Exotic pets are gateways to wacky and sometimes dangerous hijinks. If your furry friend could feasibly be seen dismembering gazelles on a nature show, you can probably bank on having an unusual tale or two to tell. You can also be sure that if your pet eats you, there will be no shortage of “I told you so’s” to punctuate your passing. But even a world rife with oddball peril can produce some unexpectedly strange and unsettling circumstances.
10 The Naked Hoarder
John Pilotti Jr.’s response to Fox 29 reporter Chris O’Connell seemed downright feral. As the newsman stood outside a Philadelphia home for a 10:00 PM broadcast, Pilotti pounced, assailing O’Connell and his cameraman. The incensed 35-year-old was in no mood to have the press buzzing about his father’s home, perhaps because John Pilotti Sr. had nakedly perched himself on the front porch earlier that night. Or maybe it was because his naked father had been stockpiling a huge assortment of animals.
SPCA spokesman George Bengal suggested that Pilotti Sr. had amassed “every kind of species known to man.” It probably wasn’t much of an exaggeration. His home had become a grim Noah’s ark of living, dead, and mummified animals which included rats, roosters, turtles, tarantulas, cats, dogs, frogs, iguanas, and even an alligator. Junk strewn about the house made some of the poor creatures difficult to access.
As one might expect of a house that’s equal parts zoo, graveyard, and junkyard, Pilotti Sr.’s home stank to high heaven. Neighbors had purportedly lodged complaints about the noxious odor for years but were ignored. It was only after Pilotti Sr. began flaunting his naughty bits to the world and claiming to be part of the CIA that authorities decided to investigate the olfactory torture chamber lurking behind his front door. He was subsequently charged with animal cruelty.
9 The Birthday Gift
“I’d say it’s probably been playing, or it may be even a sexual sort of thing.” In an AP interview, that’s how Detective Senior Constable Craig Gregory characterized the unceremonious demise of Queensland, Australia, resident Pam Weaver, who died at the paws of her 10-month-old camel.
Camel expert Chris Hill unequivocally concluded that the animal had carnal intentions. Camel connoisseur Paddy McHugh suggested that the animal was “in season” and treated Weaver like a competing male. Whatever the camel’s motive, it’s thought that he knocked his owner to the ground and mounted her. It’s unclear if this is how Weaver died, but it’s certainly what many of the 300-plus attendees at her funeral believed.
The camel was a birthday present. Weaver’s husband and daughter initially opted for a llama or alpaca but relented due to cost concerns. So when her 60th birthday rolled around, Pam received a young camel. It seemed to be an excellent gift for the exotic animal lover—that is, until the animal started acting strangely. On numerous occasions, it would straddle or lie on the family goat and nearly smother it. But it appears that goats weren’t the sole target of the camel’s horizontal aggression.
According to police, the camel left telltale signs of having tramped and rolled on Weaver’s body. It’s possible that she died of heart failure before or during the event, but the results of her autopsy went unreported. Regardless of the outcome, Pam’s widower, Noel, was ready to absolve his wife’s potential killer. As he said at her memorial service, “You have to forgive the camel, he loved her very much.”
8 Huff’s Apartment
In January 2002, Ronald Huff’s coworkers and relatives began placing worried calls to the cops. The 42-year-old Martin Oldsmobile employee had complained of feeling unwell to his grandmother one Sunday and had to miss a day of work. By that Wednesday, Huff had failed to clock in, and people realized something was off. Authorities were sent to check on him at his apartment. There, they stumbled upon a scene as unforgettable as it was odd.
Huff had rejiggered his entire apartment to cater to his Nile monitor lizards. He had constructed cages to hold his scaly friends, which ranged between 1–2 meters (3–6 ft) in length. The place was decked out with cushions and aquariums for the lizards’ comfort. Huff also had Madagascar hissing cockroaches to keep his pets fed. But those roaches had to be saved for a different meal because when police entered Huff’s apartment, they found his corpse being feasted on by his seven beloved pets.
Monitor lizards aren’t known to snack on people, and an expert consulted on Huff’s case dismissed the suggestion that they might have undone their owner. Rather, it seemed more likely that their bacteria-laden fangs had given Huff a deadly infection after one or more of the animals bit him. In the past, Huff’s father had joked about his son losing an arm to one of his toothy beasts. Instead, he probably lost his life.
7 The Pet Store
Florida-based Ben Siegel Reptiles Inc. has undoubtedly hosted a fair number of cold-blooded and occasionally bloodcurdling creatures. But the Deerfield Beach pet shop has witnessed far more chilling scenes produced by people—for example, Edward Archbold who died after winning a python.
In 2012, the 32-year-old Floridian entered himself into a pair of competitive eating events held by Ben Siegel Reptiles. As presumably envious lizards looked on, Archbold wolfed down superworms in one challenge and ate dozens of giant cockroaches in another. He won the cockroach contest and became the brand new owner of an ivory ball python.
For Archbold, winning was reward enough, and he actually planned on giving the snake to a friend. But after snatching the victory, he was seized by a fit of uncontrollable vomiting before collapsing. He died on the pet store floor, the apparent victim of roach parts lodged in his throat.
In 2015, another jarring scene transpired at Ben Siegel Reptiles, this time at the hands of its eponymous owner. Siegel, who had a history of violence and cocaine possession, went berserk and shoved a bearded dragon into his mouth. From there, he began flinging the lizard into the air and then used it to strike bystanders. Siegel was arrested and charged with battery as well as causing cruel death, pain, and suffering to an animal.
6 The Other Daughter
According to Annie Butor, Pepee had everything a little girl could want: her own room, toys, parents who doted on her, and virtual immunity from punishment. Pepee never appreciated how good she had it, exhibiting a perpetually ornery demeanor and once even stealing a baby. But Pepee can’t be fully blamed for her unwholesome conduct. She was, after all, a chimp.
Of course, not everyone accepted the chimp’s simian status. As Butor recalls in her memoirs, her stepfather, French singer and devout anarchist Leo Ferre, had no patience for people who regarded Pepee as a mere animal. It was a deal breaker in his friendships. He and Butor’s mother treated the animal as a full-fledged family member. Annie, on the other hand, saw Pepee as the tempestuous bane of her ’60s French upbringing.
Unlike her human sister, Pepee had an unsettling habit of ripping the clothes off houseguests. She was also known to bowl people over at her leisure, bearing razor-sharp teeth in a frightfully dominant display. But perhaps the most outrageous anecdote occurred when Pepee took hold of an infant and climbed to the roof of the house.
Eventually, Butor’s eccentric stepdad left to pursue more mainstream musical success, placing his wife and daughter in charge of the impish chimp. During that period, Pepee was injured in a nasty spill and refused to let anyone help her. Butor’s mother recruited a hunter to put the animal out of its misery. Ferre was incensed by the news and later divorced his wife. It was an apt ending, considering that Pepee’s previous owner had warned Butor’s parents that chimp-induced stress had ended three of his marriages.
5 The Dubious Dog Bite
Antoine Yates’s seventh-floor apartment reeked of pee, the same liquid which drenched the windowsills of his downstairs neighbor, Wanda Tompkins, in the summertime. Unfortunately, Tompkins’s complaints to management fell on incredulous ears. It was only after police were called to the building that the terrifying truth began to rear its fanged head.
In 2003, officers gathered in the lobby of Yates’s high-rise apartment building to investigate an alleged animal attack. A bloodied Yates was standing with them trying to explain the wounds to his right arm and leg. He blamed a pit bull. An anonymous tipster, however, later revealed that the supposed pit bull victim was harboring “a large wild animal” that had been biting people. Officers cut a hole in Yates’s door and peered inside. On the other side sat a 180-kilogram (400 lb) tiger nonchalantly licking its paws.
The 31-year-old Yates had managed to rear his pet tiger, Ming, without getting evicted. Even more disturbing, he had spent some of that time living with his sexagenarian mother and multiple foster siblings. As it turned out, subjecting his family to dangerous animals was kind of a habit. In the past, Yates had acquired reptiles, at least one monkey, and possibly a hyena. The tiger, however, was a deal breaker. His unbelievably tolerant mother finally took her remaining foster kids and fled for safer pastures. Then it was the tiger’s turn to go.
Yates’s apartment was filled with junk, which made an encounter with Ming in the apartment particularly unappealing. So an officer had to rappel down the building and sedate the animal from the outside. After a brief scare during which Ming shattered a window trying to attack the officer, the tiger was subdued and removed from the building.
4 Thor And Thunder
It sounds like the setup to an obscure joke: A supposed spy touting a JFK conspiracy theory sees a homeopathic animal doctor about his Siberian tigers. But this was no gag. Self-proclaimed CIA agent Peter “Tiger Pete” Renzo had once authored a book tying the Mafia to President Kennedy’s assassination. In 2013, he hired homeopathic veterinarian Henry Kostecki to clip the claws of tigers Thor and Thunder. It would be their last visit to the doctor.
Tiger Pete had worked with Kostecki decades before and apparently trusted him enough for an encore performance. It’s unclear whether the animal healer had lost his salubrious touch or never had one to begin with. But when Renzo approached Kostecki about Thor and Thunder, the vet had already been formally chastised by the state of Nevada for improperly treating pet shop puppies. While sedating Renzo’s tigers for nail trimming, he purportedly poisoned them with a lethal dose of the drug Telazol.
It was a devastating loss for the supposed government operative and for the tiger population at large. Thor and Thunder were two of only 350 adult Siberian tigers estimated to be left on our entire planet. Renzo had spent years hopping across Nevada in a desperate bid to keep the pair, along with two Bengal tigers and a pair of panthers. He unsuccessfully sued the state of Idaho for permission to establish an animal sanctuary there, where his furry friends might have flourished. But now he had inadvertently killed his pets in a routine attempt to make them safer to handle.
Renzo lashed out at Kostecki with a $10,000 wrongful death suit. As of late 2015, it’s unknown whether the matter has been resolved.
3 The Vet
In September 2006, Amanda De La Garza of Texas succumbed to the siren song of a tiny cockatiel at a PetSmart. The bird became a colorful fixture at her Corpus Christi home, which she shared with her father, Joe. The 63-year-old war vet had survived the horrors of Vietnam, but his daughter’s new pet proved overwhelming. Joe died within 16 days of the purchase.
Unknown to everyone involved, Amanda’s new pet packed a nasty biological payload: psittacosis (aka “parrot fever”). Between 12 and 25 people are diagnosed with psittacosis annually. The bacterial infection buffets its victims with headaches, coughing fits, chills, and fevers.
Cases are typically nonfatal, but Joe De La Garza tragically bucked that trend, perishing from what doctors initially pegged as pneumonia. Amanda was also unknowingly stricken with parrot fever and fell comatose. Once physicians learned of the cockatiel’s existence, they figured out the problem and altered her treatment accordingly. She eventually regained consciousness.
Now armed with crucial knowledge about what might have actually killed her father, Amanda had him exhumed and reexamined. Sure enough, psittacosis was the cause. De La Garza sued the PetSmart store that had sold her the diseased bird. The company attempted to rebuff her claims, citing a liability waiver included with her purchase and the fact that it had spent two weeks dosing the cockatiel with antibiotics to prevent the spread of psittacosis. But a Texas court forced PetSmart to pay Amanda’s court and attorney’s fees, and the business settled out of court rather than face a possible courtroom defeat.
2 Neverland’s Aftermath
Fans of the late Michael Jackson likely recall that his child-friendly Neverland Ranch was a veritable zoo of beasts that included tigers, alligators, crocodiles, zebras, birds, giraffes, and everyone’s favorite “moonwalking” chimp. After Jackson died in 2009, all of those animals were passed on to businesses and private parties. But not all of them fared well.
Arizonan couple Tommy and Freddie Hancock eagerly took possession of Jackson’s four giraffes—Rambo, Jabbar Jr., Princess, and Annie Sue. Despite their fervor, the Hancocks had an experience that was far from smooth sailing. They were constantly hounded by animal rights organization PETA, which leveled accusations of neglect and abuse. By the end of 2009, two of the animals had died mysteriously over the span of a few weeks. According to the Hancocks, Rambo and Jabbar Jr. had been poisoned by unspecified enemies looking to cause trouble.
A controversial fate also befell seven alligators placed in the care of Joe Schreibvogel, who was the face and founder of Oklahoma’s Garold Wayne Interactive Zoological Park and a producer for the independent show Joe Exotic TV. He was also a sworn enemy of rabid animal rights activists. According to Schreibvogel, that animus took a turn for the fatal.
In 2015, Schreibvogel’s animal sanctuary became the apparent target of arson. In the process, Jackson’s reptile friends were “boiled to death.” No one was nabbed in connection with the fire, but Schreibvogel minced no words in suggesting a culprit. In his mind, the fire was a malicious attack cruelly executed by his animal activist foes.
1 The Last Apology
In 2015, police in Austin, Texas, spent three suspense-filled days tracking down Grant Thompson’s suspected killer. On July 14, the 18-year-old was discovered incapacitated in a car parked outside a Lowe’s home improvement store. Accompanying him were a bullfrog, six tarantulas, and a nonvenomous snake. But there was no sign of his beloved monocled cobra, an aggressive and highly venomous reptile. The animal was eventually found dead along Interstate 35.
It was a particularly grim ending for someone known throughout his hometown as “The Reptile Guy.” Thompson had had a lifelong love of reptiles. From childhood on, he frequented his mother’s exotic pet shop, The Fish Bowl. Later he worked there, becoming a popular figure among customers. But now the seasoned snake handler had perished at the fangs of his own pet. His case, however, was far from straightforward.
What was the pet store employee from Temple, Texas, doing 105 kilometers (65 mi) away from home, and why did he bring his bevy of pets with him? Was Thompson’s death an accident?
Forensic evidence yielded a deeply troubling answer. According to medical examiners, Thompson was the willing recipient of several cobra bites to his wrist. He had struggled with a “history of suicidal ideation,” which apparently came to heartbreaking fruition. Before going on his fatal excursion to Austin, he left a final message for his friends and family: “I’m sorry.”