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Urban Beastmasters Wild About Illegal Animals

 A 26-year-old Manhattan student named Douglas shows some of the illegal animals he owns.
Illegal Animals Living in New York
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QUEENS — New Yorkers have been hearing the call of the wild — and succumbing to it by keeping animals outlawed in the city.

The city's 311 system received 232 complaints from residents who ratted out neighbors for having illegal pets in the past year, according to records obtained by DNAinfo New York.

The hair-raising reports ranged from a roaring bobcat being housed in a Bronx rowhouse to a Brooklyn woman training two 5-foot iguanas to attack people and a monkey hanging out in a Coney Island high-rise. In a College Point basement, a man had 15 venomous spiders nesting.

But when DNAinfo spoke to some of the busted beastmasters, they made their case for why man's best friend doesn't have to come in the form of a four-legged furball with a wagging tail.

Douglas, a 26-year-old Manhattan student studying criminal justice, said he has owned a menagerie of city-banned animals — an alligator, a 7-foot albino Burmese python, two boa constrictors, two tarantulas, two ferrets and piranhas.

“I love them,” said Douglas, who agreed to speak to DNAinfo if it did not publish his last name. “They're the only things I can trust, unlike human beings. Animals, they are more predictable than people are.”

Douglas said he has been collecting exotic animals for the last 10 years after his godfather gave him a snake and a tarantula when he was a teenager living in Brownsville, Brooklyn.

“They kept me out of trouble,” he said. “I knew that I wanted to come home and take care of them. That kept me motivated to stay out of trouble.”

The snakes, he said, can be bought at reptile shows and in upstate New York. He claimed that some of his friends in New York City have even purchased tigers and a bear through a black market.

“They are more heavily into it than I am,” he said, noting that his landlord called 311 on him last summer for harboring some of the critters. He and his animals have since moved to a new apartment.

Douglas added that his wife will only let him take his animal passion so far.

“My wife, she don't like it,” he said. “I wish I could get a tiger my damn self. I told her I will when I get the money.”

Douglas insisted that while he keeps deadly pets, they are not dangerous so long as an owner properly cares for them. So far only one of his snakes has gotten loose. He later found it in a bedroom closet in a laundry bag.

“It was missing for two days. I wasn't scared but my wife was,” he said.

The city Health Department has strict rules about the kinds of animals residents can keep in the five boroughs.

While domesticated dogs and cats are allowed, the city prohibits wild animals like bears, wolves and tigers. The Health Department also bars residents from keeping farm animals like pigs and goats and many reptiles and snakes, including iguanas and pythons.

A resident who spots an illegal animal can call the city’s 311 system or file a complaint through its website. After a complaint has been filed, the city will generally follow up with a warning letter to the homeowner or landlord. In some cases, a Health Department inspector will also visit the home and issue a violation if an animal is found.

John Beckles, 22, of Crown Heights, got an unexpected visit from an inspector in July after a neighbor complained to 311 that he was keeping six falcons, which are illegal in the city. The tipster was partly right.

“It wasn’t a falcon. It was a hawk,” Beckles told DNAinfo.

Beckles said he found the hawks — which are also illegal pets — as babies in his neighborhood. He said he kept them in a cage in his backyard and raised them by feeding them chicken liver and live finches.

“I used to bring them outside and let the little kids watch them eat,” he said.

But Beckles said his love affair with the birds ended long before the Health Department searched his home. He gave the birds away to a Brooklyn friend because the hawks had grown too big and became hard to manage.

“He didn’t like other people,” Beckles said of one of the hawks. “I’m the only person that could put my hand in there and change the cage and the water.”

While 311 complainants made true claims about illegal animals, some were just crying wolf.

Take, for instance, a 311 complaint made on Sept. 29, in which a Ridgewood, Queens, resident accused a neighbor on Metropolitan Avenue of keeping a wolf in his backyard that howled all morning.

That wolf was really just a 1-year-old Siberian Husky dog named Foginho whom Carlos Taynys, 35, bought from a pet store.

“That was my husky. A wolf. You make me laugh,” Taynys said when he was told that a neighbor had sicced the city on him about his pooch.

Taynys said he kept Foginho in his backyard until someone stole the dog. Before the pup was snatched, Taynys said, a neighbor complained that Foginho made too much noise.

“Somebody around the corner, this old lady, she was complaining because the dog, every time he saw me, he started howling for me to take him for a walk,” he said.  “It was pretty big. But it was friendly.”

The Bronx also had some bogus claims.

A Hunts Point resident griped to 311 on Jan. 4, 2014, at 9:37 p.m. that an animal that sounded like a bobcat was in the ground-floor unit of a rowhouse on Gilbert Place.

“Loud barking, cracking and screaming,” the complainant reported. “Sounded like a giant animal fighting.”

A woman who answered the door at the alleged apartment appeared perplexed when a reporter asked if she owned such an animal. She called it a tall tale. However, the clear sounds of a barking dog could be heard from her unit.

In another possibly dubious 311 report, an Upper West Side resident claimed on June 28, 2013, that a neighbor living in a studio apartment on West 72nd Street had “two illegal jungle cats in the home as well as two snakes and two turtles as well as fishes in a gigantic fish tank.”

The landlord of the building, Michael Brusco, told DNAinfo that he had never received any complaints about the animals — from a resident or from the city. 

Elizabeth Walling, of Gravesend, Brooklyn, received the most illegal animal complaints to 311 in the last year — three — for harboring two 5-foot iguanas and a large raccoon on a leash.

In a Nov. 11 report, a complainant claimed Walling had “trained [the iguanas] to attack people.”

“[The] very vicious animals … are brought out to run loose when children are playing outside to attack or bite,” the complainant said.

Walling could not be reached for contact and a relative who lives on the same block declined to comment. However, neighbors from three different homes confirmed that Walling has the large reptiles. 

“She treats them like her children,” said a next-door neighbor who asked that her name not be published.

Some 311 complaints involved scaly surprises. In three separate incidents, residents contacted the city after finding their neighbors’ escaped snakes in their home.

Hyacinth Paris' run-in with nature involved an alligator.

The 73-year-old told DNAinfo that on July 22 she and her family were sitting in the backyard of their Jamaica, Queens, home when they spotted a gray foot-long 'gator moving in the grass. Paris said she hails from Caribbean and was accustomed to seeing them there, but this reptile threw her for a loop.

“In New York it's kind of strange because there is no lake where we live,” she said. “I wasn't scared, I was just curious.”

Paris said her daughter snapped a picture of the alligator, then went in her home to call Animal Care and Control and 311. She said the alligator eventually waddled toward a bush and disappeared.

“Since that day, we haven't seen it again,” she said.