Dorothy Gale might have been on to something when she repeated the phrase, "Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my!" while walking along the yellow brick road in the film "The Wizard of Oz." Would you be surprised to learn there could be a lion, tiger or bear living right down the road in your own neighborhood? According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), hundreds of millions of exotic animals reside in the United States, so it's not as uncommon as you might think. And while most exotic pets have private lives hidden away from the public, some become legendary thanks to their famous owners. From alligators in the White House to sharks in New York City, we've found 10 of the weirdest -- and most famous -- pet stories around.
10. New England Gators
It's been rumored for some time that alligators are living in New York City's sewer system. That might not be too far of a stretch, thanks to people like the self-proclaimed Gator Guy, John Boyko, who once kept alligators as pets in his Bridgeport, Conn., home. Some people treat their cats or dogs like children, but for Boyko and his wife, these scaly reptiles were their babies.
They first acquired two alligators, named Gertrude and Allie, from a pet shop in 1993 and rescued a third, Walley, when they discovered she was about to be euthanized. Boyko had quite a setup in his backyard for the gators, including a 1,400-gallon (5,300-liter) tank and 320-gallon (1,211-liter) pond all surrounded by a 6-foot-tall (1.8-meter-tall) fence. But the town of Bridgeport wasn't too happy about Boyko's prickly pets, and a neighbor eventually called the Bridgeport police, who confiscated the gators and took them to the Beardsley Zoo in April of 2003. Boyko couldn't imagine leaving the alligators behind bars, but local authorities gave him 30 days to either donate them to the zoo or ship them to another state. Just before his deadline, a fellow exotic pet lover named Betsy Gimbel heard about Boyko's dilemma. She offered to keep his alligators on her property in Pennsylvania, where the laws allow for non-native reptiles. Boyko's three gator girls now live in the lap of luxury in Gimbel's home, where the entire first floor is set-up for caimans, alligators and other wild species.
9. President Gone Wild
Pets have always had a place at the White House, and while canines might be the favored companions of most first families, there have been some rather unusual pets who've called 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue home. For example, John Adams reportedly kept an alligator in a bathroom and Martin Van Buren was gifted two tiger cubs, which he reluctantly donated to a zoo at the urging of Congress. But of all the pet-loving presidents, there's one who stands out for his love of exotic creatures.
President Calvin Coolidge kept such a variety of pets that some considered the White House a zoo during his time in office. Among the regular dogs, cats and birds lived two raccoons, which first lady Grace Coolidge reportedly walked around the White House lawn on leashes. They also had a donkey and a bobcat named Smokey, and they received many exotic animals as gifts, including lion cubs, a wallaby and a bear. But the most famous Coolidge pet was a pygmy hippopotamus named Billy.
Billy arrived at the White House by way of tire tycoon Harvey Firestone in 1927. Firestone acquired the hippo while on a trip to Liberia and brought it back to Coolidge as a gift. Like most of the exotics that arrived at the White House, Coolidge donated Billy to the Smithsonian National Zoo but reportedly visited him on occasion. Billy was especially important, because there were very few pygmy hippos living in the United States at the time. He soon enjoyed the spotlight at the 1939 New York World's Fair and eventually sired 23 hippos during his lifetime. In fact, many of the pygmy hippos living in the United States today are most likely descendents of this presidential pet.
8. Great Shark on the Great White Way
There's little doubt Hollywood has escalated the appeal of sharks to cult status. With several movies and TV shows devoted to the sharp-toothed sea creatures, it was only a matter of time before people started wanting their very own sharks for pets. Several celebrities, including Nicolas Cage and Ice T, have owned sharks. Even Kevin Federline owned six Australian grey nurse sharks before his then wife, Britney Spears, made him get rid of them. But are pet sharks just another extravagance for the rich and famous? Not necessarily.
Meet Larry Saul: child psychologist, husband and ... pet shark owner. For many months during the summer of 2008, people passing by Saul's New York City apartment building couldn't help but gaze at the large, neon object lighting up his second floor window, or the occupant, a 2-foot-long (.6-meter-long) black tip reef shark. When journalist Mike Peed of "The New Yorker" visited Saul for a personal look, the shark owner explained that his fur allergy forced him to have exotic animals like newts or frogs as a child. His love for unusual pets carried over into adulthood, when the pets got bigger and more unusual. Some of Saul's other pets have included a green moray eel and angelfish. And Saul isn't stopping at one shark. He and his wife are looking forward to expanding their family of unusual pets in the future.
7. Dali's Odd Muse
Spanish surrealist painter Salvador Dali was as well known for his peculiar behavior as he was for his unusual paintings. He also loved getting attention just as much as he loved making people squirm, and he succeeded at both. Known for growing a weird mustache and wearing vampire capes, Dali's most bizarre act might have been his choice of a pet.
In the 1960s, Dali owned an ocelot named Babou that he took with him everywhere he went. Although this South and Central American cat might look like a domestic variety, they are actually very dangerous and will fight to the death over territory. One of the most popular stories about Dali and his ocelot is that he once took the animal into a restaurant in downtown Manhattan. Another customer worriedly asked about the wild cat; Dali told her Babou was really a domestic cat that he'd painted to look like an ocelot. He also frequently traveled with Babou -- they even set sail together on the luxury ocean liner, SS France.
6. Giant Hamster Proves Everything's Bigger in Texas
Deep in the heart of Texas lives a family with a giant rodent, a capybara. Melanie Typaldos and her family were on vacation in Venezuela when they saw capybaras and instantly fell in love with them. Upon returning to the states, Typaldos' daughter convinced her to adopt a capybara of their very own. After researching and talking to breeders, Typaldos found a baby capybara and brought her home to Austin in the fall of 2007. The capybara was named Caplin Rous, with "rous" meaning "rodent of unusual size."
Caplin Rous quickly fit in with the rest of the Typaldos' pets, which include rainbow boa constrictors, leopard tortoises, horses and a rabbit. Melanie reports that Caplin and the rabbit are best pals, but the capybara doesn't much care for the snakes. Caplin has become a quasi-celebrity in recent years, thanks to her uniqueness. She has her own blog and tweets daily. Typaldos had a children's book published in 2010 entitled, "Celeste and the Giant Hamster," which follows the adventures of a capybara like Caplin Rous, a most unusual pet.
5. Heavyweight Champ Loves Big Cats
It's not that unusual to learn of an athlete with an exotic pet. Many pro sports players have snakes or other reptiles, but none can top Mike Tyson. As the heavyweight champion during the 1980s, Tyson was known for his life of extravagance, so it came as little surprise when he acquired three white Bengal tigers in the mid-90s. Tyson reportedly spent more than $4,000 a month providing for the tigers until he had to sell them during bankruptcy proceedings in 2003.
One of Tyson's tigers, Storm, was purchased by a tattoo artist in Gary, Indiana. Storm lived at the tattoo shop with two other tigers until the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) confiscated them in the spring of 2010 due to malnourishment. The tiger now lives at an unknown sanctuary overseen by the USDA, and Tyson has a new love -- one that's much easier to care for: pigeons. But his former passion for big cats hasn't been forgotten and was a major plotline in the 2009 comedy, "The Hangover," in which Tyson made a cameo to reclaim a tiger stolen from his home during a wild night in Vegas.
4. Hippo in the House!
Deep in Africa lives a hippo named Jessica with a most unusual story. Jessica was born in Mozambique in 2000 at the height of flood season and became separated from her mother just after birth. The raging waters washed her down the river and right into Tonie and Shirley Joubert's backyard. Tonie had some experience with exotic animals, thanks to his career as a game warden, but raising a hippo was a new challenge even for him. Realizing the hippo was newborn and needed care, the Jouberts persevered; Jessica soon became part of the family and even slept in her own double bed as a baby.
Once Jessica grew too big for indoor accommodations, the Jouberts moved her to the outdoor patio where she sleeps with the dogs to this day. The Jouberts live on the banks of the river, so Jessica does receive company from other hippos, but she loves her human family the most. Jessica enjoys a sweet life, getting coffee in the mornings, sweet potatoes for treats and full-body massages in the evenings. Now more than 10 years old and weighing more than a ton, Jessica has a male companion, Fred the Hippo, who has also taken up permanent residence at the Joubert's estate.
3. The King of Rock's Scandalous Sidekick
Elvis Presley, a known ladies' man in his day, had an entourage he called the Memphis Mafia, and its most notorious member was a chimpanzee named Scatter. Presley adopted Scatter in the early 1960s from a Memphis public television network, where the chimp worked on a children's educational program. Trained to perform on command, Scatter made a good sidekick for the King, but he wasn't used to either life on the road or entertaining the Memphis Mafia who, along with Presley, enjoyed watching the chimp wreak havoc everywhere they went.
According to Presley's friend Jerry Schilling, Scatter became quite the cad, looking up women's skirts, pinching their butts and climbing on them. Presley gave Scatter bourbon and loved to dress him up in a chauffeur's uniform. But as he grew older, Scatter became too unruly even for Presley and was sent back to Graceland, where he lived out his final days with little companionship in an air-conditioned cage.
2. Tiger Attacks Vegas Entertainer
Roy Horn grew up loving exotic animals in Nordenham, Germany. As a child, he would regularly visit the Bremen Zoo, where he spent time with a cheetah named Chico. Horn would make catlike noises to Chico and eventually bonded with the animal enough that the zoo handlers allowed him to feed and care for it. Horn even took Chico for walks as their bond strengthened and eventually smuggled him out of the zoo and onto an ocean liner where he was working as a waiter. It was on that ship that Roy met Siegfried Fischbacher, the ship entertainer. Roy convinced Siegfried to add Chico to his act, and the entertaining duo Siegfried and Roy was born.
After 50 years of performing with Siegfried, mostly in Las Vegas, Horn was severely injured by one of his tigers, Montecore, during a performance in 2003. Horn had trained Montecore since he was a cub and begged authorities not to hurt the tiger after the mauling. After this near-fatal attack, Siegfried and Roy performed one last show in 2010 and officially said farewell to show business. They continue to promote animal conservation and have an open-air habitat and nursery in Las Vegas.
1. The Heart of a Lion
If you haven't seen the YouTube video of the 1972 reunion between a lion and his two human caretakers, then you've probably just discovered the Internet. This clip gained international notoriety in 2008 and tells the story of John Rendall, Ace Bourke and a lion cub called Christian. Although the story was just recently discovered, it all began in 1969 in London, when Rendall and Bourke found an energetic 3-month-old lion cub for sale at Harrod's department store and brought him home to live in the basement of the furniture store at which they worked.
Christian soon formed a bond with his new owners and liked to travel with them in the back of their Bentley. As much as Rendall and Bourke loved Christian, they realized he was quickly outgrowing his surroundings and began looking for a more suitable, permanent home for the lion. Refusing to sentence Christian to a captive life in a zoo or circus, they searched until they met actors Bill Tavers and Virginia McKenna, who introduced them to lion conservationist George Adamson.
After many months of negotiating with the Kenyan government, Christian finally got approval to move to the Kora Nature Reserve in Nairobi, Kenya. There, Adamson began the process of acclimating Christian to the wild with two other lions -- an orphaned cub and another adult male. Rendall and Bourke returned a year later, which is when the now famous reunion was filmed. They did have one last visit with Christian in 1974, but he was never seen again after that. According to Adamson, Christian had completely assimilated into the wild and finally become the king of his pride.