Odd pets: Paws and claws

Some people have very odd pets, finds Diana Clement.

Brian Lawton's bearded dragon Bruce turns on the charm at mealtime. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Brian Lawton's bearded dragon Bruce turns on the charm at mealtime. Photo / Herald on Sunday

Empress Josephine of France had a pet orangutan that sat at her dinner table, wearing a coat. Julius Caesar had a giraffe as a pet.

Here in New Zealand it's not easy to keep unusual pets, thanks to laws that preclude it. Still, plenty of Kiwis share their lives with less-than-usual pets. We went looking for pet owners and their two, four, six, and eight-legged friends.

Auckland's most-prolific collector of animals and invertebrates must be Brian Lawton, who runs Creatures Unlimited, a company which sources creatures for the advertising and movie industries.

Lawton has been collecting creatures ever since he can remember, and enthralled students at the Bay of Islands College in Kawakawa where he worked.

His favourite pet these days is Bruce the bearded dragon, which doesn't look dissimilar to a tuatara. Bruce lives with Lawton, his partner Tikvah and her son Baruch in their Titirangi home, and even goes on holiday with the family.

"Bruce has such a personality," says Lawton. "He treats us as his servants."

Bruce is all charm when there is puha or lettuce in the offing but becomes a grumpy old man if the light in the lounge is left on when he wants to go to sleep.

A number of government organisations restrict the variety of species that can be kept as pets. If you want a snake, a kiwi or takahe as a pet, you won't be allowed.

In Auckland, five sets of council rules restrict what can be kept. You may be allowed to keep a pig on the North Shore, with permission, but in the former Papakura district you can't keep a pig in an urban area. A number of laws and rules administered by the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries are designed to ensure that pet species don't establish in the wild and harm our native fauna and flora. "Many of our native species are already under threat from a long list of invasive species and we really want to avoid adding to that list," says Dr Erik van Eyndhoven of MAF.

And the Wildlife Act 1953, administered by DoC, restricts the keeping of native animals to people with specialist skills, such as scientists conducting research and those breeding them for release into the wild.

Keeping a pet sheep isn't that unusual. It is, however, if the sheep has a pink collar, pink lead, and the owner is over 40. Horse behaviourist Simone Frewin didn't intend to get a pet lamb. But a client handed an orphaned lamb to her to hold for a few minutes and she fell in love with it.

Back at the Frewin household the lamb soon proved to be a real character. Its long legs and ability to jump the gate earned it the name Chloe the Ballet Lamb, and it liked watching television.

Although Frewin owns 4ha of land in Paparoa, the property isn't fenced for sheep and Chloe and two other pet sheep that have joined the fold live in Frewin's garden. When they want to come inside, they nudge the ranch slider open.

They also travel with her. Once at Auckland airport a group of Japanese tourists chanced on the family wagon in the carpark and couldn't believe their luck at meeting a sheep minutes after arriving in the country.

Another unusual pet that used to like watching TV is John Ansley's pet magpie Maggie Half-G. She's named that because she has cost the Ansleys "half a grand" at the vet already.

Maggie had to be banned from the Ansleys' lounge because she is so protective of John that she attacks his wife of 44 years, Jeanette. Now Maggie lives most of the time in a 30m long flight attached to the couple's New Plymouth glasshouse. Even when she's out, Maggie doesn't go far - occasionally visiting a neighbour or watching TV across the road.

Maggie is quite vocal. She wolf whistles and mimics human talk such as "John. Wha' d'ya' want", which makes Maggie seem all the more human.

- Herald on Sunday

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