Exclusive: Bushwick leads the city in illegal pet complaints
If you're looking to see some exotic animals, look no further than Bushwick, Bulls Head and Long Island City, as those three neighborhoods had the highest number of illegal pet complaints over the past 12 months, according to an amNewYork analysis of 311 data.
Between May 2012 and May 2013, Bushwick had 25 complaints of illegal pets, with the majority being roosters, followed by Bulls Head at 14 total and Long Island City with 10 total, according to the data. Citywide, there were 234 complaints in the last year, up from 229 the year before and 222 the year before that.
Illegal pets include roosters, ferrets, venomous snakes, some turtles, weasels, hedgehogs, pigs and a menagerie of others the city considers either dangerous or incompatible with the urban lifestyle.
Fines for keeping a banned pet start at $200 and run as high as $2,000 for repeat offenders, but to the owners and sellers of those pets, the restrictions are far too harsh.
"Hedgehogs make great pets," said Helen Holmes, a 19-year-old NYU student who has kept a hedgehog in her East Village dorm room.
"They're nocturnal, so they won't make noise during the day and disturb your study sessions," she said, adding that the pet sleeps in a cage and bathes in Holmes' bathroom sink.
George, a Chinatown gift shop-owner who declined to give his last name, received a citation for selling illegal animals last November.
"Police said it was against the health code," he said of the miniature turtles he was ordered to stop selling. Still, the tiny turtles are readily available in the back of his shop, and George said he has no intention of quitting the turtle trade.
"In China, turtles are popular pets because they have long lives and symbolize good luck," he said in defense of his under-the-radar sales. "They are easy to take care of and they take up little space."
Still, there is a reason pets like these are illegal, and experts said most New Yorkers simply aren't suited to keep them.
"Some of these animals shouldn't be pets," veterinarian Lorelai Tibbetts said. "People don't know how to care for them. These animals get really sick and lead horrible lives."
Tibbetts works at the Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on the Upper West Side, where the NYPD takes some illegal animals after they have been removed from homes. In her 15 years of work with exotic animals, Tibbetts says she has seen everything from confiscated alligators to kinkajous -- tropical relatives of the raccoon -- come into the clinic.
Opponents of illegal pets argue that inadequate care and cramped living spaces often lead to mental and physical illness in exotic animals confined to city apartments.
"These animals often suffer mental illnesses when kept in such small areas, and are more likely to attack if they escape," a PETA rep said.
Perhaps the most famous case in the city of an illegal pet came when an adult Bengal tiger and three alligators were found in a Harlem apartment in 2003.
The tiger was purchased as a cub, but soon grew too large to manage. After about two years of confinement to a bedroom, the tiger bit owner Antoine Yates in the thigh, sending him to the emergency room. Yates attributed the bite to a pit bull, but the width of the bite -- much larger than any dog's mouth -- raised the suspicions of authorities.
The 500-pound tiger charged police officers before they eventually subdued it with a tranquilizer gun, though no one was injured. Yates got six months behind bars for keeping the animals.
Even less-aggressive banned pets can be difficult for unprepared owners. Justin Iso, 21, of Astoria, was surprised when his roommate brought a rooster into their apartment.
"It would jump out of its box and walk around the apartment, pooping everywhere," Iso said. "The worst part was the 'baa-kaa' noise they make This is probably the main reason roosters should not be indoor pets."
Still, owners of smaller, more manageable pets say their animals are safe and should be legalized in the city, claiming that their animals are just as easy to train and care for as more-traditional pets like cats and dogs.
"I think that hedgehogs should absolutely be legalized as pets in NYC," Holmes, the NYU student, said. "They don't need to be walked, they don't require a litter box and they're quiet and cute as can be."
Tibbets also supports the legalization of some banned animals. "Some of the animals that are restricted, such as ferrets, are ridiculous. They are safer to own than some cats," she said.
Some city lawmakers agree, and Queens Senator Tony Avella plans to introduce legislation within the next few weeks that would legalize small pigs as pets in the city.
"We need to be much more open-minded about laws that have already been on the books for decades," Avella told amNewYork of bans on many animals that are accepted as pets in other parts of the country.
Ultimately, Tibbets emphasizes, the animal's safety should take priority.
"Even if they're not illegal, you have to do your research on how to care for them," she said. "If you don't care for them properly, it's going to be heartbreaking and expensive down the line if it gets sick."
Animals for which people filed the most 311 complaints over the past year:
3. Farm animal
Besides the obvious animals such as tigers, gorillas and alligators, here a few animals that are illegal to keep as pets in the city:
-- Falcons, owls, vultures and other large predatory birds
-- Turtles less than 4 inches
-- Gophers, woodchucks, porcupines or other large rodents
-- Opossums, koalas and other marsupials
-- Ostriches and emus
-- Hornets, wasps and bees other than honeybees