Kristie Biodrowski learned about the imposing strength of a 10-foot Burmese python while on the job.
Calls to Omaha's Animal Control concerning large snakes are routine. Usually they're gartner snakes. So when bright flashlights exposed this 10-foot neighborhood nightmare, it was memorable.
Biodrowski's brawn wasn't enough. It took two people to carry the snake. And even after 17 years experience, she was quick to admit carrying a snake nearly twice her size made her nervous.
As field director at the Nebraska Humane Society, Biodrowski oversees the Animal Control department. Exotic pets and animals are regular visitors, and organizations like the Humane Society work to provide care, owner education and better homes for both legal and illegal animals in Nebraska.
The Humane Society received more than 25,000 calls last year regarding wild animals. Some are escaped pets, others are truly wild animals. Either way, the Humane Society's policy is to leave animals in the wild alone unless they are injured or pose a threat to public safety.
In one instance, a person called worried about a large cat outside her home. Shortly after that, another caller from the same area reported seeing a golden retriever roaming around.
Turns out, a resident illegally owned a serval, a tall, lynx-like cat native to Africa's Sahara desert.
“Some animals just aren't meant to be kept as pets,” Biodrowski said. “Some animals pose a danger to the public or to their owners if they aren't getting appropriate care.”
The serval, which had escaped its owner's home, was tranquilized. It was eventually sent to live at a sanctuary in Nebraska. But many exotic animals must be sent outside state lines after capture. And the Humane Society has sent many alligators and venomous snakes to Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium.
In Nebraska, it is illegal to privately own wolves, skunks, undomesticated felines and members of the bear family. (There is an exception if ownership began before March 1, 1986.) Other exotics pets, however, are fair game. The laws in Omaha and Iowa are tougher. All exotic pets, defined as non-domesticated animals, are illegal.
The Humane Society most often takes in illegal animals that can grow more than 8-feet long, like alligators and snakes. Other animals, like miniature or potbellied pigs, are legal to own but often end up in shelters after owners underestimate how hard it is to take care of them.
“There's an issue I think in owners not being aware of how to appropriately care for exotics,” she said. “There's a gap in education.”
Biodrowski said the poor care some exotic animals receive by uneducated or unfit owners is immediately apparent. When animals come in unexpectedly, the shelter has to adjust quickly to supply food and shelter, which Biodrowski said can be expensive. The biggest challenge once animals are in the shelter's care is finding them a long-term home. Rabbits, mice, rats, parakeets, a turtle and a bearded dragon are currently up for adoption.
In Lincoln, the situation isn't much different.
Laura Andersen, the director of veterinary medicine at the Capital Humane Society, spends her days performing surgeries aimed at making animals adoptable. Bunnies and rabbits, the most common exotic animals at the Lincoln shelter, are spayed and neutered. Gerbils' teeth are filed to a healthy length. In more extreme cases, amputations are necessary, like the time a string cut off circulation to a hedgehog's legs. Reptiles needing anesthesia for surgeries are transported to other state shelters that are better equipped to provide the specific humidity, temperature, light and diet they require.
“Our main goal is to make animals adoptable,” Andersen said.
She said trends in owning exotic animals affect shelters as well. Sugar gliders, tiny oppossums capable of gliding for more than 150 feet, gained recent popularity. The Australian marsupials attracted pet owners, initially unaware of the extensive care they need. Andersen said sugar gliders challenged shelters in Nebraska and in California and Florida, where she previously worked. Each sugar glider requires a small room to themselves just to get enough exercise, an accommodation not every shelter can make.
Andersen, who has owned a ball python, hognose snake, desert tortoise, corn snakes and geckos, thinks pet owners need to be aware of what they're committing to before owning any pet. Especially exotic ones.
“I think it's irresponsible for anyone to own a pet — cat, dog or otherwise — that they can't take care of,” she said. “It's the same as having a child.”