Wild animals or friendly neighbors? A look at exotic pets

By: Kevin Lewis Email
By: Kevin Lewis Email

From Evansville to Elkhart, and Detroit to Dowagiac there are quite a few furry neighbors you'd never imagine live right next door, or just around the block.

Indiana officials say there are 300 across the Hoosier state and so many in Michigan the state can't keep a total count.

So who, or what, are these mystery residents?

Well most people don't know a bear hibernates in Blackford County or that an alligator swims in an Albion home.

It may sound wild, or even crazy, but according to state law these animals are legal to own if you follow a lengthy list of regulations.

Living with Mickey
Among the fields of Jasper County sits a house with a lonely pine tree, a far cry from its native North Wood. As remote as her address may be, Annie Ibarra has all the bear necessities.

“They always call me the bear magnet," said Ibarra.

It's a wild obsession that had a humble start back in 1994.

Ibarra introduced us to her furry friends, which includes Tanka the bobcat. And as the bobcat grew, so did Ibarra's animal kingdom.

“We hatched him out of an egg,” she said of her bird. Birds led to goats and the mission to rehabilitate deer. Soon 15 pet dogs and a grooming business were added to the mix.

Not long after, potbelly pigs shook their way into the family along with Sebastian the skunk. However, even with all of these creatures, Ibarra's zoo was not complete until a cub named Mickey took up residency eleven years ago.

Years of photos outline the bear's tale. “He looked like he had the Mickey Mouse hat on, his ears were so big," said Ibarra.

But it didn't take long for the 10-pound cub to become a 650-pound commitment.

“Our connection is very close,” said Ibarra. “I'm his mother, that's all he knew from four weeks old."

So every day, behind two secure gates, this mother tends to her son. With manners only a mom can instill, wild animal becomes table trained omnivore as she feeds him marshmallow's right from her hands.

Bearing claws larger than a human head, food is this animal's only distraction, and something it needs a lot of. On a dog food diet, Mickey eats 300 pounds of food every single month.

Great Cats of Indiana
And although Mickey may sound unique, for every story like Mickey's, there is an exotic hardship along US 24.

At Great Cats of Indiana, within the confines of an old dairy farm, Siberian tigers, mountain lions, wolves, even a black leopard all tell a strikingly similar story.

“We have to find enclosure space, we have to find for vets, we have to find money for food. And we have to pay for it and provide for it because somebody else thought that a little tiny one was cute,” said Rob Craig with Great Cats of Indiana.

They come with unique names and a large bottom line: $180,000 worth every year.

The bulk of that money goes towards food, leaving little behind to beautify this modest looking refuge.

A Life-long Commitment
With one sophisticated mission, back where the cornfields meet contrails painted across the afternoon sky, Ibarra, the animal aficionado, continues to bear the fruits from her loving labor.

“It's a commitment, it's a life-long commitment," she said.

Both Great Cats of Indiana and Mickey the bear are nearly 85 miles away from South Bend. So just what kinds of exotic pets are in St. Joseph, Elkhart and LaGrange counties for example? Much more common animals like squirrels, foxes, raccoons and skunks.

However, experts say hundreds of exotic animals go unregistered every year, so there's always the potential for that tiger or bear to be living next door.

Now, we're not recommending making the leap from a house cat to a lion, because there is a good deal of prep work.

You first need to make sure your local town and county allow exotic pets. You also need to follow strict cage guidelines to make sure the animal doesn't escape. But first and foremost, experts say do a lot of research before making such a large commitment.

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