• March 24, 2014

Q&A: Vince Musi and the World of Exotic Pets

Jane J. Lee

It all started with a haunted house. Or at least, a house former residents and neighbors said was haunted. When photographer Vince Musi purchased a home in 2004 on an island that once hosted Edgar Allen Poe, the residence came to life at night, but not because of demons or spirits.

Raccoons, possums, squirrels, and rats had also made Musi’s house their own. When the photographer called a guy out to trap the critters inhabiting his home, one conversation led to another, and Musi found himself taking portraits of the animals the trapper had at his own residence.

Thus the general-assignment photographer who used to cover everything from vanishing cultures, landscape driven stories, and sports found himself tackling perhaps the most challenging subjects of all—animals.

Twenty years working assignments for National Geographic magazine have led Musi to his current project, diving into the relationship between people and their exotic pets. I spoke to him about this latest assignment and whether it changed how he thought of pet ownership.

Picture of bobcat kitten and dog
Lynn Figueroa of Junglespots breeds Jungle Cat hybrids, Muntjac Deer, Kinkajous, Serval Cats, Caracals and Bobcats. When breeding the Bobcats, she exposes them to humans and other animals like her dog everyday before they are sold.

JANE LEE: Why did you take on this assignment regarding exotic pets?

VINCE MUSI: It seemed to me that it’d be a really interesting story, and it wasn’t one I’d seen done well.

 My main objective here was to lend a voice to these people in a straightforward and non-judgmental way. Not a puff piece or one that intended to be critical.  I was looking for diversity in experience, animals, and opinions. Anyone who had a direct relationship with an exotic animal.


JANE: Did you have any preconceived notions regarding what you’d find?

VINCE: No, actually. To be honest, that was one of the challenges. It’s a really hard culture to get into. There’s a lot of suspicion. Folks who readily want you to come in and talk to them, there’s often an agenda there.

I’m pretty skeptical. I really wasn’t looking for collectors. I was really looking for relationships. And honestly, I didn’t think I’d find it.

Picture of deer looking out window
Ohio veterinarian Melanie Butera took in Dillie after the blind farm deer’s mother rejected her. Dillie used to sleep with Butera but now has her own room.

JANE: What kinds of relationships did you find?

VINCE: The two extremes are Melanie Butera—she and her husband have Dillie the deer. Dillie is really one of the most extraordinary animals I’ve ever met, and their relationship is profound. Melanie has recently beat cancer and I know this animal played a huge role in helping her through that.

Melanie’s not a kook. She’s a veterinarian, and she saved this animal from being put down. She didn’t go out looking for a deer. It just happened.

The other end of that is Allison Freedman who had a monkey over 40 years old. That relationship is unbelievable in a completely different way. Allison had spent her life working around these capuchin monkeys. She really bonded with Amelia, carrying the monkey around in her pocket the whole time.

When people are dismissive of these relationships, those are the two that I think are strong and real and valuable, to humans and to those animals.

I don’t think everybody should get a deer, I don’t think everybody should get a monkey, but I will tell you, I’m glad Allison has that monkey and that Melanie has that deer.

There are a lot of bad relationships out there. I think these good folks often get lumped in with the bad ones, and they don’t get their say.

Picture of woman with chimpanzee
Pam Rosaire Zoppe and her 4 year-old chimpanzee Chance. Chance was rescued and is learning show business from Pam and her husband Roger.

JANE: Did finding these relationships surprise you?

VINCE: The only reason I wanted to do this was if I got to see the story through the perspective of these relationships. I was really interested to see what made them tick.

I was a little surprised that they worked. I could probably have worked on it for the next two years, but it would have been really difficult. When people bond with an animal like that, they don’t do too well with the outside world sometimes and it’s kind of hard to break in.


JANE: How did you break in?

VINCE: I had help. I had a fair bit of someone calling on my behalf, folks reaching out to friends. I think once people trust you they’re going to pass you along.

Robin Schwartz is one of those photographers who spends much of her time photographing these relationships and she was instrumental in the beginning. Allison [with the monkey] was also a lot of help.

And then Mary McPeak, a researcher in the photography department, she is without question, the secret weapon. You need a hedgehog at noon, she’s going to find you a hedgehog at noon. She’s as much a collaborator on my work as anyone else in the building. It’s very much a group effort.

Picture of man with dog
Tim Harrison, former public safety officer, exotic pet owner and self-proclaimed wildlife warrior at his home with his dog. Tim has owned big cats and now helps people with their exotics—either finding a home or caring for them.

JANE: Do you own a pet?

VINCE: I do not. I did have a stray cat that was shacking up with us for a while. We had two tiny frogs my son had been given for Christmas a couple years back, but they both died.


JANE: Based on your experiences on this assignment, do you think of pets or of owning pets differently than you did before?

VINCE: I am always humbled by the enormous responsibility you take on by having one of these animals. Every now and then I think about having one, but the responsibility just terrifies me.

I have a 12-year-old boy and he was pretty broken up when our cat died—it got hit by a truck. We inherited the cat from neighbors who moved away. I didn’t really like it and I kept trying to give it back. But when it got run over, we were really sad.

It’s a funny thing, but for an animal photographer, we’re not surrounded by animals. I think I could easily become a pet-owner if I were in a different line of work.

But I certainly do not have a desire for an exotic animal, although the hedgehog [on the magazine cover] was pretty cool.

Picture of sheriff
Sheriff Lutz was in charge the night Terry Thompson freed 50 exotic animals and killed himself.

JANE: Why do you think hedgehogs are cool?

VINCE: It’s a neat little animal, it’s compact, it doesn’t take up a lot of space, and they seem to have a cool personality. They don’t make a lot of noise.

It’s a very beautiful animal.

A lot of the animals we photographed, actually, they were stunning. Even the ones that were old kind of had a charm to them.

Picture of a woman and capuchin monkey
Alison Pascoe Friedman and Amelia, a 42 year-old Capuchin monkey.

JANE: Is there a photograph that didn’t make it into the print magazine that you’d like to talk about?

VINCE: Alison and Amelia the monkey, I’m very proud of that photograph.

Amelia was in bad shape—she was balding. In fact, when Robin [Schwartz] told me about Allison, she said she’s great to talk to but she will not let you photograph that monkey.

When I talked to Alison, the relationship [she had with Amelia] was so amazing, I said I’d like to come up and photograph her. And she said, I don’t know if you want to photograph her. And I said, I’d love to try.

We did it on a Friday, and Amelia died the following week.

And you say, well, what’s the value of what I did? We held that moment in the relationship between Alison and Amelia. I’m very proud of that.


Vince Musi’s photographs of exotic pets are featured in the April issue of National Geographic. View more of Musi’s work on his website.

There are 11 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Tery Gohsman
    April 6, 2014

    Some stunning pictures that capture the essence of some of the animal’s relationship with people.

    Born Free USA and the World Wildlife Fund are no different than the Christian Taliban currently trying to oversee the lives of all Americans. These groups are also know as “the better dead than fed” people, for a reason.

  2. Jenny Bender
    April 5, 2014

    What association does the hedgehog have with the exotic animals in the article? And why was it chosen for the cover?

  3. Georgette Kopac
    April 1, 2014

    Are you the Vince Musi from Ambridge?

  4. Zuzana Kukol
    March 29, 2014

    We were briefly quoted in the article, but we refused to be part of the photo-op, since we didn’t want to lose the control where our pictures might end up one day, we prefer to do our own copyrighted YT videos …Exotic Animal Owners Under Attack…

  5. littledarling
    March 28, 2014

    I’d a dog before and when she died, I broke my heart up a month. Since then I can’t accept another one.

  6. taciana
    March 27, 2014

    I wouldn’t have a wild pet, but don’t judge people who do, once it’s legal for them to do so.
    I just would like everyone who wants a wild pet to be responsible about their origins. Wild pet people who are not counscient about where the animals came from may be supporting wildlife traffic in other countries where this practice is illegal

  7. tanya
    March 26, 2014

    You should come research my,kids and I, with,our 2 wolves and shadow the fox

  8. carlos rodriques
    March 26, 2014

    My God that photo of Alison and Amelia says it all, fantastic!

  9. Aziz Ahmed
    March 26, 2014

    Superb stunning pictures. Play of light on the animals and human have created true masterpieces. The affection Alison Tim and Pam show are heavenly. I am truly impressed.

  10. cassy
    March 25, 2014

    There are some bad animal sanctuaries out there. Look at the housing — putting social animals like monkeys in individual cages is like incarcerating them. The best housing replicates, as close as reasonably possible, the animal’s natural habitat and social groupings.

  11. Kumiko Itoh
    March 24, 2014


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