Pet oddities

Last week, an article in the local paper caught my eye:

143 Mexican redknees looking for good homes.

Whoa. That’s a lot of tarantulas. But believe it or not, that was only the tip of the iceberg.

In late August, someone tried to enter Switzerland with a suitcase containing 260 live Mexican redknee tarantulas loosely packed in plastic bags. Authorities confiscated the tarantulas and split them up between three zoos in Switzerland, one of which was the Vivarium in Lausanne. The picture accompanying the article showed a pile of McDonald’s salad containers, each of which presumably contained a tarantula. Whoops, that’s not my salad!

The Vivarium’s director “fulminated” about the ridiculousness of the whole thing. The Mexican redknee is not an exotic creature. You can buy a baby one at a Swiss pet store for five francs. So the whole affair only stood to net the illicit importer about 1300 francs, minus travel costs. Last time I checked, a ticket to Mexico was right up there in the 1000 franc zone. Never mind all the labor involved in finding and bagging 260 live tarantulas. Which leads me to believe that this wasn’t about money at all.  Perhaps there was another end in store for these fellows. Halloween is coming up. Use your imagination…

At only 5 francs a pop, you’d think they’d just anesthetize the whole lot and be done with it. But no, the Federal Veterinary Office decreed that they needed good homes. As you’ll see later in this post, they’re very serious about animal welfare.

Amazingly enough, people heard about this before I did, and a hundred people have already darkened the Vivarium’s door hoping to get one as a new pet. But the criteria for tarantula ownership are very strict indeed here in Switzerland. Mexican redknees are demanding pets. Here’s a sampling:

  • Tarantulas are not vegetarians. If you think you can feed it salad or put it on a vegan diet like the rest of your family, you’re not going to get one. They eat once a week, a mouse or some crickets, and drink daintily from a pipette.
  • These particular specimens are not friendly. They were not bred in captivity, and so far, their exposure to humans has been less than optimal. They undoubtedly have post-traumatic stress disorder from having spent a large amount of time packed in plastic bags in a suitcase, and then there’s the indignity of captivity in McDonald’s salad containers. If you’re hoping you can pick one up and put it on your arm to impress your girlfriend, you’re not going to get one. “You should avoid these if you’re looking for an affectionate pet,” says the article. “Their fangs can be 1 cm in length.”  Ouch.
  • Mexican redknees are very delicate. A fall of even 20 cm can prove fatal (that’s good to know). If you arrive with a shoebox with holes poked in the lid, you’re not going to get one. They need high tech living arrangements.
  • Mexican redknees can live a long time – four years for males and up to 25 years for females. The confiscated tarantulas are reportedly anywhere from one to ten years old. If you think this would make a good gag gift for your boss, like a goldfish, you’re not going to get one. You need to demonstrate that you’re in this for the long haul.
  • If you live in Geneva, you’ll need a permit. No permit, no tarantula. I have no idea how much the permit costs or if there’s a home inspection involved.
  • In any event, you’ll have to pass a background check. If you have a record of animal abuse in the canton of Vaud, you’re not going to get one.

The whole process can take up to two weeks. By that time, the spiders will be so traumatized by living in McDonald’s containers that there’s no knowing what they might do once they’re set free. Oh, and, by the way, “On your way out the door with your tarantula under your arm, you’re invited to make a donation to the Vivarium.”  That’s right, they want you to pay them for the privilege of owning a nasty, delicate, stressed-out Mexican arachnid that you can’t even snuggle up to on a cold night. Go figure.

In other bizarre Swiss pet news, I heard recently about a new thing that’s all the rage here – a guinea pig rental service.

In Switzerland, it’s illegal to own just one guinea pig. From the Cabinet Veterinaire International:

We’ve all heard that “no man is an island”, and according to the Swiss Federal Council on September 1, 2008, no guinea pig or budgie should be either. The new regulations aren’t targeted solely at owners of cavies and budgies, but include 175 pages of rules that apply to circuses, farms, and zoos, as well as individuals that own other domesticated pets.

The law apparently goes into detail about the size of cages for elephants and rhinoceroses, and the number of hours of training required to become a dog owner. The new law, which went into effect in September, requires guinea pig owners to have a minimum of two guinea pigs. This seems very humane.

But what if one of them dies? Do you have to go out and buy another guinea pig to keep the grieving solitary guy company? If you’re any good at logic, you see the trap here. In a moment of weakness, you succumb to your 8-year-old’s desire for a pet, thinking a couple of guinea pigs would be easier to deal with than, say, a cat or a dog, or even a rhinoceros. Next thing you know, one of them dies. Maybe it was bitten by your new pet Mexican redknee.

So, being a good citizen, you go buy another one to keep it company. You never know when the cantonal vet authority will make a home inspection, and you don’t want to be on the record for animal abuse. Maybe another batch of something interesting will be confiscated at the Zurich airport!  Or you might want to pick up a stray snapping turtle at the Vivarium. (Just how will they enforce this law, I wonder? Maybe you have to announce the death and pay for a funeral?)

Pretty soon everyone’s tired of guinea pigs, the kid is long gone, but you can’t find anyone to take Daisy off your hands.

Turns out there’s a woman in Switzerland named Priska Küng who really likes guinea pigs – she’s the president of IG Meerschweinchen, the “umbrella organization of Switzerland’s three main guinea pig breeding organizations.” She has about 80 guinea pigs living with her. And she had the brilliant idea of renting some of them out.

Here’s how it works: say you buy Buttercup and Daisy. Buttercup goes daisies up. After an appropriate grieving period (10 minutes), you call Priska Küng. For 50-60 francs, you get either a female or a castrated male (say, Zorro), who keeps Daisy company until her day in the sun is done. Then you hand Zorro  back to Priska Küng and she gives you half the original price. (I’m guessing if Daisy outlives Zorro, you can still get your money back.) Then you’re finally, blissfully, guinea-pig free! The matchmaking might take a little time, because:

Even though guinea pigs are sociable animals, they can be choosy about who they live with. “A young animal can annoy a four or five-year-old guinea pig by being too temperamental and active,” says Küng. But sometimes the opposite is the case: Küng has also known guinea pig grandpas to feel rejuvenated by the addition of a younger companion. (from an article in Speigel Online.)

Don’t worry, this is no shady Guinea pig escort service. Despite some bad press she’s gotten, Priska is not a “guinea pig pimp.” Once a guinea pig has been rented out once, it goes into retirement.

This is a true win-win. No laws have been broken, no guinea pigs have suffered in solitude, and Priska has a little more cash with which to nourish her guinea pig obsession. Warms the heart, doesn’t it?

3 thoughts on “Pet oddities

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