

“Now, he doesn’t eat Froot Loops,” the auctioneer reminded a buyer who just won the bid for a toucan, at $2,350.

Four times a year, Lolli Brothers Livestock Market — usually a standard livestock auction house by any definition — becomes alternative, hosting an exotic animal sale that draws crowds from across the country. On Sept. 23, hundreds flocked to Macon, a small northern Missouri town, from Tennessee to California for a chance to bid on everything from jumbo-size tortoises to East African cranes to ring-tailed lemurs.

Sitting on steep wooden bleachers overlooking a ring where, normally, conventional cattle are sold between farms, buyers put in bids for animals brought before a rapid-fire auctioneer. Some were petting their dogs or kangaroos in the stands. Others had diapered monkeys perched on their shoulders.  

The heavily criticized auction has become the subject of national attention over the years, but its continued operations are indicative of one thing: that the exotic animal trade is still flourishing in Missouri, where the lack of regulations means it takes more paperwork to buy a car than it does to buy a chimpanzee. But not everyone sees that as a bad thing.

“Pay attention to what’s going on in your state,” the auctioneer warned the crowd, referring to regulations in Pennsylvania as a batch of hedgehogs from that state, where owning hedgehogs is illegal, was brought up for bidding. “This is where caged animals is going.”

Lolli Brothers Livestock Market did not respond to a request for comment.

Missouri remains one of the few states where the exotic animal trade is largely unregulated. Some estimates put half the United States’ privately owned primates in Missouri, and an Internet search turns up classified ads selling everything from exotic cats to zebras to baby baboons. Other states have passed laws restricting the trade of exotic species in recent years, but a 2012 push for comprehensive legislation failed in Missouri, turning the Show Me State into a national hub for those looking to get their hands on less-than-conventional pets.  

Federal laws regulate the conditions of exotic animal breeding facilities, transportation of animals between states and import and export policies. However, it’s the state or local governments that either enable or forbid the sale or ownership of exotic pets.

“Some states have very strict laws about the keeping of exotic pets,” said Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, a group that advocates against animal trafficking and exotic pet ownership. “Some states, a small minority, have really lax laws or no laws at all.”

He added, “Historically, Missouri is one of the sort of bad states — to put it mildly — in terms of its laws regarding exotic animal ownership.”

Local governments, including those in St. Louis and Kansas City, have passed laws that regulate or bar selling or owning exotic animals. Missouri managed to pass a statewide law in 2012 that requires permits to own big cats, but no such requirements exist for primates or large reptiles, such as alligators. Owners simply have to register potentially dangerous animals with local law enforcement.

But some exotic animal breeders and owners are on board for more regulation.

“I’m all for permitting and registering and licensing,” said Tracie Perry of Lebanon, Missouri, who just started breeding her pair of marmosets, monkeys native to South America. “I think it keeps people honest. It forces them to provide adequate food, proper husbandry, housing.”

She has gotten dozens of calls from people responding to her online ad for a baby marmoset, which she priced at $2,800.

“I don’t think they’re for everybody. I think certain people don’t need them, but I think certain people don’t need children either,” said Perry, who has faced criticism from some friends or neighbors for keeping primates as pets. “I don’t want a cat. Lots of people have cats, but they’re not for me.”

Others in Missouri, however, do want cats — big cats. Until 2012, the trade of lions, tigers, pumas, cheetahs, panthers and other big cats was as unregulated as primates are now. Now all you need is a permit issued by the state Department of Agriculture to own a big cat.

“But you know as well as I that the number of funds that to go the Department of Agriculture inspectors that look at this kind of stuff probably isn’t the size it should be,” said Mark Lucas, a Wentzville veterinarian who accepts exotic animals as patients. “So I’m sure a lot of it slips through the cracks.”

According to the Missouri Department of Agriculture, there are only six big cats registered with the state. But Lucas said he has seen upward of 100 big cats as patients in his 33-year career.

“Some of these people have them in their houses,” he said. “Some of them have acreage in rural areas, where they have enclosures for the cats as well. It pretty much runs the gamut.”

Lucas has seen a lot of different animals go through his office — puma cubs, 6-foot-long alligators, deer. He remembers when ostriches and emus were popular a few years back.

He would like to see more regulation in Missouri. “They’re still wild,” he said. “And more importantly, even if they’re good 99 percent of the time, the 1 percent they’re not, they can kill you.”

The state has had its share of accidents and close calls. Kennett law enforcement made headlines in 2012 when it was trying to account for some 50 alligators that were sold out of a trailer in a parking lot. In 2008 a tiger scaled a 12-foot fence and mauled a man near Warrenton.

In 2001 a man shot and killed a chimpanzee that escaped from a controversial breeding facility near the town of Festus. Among that animal’s offspring was a chimp that brutally attacked a Connecticut woman in 2009.

Earlier this summer a serval — a feline native to east Africa — went missing in a wealthy St. Louis suburb.

“I think the most simple answer for both wildlife and people is a full prohibition nationwide of exotic animal ownership,” Roberts said. “I think all too often we sort of wait for some sort of attack like Travis the chimp or a massive release of animals like in Zanesville, Ohio. But it’s not really worth it to wait for some sort of tragedy to happen for action to take place.”

He added, “it just doesn’t seem it’s worth the risk for just the sheer pleasure of somebody owning an exotic animal as a pet.”

Related News

Animals, Law & Justice

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


Animals, Law & Justice

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter