Jellyfish and tigers do not make good pets

The children were little and we were on vacation at the beach with my extended family.

On our first day, the weather was perfect – hotter than Hades, clear sky, a gentle breeze near the ocean. But there was something fishy going on.

As far as the eye could see, the shoreline was packed with vacationers only wading as far as the knees, looking longingly at the gloriously cool water, but none daring to venture in to swim. Why? Sharks? Nope – jellyfish. A lot of big ones.

This was the one thing my son remembered about this vacation, since he and his cousins spent the day obsessively trying to catch the jellyfish with shovels and in buckets without actually touching them. Other people were doing this, too, as it was the only interesting water sport going that day. At the end of the day, we had four presumed-dead jellyfish in a small bucket next to my beach chair.

Now, my son was disappointed (to put it mildly) to learn that these creatures were not coming home with us. It took some explaining, but he and his cousins accepted the fact that these animals would not make good pets, alive or dead. And having been washed up onto the shore repeatedly, we assured them, these were most certainly dead. This did not seem to matter to my niece, who entered into a new activity: poking the captured jellyfish in the bucket with a yellow plastic shovel at intervals, then running off to the ocean again to hunt for more. My sister and I giggled about it every time we saw my niece coming toward us – “Here she comes again” we’d snicker.

She must have poked those jellyfish 15 times, and every time it got funnier to us. “Nope, still dead,” my sister chuckled to me, and we’d laugh conspiratorially as my niece sprinted back to the ocean again, unaware of our poking fun at her poking.

As it turns out, it is very difficult to check the vital signs on a jellyfish. “Uh, those jellyfish are alive,” my husband said at one point.

“Huh? Nuh-uh – there’s no way … ” I started to say as I peered in the little purple bucket. But as the words escaped my lips, I saw one of the bigger jellyfish move in a purposeful way. Whoa … weird.

Now, I’m no marine biologist, and I’ll be the first to admit I know next to nothing about the life and times of jellyfish and their biology, but I stand by my assertion that jellyfish do not make good pets. Anyone who watches “Sponge Bob Squarepants” would agree.

I suppose there are few saltwater aquarium enthusiasts out there who are experienced at keeping these critters in captivity, but that’s probably pretty limited, too. As far as I’m concerned, jellyfish belong in the ocean, which is where we released our friends in the purple bucket at the end of the day.

There many animals that belong in the wild that people like to acquire as pets. We get calls from people who want us to see pet raccoons, skunks, monkeys, tarantulas, and, recently, an alligator.

And although I did call the guy back about his pet groundhog that was becoming aggressive at 6 months of age, I admit he wasn’t impressed by my answer. You see, (and I had to look this up in a reference book about wild animal medicine), groundhogs normally become aggressive when they approach puberty. This is why they tend to make terrible pets. Not the magic answer this gentleman was hoping I’d give.

Of course, if I had told him I had a magic pill for it, his next question would have been, “How the heck am I supposed to give it to him if he wants to kill me?” This further illustrates my point.

Some exotic pets are very difficult to keep, requiring special diets, lighting, enormous amounts of space and other things that can be tricky (or expensive) to provide. In the proper environment, some exotic animals can thrive. In an improper environment, most suffer and many eventually die. Poor husbandry (feeding, housing, and handling) can lead to anything from malnourishment to bacterial or fungal infections to severe behavioral problems like self-mutilation, serious aggressions or even marked depression and anorexia.

For example, it has taken many years for the “common” green iguana to enjoy proper husbandry recommendations from the salespeople in pet stores.

Of course, this advice is still not always followed by the new owners, resulting in sick – sometimes critically so – iguanas. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen as much as it once did. It seems the word is out that iceberg lettuce is not terribly nutritious. And, with the advent of some fairly decent commercially available prepared diets for some exotic animals like iguanas, chinchillas, ferrets, rodents, rabbits and birds, nutritional problems are a bit less common than they were even 10 years ago. But, that’s not to say they don’t exist. And when an animal is fed an improper diet for months to years, the effects can be devastating.

Remember a time when children in the U.S. used to get rickets? Do most people even know what rickets is? It’s a softening of the bones due to lack of mineral. It occurs from not having enough active vitamin D. This deficiency occurs in people and animals in several ways: lack of the vitamin and calcium in the diet and lack of sunlight (which actually converts the vitamin to its active form) or through severely diseased kidneys. With the advent of Vitamin D fortified milk, cases of rickets eventually diminished and are now uncommon. But exotic animals still get this disease because their owners (or captors, for some) are ill-informed.

I plead with anyone who is even remotely considering acquiring a pet – learn as much as you can about the animal and its care before you get it. You also may want to scope out a veterinarian who will be willing to see the pet for an exam immediately after buying it, to protect your investment (this goes for all new pets, incidentally). Many veterinarians simply won’t see exotic animals. Some will see them, but have limited knowledge. Some are very knowledgeable, working with exotic and zoo specimens regularly. If you can’t find a veterinarian to see your animal or have no idea what you will do in the case of an emergency, you may want to rethink your decision. It may be reasonable to assume that that animal is best left to expert handlers and enthusiasts and zoos.

I’ll leave you with this. Years ago, I saw an interview on TV with Siegfried and Roy. They were cuddling and playing and roughhousing with their full-grown Bengal tigers, wrestling with them as the big cats swatted them lazily with their enormous paws and mouthed them, baring sinister looking teeth.

I remember watching this piece and thinking to myself, “Someday one of these guys is going to be killed by one of these cats – they’re nuts.” Well, I was thankfully only partially right. Like jellyfish, tigers also do NOT make good pets.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital. Her column prints every other Sunday in the Lifestyle section. She can be reached at