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Online bonus article—Cute or Catastrophic: Officer Safety in Encounters with Exotic Species

John M. Sellar, OBE, Organized Crime Consultant, IACP Environmental Crimes Committee

Law enforcement officials throughout the world have increasingly become aware of risks to officer’s health and safety through contact with people, chemicals, and explosive materials that can occur during routine patrols and focused investigations. Examples of the more unusual, but serious, risks faced by officers include exposure to diseases such as HIV, hepatitis, or tuberculosis through human blood or breath; exposure to dangerous chemicals through illegal drug laboratories and the manufacture of methamphetamine and other illicit substances; and exposure to explosives associated with extremist groups or active shooter events. Most law enforcement agencies train their officers to be aware of such risks and to know the appropriate steps to minimize such risks. Yet many of those same agencies are unaware of or untrained in the risks to officer safety through exposure to exotic species.

Some law enforcement officials, such as game wardens or U.S. Fish and Wildlife Special Agents, come into physical contact with exotic animals and plants as part of their duties. However, every police officer might encounter exotic species during routine visits to private dwellings, to business premises, or even on traffic stops. As the popularity of owning rare animals and plants increases, so does the hazard to everyone who does not appreciate the risk. Indeed, these risks became apparent in the fall of 2011, when sheriff’s deputies had to respond to escaped animals from a private zoo in Zanesville, Ohio.1 Fortunately, no officers were injured in that incident, but it demonstrates that the possibility of police-wildlife encounters is real.

There is a very material risk in these encounters, as well, which is aggravated by the fact that many animals can appear attractive and harmless. It is important that officers keep in mind that those animals, which may not appear dangerous, might need to be kept at greater distance than is immediately appreciated.

A major risk is not necessarily an animal striking the officer, but what it “communicates” to officers. Many species are hosts to diseases, and it is not uncommon for them to be carriers that, although infected, have little or no noticeable symptoms. However, carriers can still pass on their infections, to other animals, humans, or both.

Some of the zoonosis (animal-carried diseases) that can be passed to humans include the following:

  • Ebola
  • Marburg virus (green monkey disease)
  • Hepatitis A and B
  • Simian deficiency virus (Primate HIV)
  • Psittacosis (parrot fever)
  • Aspergillosis
  • Botulism
  • Salmonella

Of the above, Ebola is the most dangerous. It usually occurs in primates, and there is currently no known cure if it transfers to humans, in which it is invariably fatal.

It’s also important to note the risks, disease-related and otherwise, that accompany encounters with some of the most common exotic animal groups.


Birds can bite or peck in a very vicious manner, which can cause serious wounds, and birds of prey (e.g., eagles, hawks, falcons, owls) have sharp talons that can inflict very severe and deep wounds. However, all birds have “feet” that can cause scratches, which may become infected.

One of the less obvious risks posed by birds is the presence of disease in their feces, which can be faced during encounters with species such as parrots. Parrots deposit infected droppings at the bottom of their cages and, if the cages are not cleaned regularly, the feces will dry up and turn into a dust that, when stirred up, can be inhaled. In one case, a British Customs officer inhaled such dust while inspecting a shipment of parrots declared for import and become so ill that he was permanently disabled and had to take early retirement.2

Reptiles and Amphibians

Reptiles can bite and scratch. Not only might the bites of some species transfer venom, the saliva of some reptiles contains diseases such as salmonella. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking that the “biting end” is the most dangerous, but larger reptiles, such as alligators, caimans, and crocodiles, can use their tails with considerable force—enough to break human limbs. Some large snakes can crush a human body enough to break bones or inhibit breathing to the point of suffocation. Additionally, several species of reptiles have abrasive skin or quills, which can be venomous or cause wounds that could become infected.

The bodies of some amphibians, including several frog species from Central and South America, are covered in a type of mucus that is poisonous or can cause hallucinogenic reactions in humans. Some forms of mucus can be absorbed through human skin, so mere contact with the species can cause harm, and some of these creatures can be lethal.


Large cats, such as leopards, jaguars, and tigers, can obviously bite and scratch and can do so very powerfully. This is true even for juveniles. Cats strike suddenly and with great speed and force; a single blow from a tiger’s paw, which will often be aimed at its target’s head, can cause loss of consciousness or death.

It’s important to recognize and watch for warning signs, such as a cat flattening its ears toward the back of its neck, which indicates an imminent leap or strike. Also, officers should never run from a large cat; it is used to chasing down its prey.


As mentioned earlier, some primates carry highly infectious and dangerous diseases, which can be passed in a variety of ways, including scratches and bites. Some primates spit if someone comes too close, and their saliva may be infected. People are used to seeing chimpanzees and monkeys on television or in the movies, and they often seem to be affectionate and are regularly depicted being cuddled or clinging on to humans.

In fact, chimpanzees can be extremely aggressive and unpredictable. In one widely reported case in the United States, a chimpanzee that was being kept as a pet attacked a woman and literally tore her face off. It also chewed the victim’s fingers so badly they were all lost.3

Orangutans are another primate regularly pictured in close, friendly contact with humans; however, officers need to be aware that these animals, especially adolescent or mature males, can be extremely powerful and dangerous.


While they won’t actively attack people, some plants secrete toxic or corrosive substances or may have sharp spines and needles—some of which are so fine that they will not be immediately apparent. Plants may also have been treated with chemicals or pesticides that can be hazardous to humans.

Officers must be especially careful if they encounter large timber shipments, particularly if the timber is in containers or closed environments, such as warehouses or sheds. Pentachlorophenol, a biocide and wood preservative historically used in treating logs and felled trees, is now banned because it is highly carcinogenic and can be inhaled, but the chemical remains in use in some parts of the world, unfortunately.4 Border control officers in the developed world regularly sample the atmosphere in timber shipment containers for the presence of this chemical before opening them for a physical inspection, an action that should be considered by any officers in similar situations.

Hunting Trophies

It’s not only living species that can pose dangers to officers. The head or other parts of a dead animal, mounted and hung on a wall or being transported, might seem harmless, but these may have been treated with toxic chemicals during taxidermy. Just as officers don’t sniff the powder found in a suspect’s pocket, they need to be careful about inhaling any dust or particles given off by hunting trophies and take precautions if they handle them. Officers must bear in mind that the animal may have sharp horns and claws attached that are still dangerous. Additionally, antique trophies may be especially hazardous, as arsenic was often used by taxidermists in the past.

General Precautions

Globalization, coupled with increased interest in possessing exotic species, means that law enforcement officers are increasingly likely to come into contact with such species during routine patrols as well as during investigations of criminal gangs and organizations that may use dogs or exotic species for protection and guarding illicit products. Consequently, officers should be trained in basic protective steps to minimize risks in such encounters.

It’s important that officers be wary of the advice from those in possession of wildlife. “Oh, she’s really friendly” may sound reassuring, but keep in mind that the same was probably said about the chimpanzee that ripped the woman’s face off. The animal owner may also provide deliberately misleading guidance to the police.

Obviously hazardous animals, such as snakes, have often been used in the past to deter close inspection by enforcement agents. For example, narcotics and weapons have been discovered inside cages. Officers must be cautious about allowing the owner to hold the animal while its cage or tank is checked; the animal may be thrown at the officers or encouraged to attack them.

If a situation requires officers to seize or deal with wildlife, they should call an expert to either handle the animals or to provide advice before they do so.

It’s important, too, that officers are trained to always wash their hands after handling animals or plants, either immediately after or as soon as possible, and to wash any clothing that has become dirty or stained.

Officer safety is a constant theme in much of today’s law enforcement training. Officers today take greater care in approaching suspects, executing search warrants, and conducting traffic stops than their forebears. People are often animal-lovers, but unusual coloring or features should not encourage people, including officers, to move forward to look more closely. The field is not the Discovery Channel, and officers need to be trained in the risks involved in encountering exotic species.

1Josh Jarman, Quan Truong, Jim Woods, and Brenda Jackson, “Sheriff: 56 exotic animals escaped from farm near Zanesville; 49 killed by authorities,” The Columbus Dispatch, October 19, 2011,; Christina Caron, “Zanesville Animal Massacre Included 18 Rare Bengal Tigers,” ABC News and Good Morning America, October 19, 2011, (both accessed April 10, 2014).
2Customs official, personal conversation.
3Lara Salahi, “Charla Nash Talks Chimp Attack, Recovery,” Medical Unit, ABC News, Feb 28, 2012, (accessed April 10, 2014).
4“Pentachlorophenol,” Air Toxics Web Site, EPA, (accessed April 14, 2014).

John M. Sellar OBE is an Organized Crime consultant who previously worked with the Scottish Police and United Nations for a total of 38 years. He is a member of the IACP Environmental Crimes Committee.

Please cite as:

John M. Sellar, “Cute or Catastrophic: Officer Safety in Encounters with Exotic Species,” The Police Chief 81 (May 2014): web-only article.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 5, May 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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