Off the Leash

Steve Burk wants to call his "dog." So he starts growling, barking, and grunting. "SASHA!" he shouts, clapping his hands. "RRrrrrrrr! GRRRRRRRR!"

Sasha saunters around the corner. At 75 pounds, two-year old Sasha isn't quite full-grown. He's no ordinary dog: Even as an adolescent, Sasha is incredibly strong. He can leap 10 feet in an effortless glide. He can run up to 50 mph.

Actually he's not a dog at all, except in Burk's eyes: This is genus felis, not canis. Sasha is a Russian lynx living in Southwest Ranches.

Sasha sweeps nervously from room to room in Steve and Barbara Burk's home. He never really closes his mouth — all the better to see his formidable teeth, including two intimidating fangs. With a bobcat's half-tail, a leopard's spots, a lion's mane, and cold, impassive blue eyes, he looks sleek, beautiful, immensely dangerous.

It took a vet nearly three hours to declaw Sasha's pot-holder sized front paws. Without the surgery, he'd be unmanageable as a house pet. "His claws were like razor blades," Barbara says.

One small room in the house is devoted to Sasha's litter box, which resembles a square kiddie pool filled with sand and his prodigious poops. "He always makes in there," says Barbara Burk. "But sometimes he decides he wants to pee in different places."

That might explain the off-odor in the Burks' otherwise impressive home, which sits at the end of a long cobblestone driveway complete with a fountain and koi pond. The Burk residence often harbors a sharp, disturbing whiff of the wild.

Exotic animal lovers can be broken down into two basic camps. There are those in search of a cuddly companion animal to give and receive affection, but who also have a hankering for something out of the ordinary.

Then there are those seeking simply the novelty factor. At a recent reptile show at Flamingo Gardens in Davie, exhibitors were heard using the phrase, "Be the first on your block... "

Those in the first camp will gravitate toward canines, felines, primates, and mammals like squirrels and hedgehogs. Those truly needing the novelty fix will tend toward any flavor of the month, and big pet trends come and go like ringtones. What's big one year is often a trivia question the next. Remember the potbellied pig?

South Florida's climate is perfect for cold-blooded reptiles, and the penchant for latching onto trends with ferocity (plastic surgery, McMansions, SUVs) give it a Mecca-like appeal.

Two years ago, cool-looking crested geckos and colorful leopard geckos were all the rage and fetched the highest prices. Albino boa constrictors that were going for $10,000 are now available for one-tenth that.

Evidence that the novelty is winning out exists in this season's hottest item: ball pythons. Named for their ability to curl themselves into the tightest, most compact package possible, ball pythons are big because they're a genetic tabula rasa for breeders. By breeding the snakes specifically for the brightest or oddest color combination, keepers select for specific traits and will breed siblings together or parents with offspring, just to bring about the wildest "color morph" possible.

"Whoever can do that can profit immensely from it for a few years," says Michael Pata, who has owned Animal Mania pet store in Fort Lauderdale for a decade and a half.

Just as tattoos were for sailors and ex-cons 25 years ago, and body piercings were virtually unheard of, the realm of exotic pets is edging into the mainstream. In a nod to South Florida, perhaps, iguanas as pets were one of the first fads of pet-ownership-cum-shock-inducement.

"People get bored with one thing," says Lt. Patrick Reynolds of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. His title is "wildlife inspector," though he notes that the agency has found a new niche monitoring exotic pets. "Before iguanas were on the scene it was all kittycats and puppydogs. Maybe a canary."

Now, animals that would have been unthinkable as house pets a decade or two ago are for sale in stores, even big pet supercenters. Exotic pet ownership now comes with all the trappings of a trend swayed by impulsivity, insecurity, and vanity. When one possesses more of an instinct for profiling (coupled with disposable income) than smarts, it's usually the animal who suffers.

The inside of the Burks' home, which is almost palatial in its airy spaciousness, overlooking a tranquil pool and acres of open space, is almost devoid of furniture. What remains, Sasha hasn't been kind to. The living room, dining room, and foyer are nearly empty. In a swift, silent leap that seems to come from nowhere, Sasha soars from floor to bar stool to countertop in one fluid, impossibly graceful motion. He used to leap to the top of the kitchen cabinets, which eventually collapsed under his weight.

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Jeff Stratton
Contact: Jeff Stratton