Pooches and fluffy kittens seem to have become too ordinary for many pet owners across the globe and while some countries impose strict laws on the trade of wild animals, it is still relatively easy to obtain exotic animals as pets, particularly in Asia. Like it or loathe it, Thailand is a country where you will find one of the largest numbers of exotic pet enthusiasts and all sorts of unusual looking creatures roaming around their properties. We speak to some of those residing in Bangkok.
If you’ve heard his name, it probably goes hand in hand with cars and speed but Pasin Lathouras, an up-and-coming 23-year-old endurance racer, also happens to have a second passion: animals, particularly the more unusual kind.
Watching the late wildlife TV superstar Steve Irwin while growing up triggered his interest in animals but it was his first visit to Chatuchak that made him curious about exotic fish. “When I went there for the first time, I saw many weird-looking ones,” he says. “I began doing research on them and they grew on me.” Take a stroll in the family’s property and what appears to be a car garage from afar is in fact, a gigantic aquarium housing Pasin’s collection of large exotic fish. Among them is an arapaima, which can grow up to be two metres long in captivity and about four metres in the Amazon, their native habitat. “I like them because they have a prehistoric look,” he says. Watching them also calms him. “I literally live in the fast lane and when I’m not racing, looking at them relaxes me,” he says. As for their diet, they are carnivorous. “My mother made it very clear there was to be no live-feeding so I get chicken meat delivered instead,” he says.
In another part of the garden are his iguanas, including an albino. He is currently trying to breed them as they each have the albino gene in them. Other residents on the property include dogs, cod fish, a couple of hybrid polka-dot stingrays, tortoises, as well as small snakes, which he insisted on getting despite his mother’s strong disapproval. “I have a corn snake and a Mexican black king snake,” he says. “They are the most recent addition to the clan. They are very common and are great for beginner snake owners.” Regardless of the species, Pasin’s fondness for each of them is reflected in the fact that each has a carefully constructed living space that meets their environmental needs. There is even a tank, which he calls the animal hospital.
What’s the biggest challenge? “Time,” says Pasin. “I travel a lot for racing and I also work for the family business so I have someone who helps me take care of the animals.” Another challenge for the young animal enthusiast is knowledge. He admits it is not a piece of cake to take care of these animals. “I am still learning as I go. I always make sure to do research about their environmental needs and basic dietary requirements.”
“Know your capacity,” he adds. “Most of these animals require a lot of space and special care. As a pet owner, when one of your pets dies, you feel bad. Even with dogs, you cannot just get them and leave them in a small space unattended. Know your schedule and your limits. If you think you can provide them a comfortable environment throughout its life, then I say go for it. It’s not a shortterm commitment but a lifelong one. It’s like getting into a relationship,” he laughs. He also underlines that endangered species should really be left alone.
Originally from the savannas of Africa, grey crowned cranes or East African crowned cranes have become quite a rare sight today. Unless you happen to be taking a stroll in the zoo, the chance of spotting one is very low. But in a country like Thailand, where keeping exotic animals has become almost a norm, it’s no surprise to find two of them casually striding around a garden in the heart of Bangkok. As is the case with many, their owner Pongpat Pongpairoj, who used to work in the family’s fish sauce business, fell under their undeniable beauty. “I think what attracts me is their appearance and the fact that they are strange and rare,” he says. Indeed, these beautiful creatures truly command your attention with their tall elegant bodies, captivating plumage and a distinct crown of stiff golden feathers on their heads. But these are not the only animals to wander the property. “I also have two black-necked swans, parrots, albino peacocks and turtles, everything in pairs,” he says. Additionally, Pongpat also owns about 40 cats and two red-handed tamarin monkeys. “I call them Aladdin and Jasmine,” he smiles. Pongpat is smitten with his little hairy friends and spoilt Aladdin even gets to sleep in his bedroom every night. “I have had them for about four years now,” he smiles. “They are just so cute.”
Owning such rare creatures can be frowned upon but from Pongpat’s perspective, with the crane’s habitat in Africa under severe agricultural development threats, he believes he is doing wildlife a favour. “To be honest, much of wildlife habitats on our planet have been destroyed. These animals have been bred for so many generations. I see it as a way of preserving different species,” he says.
“What I really would love to have is a tigon [a cross between a male tiger and a female lion] but that’s not very realistic,” he laughs. Pongpat has been surrounded by all kinds of weird animals since a young age, including alligators and cassowaries. His advice to pet owners? “Whatever you want to have as pets, you really need to do your research. If in the long run, you have doubts about being able to take care of them, then do not get them. It is an immense responsibility.”
Even when looking for an exotic animal for a pet, some people would still rather opt for the fluffy and cute kind. But there are some who find themselves drawn towards creepy crawlies and find the scaly type to be equally appealing. While handling Miso, his pet python, Kanapol Chamnanchang who is currently studying real estate at New York University, explains that he is fascinated by reptiles. “Ball pythons have a docile nature,” he says. “And there are many different varieties to choose from. Miso for example is a pastel ball python.”
His brother aside, the rest of the Chamnanchang family, while generally considering themselves animal people, do not share Kanapol’s enthusiasm for snakes. “My parents hated the very idea of snakes,” he laughs. “I didn’t know the extent of their fear until I actually brought one home.” But there are, he stresses, advantages to owning a snake. “You only need to feed them and clean their cage once a week,” he says. “They are not only easy to take care of but they also thrive in captivity.”
Like our other interviewees, animals have always intrigued Kanapol. “My mother always encouraged me to play with animals from a very young age,” he says. “I used to have pet caterpillars. I would take care of them until they turned into butterflies then I would free them in the garden.” He also had crabs for pets, which he claims were much harder to maintain than snakes. “Animals truly fascinate me,” he says. “Even when observing something as small as ants and how they are able to construct intricate cities merely out of sand and leaves.” Visiting zoos as a child, he was constantly drawn to the reptiles. But although zoos might have contributed to his interest in reptiles, he admits that now, as an adult, he finds these institutions to be depressing. “I prefer owning my own because I know I am giving the animal proper care.”
Is it really just a question of being able to afford whatever animal one finds intriguing? Where should one draw the line? Even for somebody as fascinated by wild animals as Kanapol is, he says that there is a line he is not willing to cross. “The animal should be a captive breed at least three to four generations removed from its wild cousins,” he says. “These captive animals generally lose their wild instincts and tame out over time.”
Kanapol emphasises that not all creatures are like snakes—many don’t thrive easily in captivity and require a lot of space. Therefore, one truly has to be committed to taking care of the animal for its entire life. “When I bought Miso, I knew he was going to live up to 20 years and I was ready for that,” he says. “Some owners simply let their pets free when they can no longer care for it and that is a major problem.”
Interestingly, the proud ophiophilist highlights that it is sometimes better to own exotic pets than a regular household pet, although he also points out that the term exotic is used very loosely these days—and that the welfare of the pet should be paramount in any decision. “Some dogs such as bulldogs are bred for their unique appearance, to the point where their physiology has negative impacts on their health,” he says. “I think that this is pushing the envelope a bit too far.”
In the future, Kanapol intends to get a second snake, as long as it is not venomous. “This time it will probably be a Burmese python,” he smiles.
An increasingly popular trend in Bangkok are restaurants and cafes where one can enjoy a meal in the company of exotic animals. One of the latest additions to this trend is The Animal Café. “The café has been up and running for about a year now,” says Athit Samatiyadekul, co-founder of the establishment. Some of the creatures you will find there include raccoons, owls, serval cats, caracals, a fennec fox and a strange yet cute breed of salamander known as axolotls.
Places like these often foster mixed feelings of delight and concern, and, while at first glance, The Animal Café seems like a place any self-respecting animal-rights activist would not condone, Athit makes a strong case. “Of course we get a lot of criticism,” he says. “People often call the police on us but we have all the right documents for each animal we own.” He also highlights that none of his pets have been taken from the wild. “People always believe we have taken then from the wild, stripping them of their freedom,” he says. “They have been bred in captivity and domesticated for generations. Most of them are no longer truly wild and have become comfortable with human contact. In fact, they cannot hunt for themselves and don’t feel safe away from humans.”
Athit further points out that some of the café’s tenants are even rescues. Of his two raccoons, he says, “I got them from a fur factory in Europe. Now they have a home, people who cater to their needs, who love them and play with them every day.” They take turns rotating between the café and his house where they are able to roam around freely in a safe environment.
The café aside, Athit’s house, with its abundance of space, is home to between 60 to 70 turtles, including aldabra and albino sulcata tortoises, 300 iguanas and a dozen Burmese pythons. There are also chinchillas, a wallaby, and more. His interest in animals began at the age of four when his father bought him a small snake. “I used to run around carrying it all day,” he recalls.
For Athit, the biggest challenge for him is breeding them. “If you are able to make them breed, this means you haven given them a good and comfortable life. They will not breed if they are unhappy,” he says as he proudly adds that he is the first one in Thailand who was able to successfully breed caracal cats, ones which he raised since they were kittens. Much of his time is spent running back and forth between his house and the caf้, to make sure he is able to take care and spend time with all his exotic companions. Athit still intends to add more unusual pets to his list. “Maybe some Galapagos turtles and anteaters,” he says.
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