RIGA - Dogs and cats have long been fashionable in Latvia. But now there's a new trend: exotic pets. According to Evija Stankevica, a biologist who works as chief of the diagnostic laboratory in Dzivnieku Veselibas Centrs (Animal Health Center), there are many reasons for this trend toward exotic pets, such as pet owners wishing to express their individuality. Stankevica, an animal lover herself who shares her home with two dogs, a cat (saved from euthanasia), a guinea pig, a rat, two Middle Asian turtles and an iguana, warns of the necessity to think carefully before adopting any pets; but particularly before acquiring an exotic pet.
"Always check with a pet health care professional prior to adopting an exotic pet," she warns, "not only because exotic pets have special needs that are generally not explained by pet store employees, but also because such pets can carry communicable diseases."
I suddenly have a nagging thought: The desire to make a fashion statement or announce one's individuality through a pet is not the stuff that long-term relationships are made of. Ultimately these are living creatures with their own preferences and behaviors and frequently they have special requirements.
So how do these relationships between exotic pets and their owners work?
I decide to find out.
I first interview Liva, an outgoing 18-year old girl living outside of Riga.
"I wanted somebody who waited for me to come home. But, since I live in a small flat with my parents 's who wouldn't accept a pet running around 's I needed an animal that would live in my room. Also I'm very busy and have limited time," Liva explains.
"I dreamed of a parrot from the age of seven," she continues. "Parrots are interested in people. They want to know what's going on around them."
Liva bought Zako, an African Gray parrot, two years ago and expects to live together with him for the next 50 years. Because of the African Gray's long life expectancy, Liva understood the commitment that she was making when she purchased Zako.
A year after Zako moved into Liva's room, he learned to open his cage and now spends his time sitting on top of the cage, going inside only to eat. He is still not speaking but Liva says, "We have time for him to speak. I don't want to hurry our relationship. He probably had stress getting to Latvia and now I just want him to feel comfortable."
Impressed with Liva's acceptance of her bird's needs, I get in my car and drive to an estate outside of Cesis to visit with Kristiana Aigare and Kristaps Blaus, owners of a very different variety of exotic pet.
Whereas Liva had purchased her pet after years of deliberation, Blaus' and Aigare's decision was much more spontaneous.
"I saw llamas on television a while back and I immediately wanted them!" Blaus says, looking fondly at his menagerie, who affectionately circle around him receiving scratches and vitamin-fortified food.
"I was the first person to import llamas into Latvia. Initially I was trying to get them from America," he continues. "It seemed impossible, so I went to England and found I could get them from Germany. They arrived last autumn."
Tiger, his mates Ellen and Doris, their children Rudolph and Lilo and several other male llamas now share Aigare's and Blaus' estate, which includes a guesthouse.
"Some guests are shocked to see the llamas since their [the llamas'] motherland is South America, but the guests absolutely love them," Blaus says.
Blaus tells me that llamas are generally quite sensitive but each one has a distinct personality. Aigare and Blaus are only now getting to understand the animals' body language and how to best meet the llamas' needs.
Llamas are friendly toward people, even approaching me for a pet or scratch, but they have an inner social system that can get quite messy. When annoyed, llamas may spit a foul smelling saliva, kick or even bite one another.
Aigare tells me that Doris became angry with Ellen one day and spat at her. Ellen walked around for a full 15 minutes with her long eyelashes down and her bottom lip in a pout.
Doris is the leader; where she goes the rest follow. As I watch them eating, I also come to understand that Doris has her own rule for table etiquette: I eat first and if there's any left you guys can have some. And Doris has quite an appetite.
As I prepare to leave I sense the love and respect that exists between these animals and their humans 's the same respect that Liva has for Jako. And I think, no matter what motivation lies behind acquiring an exotic pet, commitment to understanding them and respecting their individual natures is probably the key to a successful relationship.