Onuekwusi and her friend, a Delta State native, have been good friends right from their university days in Ogun State before the latter travelled to Canada for higher education, staying back to work and eventually establishing a successful business. The Ikoyi edifice is one of Mark’s three properties in reserved neighbourhoods in Lagos; Asaba, capital of Delta; and Abuja – a testament to how ‘sweet’ Canada has been for him.
While the others are occupied by tenants, the Lagos property is entirely inhabited by him, serving as his base whenever he is in the country. It is within its cozy enclosure that he displays his love for nature and everything related to it.
A lover of solid automobiles, the 45-year-old’s deep pockets can be easily felt by the types of cars littering the premises. But beyond these, the compound is also home to a handful of exotic possessions – something now common in many such homes across the country.
“If not for the beautiful nature of the structure and how neat the place is, I would have mistaken the compound to be an animal sanctuary when I visited Mark around Christmas,” Onuekwusi said while narrating her experience during an encounter with our correspondent.
“Immediately I got in, I was greeted by the sight of a baby baboon and ostrich and wanted to run back, but the security guard allayed my fears. I thought that was all but never imagined that something scarier was in fact waiting for me inside.
“A few minutes after the steward welcomed me into the living room and I sat waiting for Mark to come downstairs, I felt something huge and cold sliding on my feet. When I looked to see what it was, it turned out to be a python. The shock I felt inside me was so intense that I nearly collapsed. Before the steward could explain to me that the snake would not harm me, I was already outside the living room, hiding somewhere around the kitchen. It was Mark who later came down to assure me that nothing was going to happen to me. It remains one of the scariest moments of my life,” she added.
According to the boutique operator, her friend and host – Mark – later wrapped the python, named Tracy, round his body, softly caressing its head and back while the snake slithered calmly. She said throughout the time she spent at Mark’s house, he and his pet were never far from each other.
“Mark and the python were like two people madly in love,” the 40-year-old cut in sharply as she continued her narrative.
“Throughout the time I spent with him that day, the huge snake was wrapped around his body. He said the two-year-old animal was his closest companion whenever he was at home in Lagos from Canada. Even though the baboon and ostrich enjoyed his attention a lot too, it was the python that appeared to be his favourite pet. The fear the experience gave me has yet to leave because it was the first time I would see such dangerous animals in a domestic setting,” she said.
Interestingly, animals of such nature are increasingly finding comfort in the homes of individuals, who can afford such ‘luxury’ in many parts of Nigeria today, findings by Saturday PUNCH have revealed.
For example, while some, in a bid to stand out from the crowd, opt for special breeds of dogs and cats, many have taken the trend a notch higher by going in favour of dangerous and wild animals like crocodiles, alligators, pythons, tigers, hyena and even lions. Not minding the dangers these may pose for their safety, individuals with the resources have continued to pamper such exotic pets with care, spending decent amounts on their upkeep each month.
“I spend at least around N150, 000 on food and vaccine every month for my two tigers,” Prebo Georgewill, a 41-year-old auto dealer in Port Harcourt, Rivers State, revealed during a chat with our correspondent earlier in the week.
“I bought the two for N2.1m from an Italian friend, who was moving back to his country last year, the tigers were a little over a year old then. I had to employ the person keeping it for my friend to take care of them. It took a while, through the help of the keeper, for the tigers to get used to me.
“They are very adorable pets, I’ve always loved tigers and now that I have them, they have become a huge part of me. I named one Marcus and the other, Marvin. They are very interesting to have around and have never shown any aggressive behaviour towards me or others living in the house. Once they take you as a friend, they don’t harm you,” he told our correspondent during a telephone conversation.
Like Georgewill, popular music video director, Sesan Ogunro, also boasts of having a tiger as pet.
For instance, he once shared a post on Twitter, which he captioned: ‘My new pet! #scarface mode’. In the post, the entrepreneur was seen squatting next to the big cat, which appeared totally harmless. Saturday PUNCH reached out to him to find out what inspired him to take a tiger as pet, and to also know how the experience has been living with the wild cat, but he had yet to reply the message as of the time of filing this report.
Apart from Ogunro, a number of known names either in the entertainment industry or others have equally been reputed for owning exotic pets – animals traditionally considered rare, undomesticated and too dangerous to have as pets.
For instance, in December 2017, a Lagos socialite – Pretty Mike – became the topic of discussion when he posted photographs of him and his pet, a python, taking a bath together. The snake he later named ‘Toke Makinwa’, is some metres long and quite intimidating in size. Mike said the reptile was a big part of his life and not as dangerous as a lot of people actually thought.
“I think that a lot of people do not understand the python,” the Lagos club owner once accused of putting girls on a leach, said, “In our culture, we are taught that snakes are poisonous and dangerous but in the snake family, python is the only snake that has no venom; it is not poisonous. This is something I would like to educate people about. With the level of education in the country, we are still ignorant about certain things.
“I take a bath with the snake because it is my pet. I am sure a person is allowed to do whatever he likes with his pet. I take showers regularly with my pet; we eat together and go out together. It is my pet and I should not treat it lesser than I would do my pet puppy or cat. I feel like if I do that, I am discriminating against it (sic),” he added.
A huge fan of unusual and wild animals, Femi Adeleke lost his relationship of over three years the day he acquired an alligator as pet in 2014. Based in Abeokuta, Ogun State, the geologist told Saturday PUNCH that his insistence on bringing the reptile into their home, forced the lady to walk out of the relationship less than a year before they were married.
“As a young boy, I owned dogs, cats, parrots, monkeys and other animals more familiar with humans as pets but during the early days of my youth, I began to yearn for more, something different. That was where I picked up interest in wild animals.
“Before I bought the alligator in 2014, I used to have a baby deer but later sold it because it was falling ill often. My ex and I started having problems from the first day I acquired the alligator and told her I was bringing it home as pet. She quarrelled with me a lot but eventually left me after failing to persuade me to drop the idea. She told me that if I was not careful, the animal was going to kill and eat me if I continued to keep it as pet.
“I am happy to say that ‘Jay’ has been with me since that period and has not attacked me for once. Instead, the two of us have become very good friends. Whenever it needs my attention, it scratches on the door and window; I come out to attend to it if I’m around.
“The truth is that once you feed animals well, whether wild or not, they’ll like and treat you as a friend. I don’t joke with Jay at all and that is why the two of us are still friends. The woman in my life accepted the two of us and that is why we are still together. She is also a pet lover,” he said.
Growing market for exotic pets
While adopting wild and dangerous animals as pet has become a growing trend among many Nigerians, the situation appears to have created a big industry for smart business people, who have continued to take advantage of the opportunities presented to make money. The practice has gained momentum to the extent that exotic pets like python, alligator, tiger and even terrestrial tortoise can even be bought online in Nigeria.
While revealing how he has made decent earnings servicing the appetite of exotic animal lovers in the country, Shedrack, one dealer of such ‘luxury’ items on popular online trading platform – Jiji – revealed that there was no week that he did not get a minimum of four requests for adult pythons from clients.
“On a regular basis, I get calls from people interested in buying pythons as pets,” he said during a telephone conversation with our correspondent this week.
“I was introduced to this business by an uncle six years ago and there is no week that at least, I’ll not get such requests from four people. If I don’t have the quantity they want, I simply contact colleagues in the business to source for more.
“Presently, I have only one adult python and it costs N50, 000. It is a little over two years old,” he added.
Asked how he sources for these giant snakes and the strategy he adopts in nurturing the reptiles before they are sold, the man became a bit evasive, telling our correspondent to look elsewhere for more information as such was top secret for those in the business.
“What I can tell you is that I buy the snakes from hunters when they are baby snakes for about N20, 000, nurture them to become adult pythons before selling them. I can’t give you any further information because it is supposed to be our secret. I am sorry,” he said, before hanging up.
Another dealer in such animals on the popular online platform, Adewunmi Shiyanbade, said the growing number of lovers of exotic pets in Nigeria has ensured that they never run out of clients.
According to him, he gets an average of 10 requests for different types of animals from all parts of the country every week.
“The alligators we have are about eight months old; they are still young. Apart from alligators, we have other kinds of exotic animals that we also sell. Taking care of each animal depends on their habitat.
“We buy these animals from hunters and nurture them. Different hunters go after different animals; so once they have them, they call us. I buy all kinds of animals, nurture and sell to those who are interested. I have a white python too at the moment,” he said.
Joshua Olawuyi, a young farmer based in Ilesa, Osun State, also trades in exotic pets, especially terrestrial tortoises on Jiji and other online stores. When contacted by Saturday PUNCH, he revealed that there had been no cause to regret since he ventured into that line of business.
“I have at least two adult tortoises at the moment; they are above 50 years old. I bought them from someone with the intention to nurture and resell. I have been in this business for more than five years since my father, who is into farming; introduced me to it.
“What we read about tortoises in story books really aroused my interest in rearing the animal. I realised that everything we read about the animal was true. Tortoises love yam porridge a lot.
“They are very intelligent animals and that’s why some people like to have them as pets. I sold two tortoises recently, they are not cheap. The ones I have now costs N400, 000 each because they are very big. Apart from schools and zoos, celebrities are some of my biggest clients.
“The truth is that nurturing and selling exotic animals requires a lot of money. Personally, looking at the lucrative nature of the business, I’ll love to add other animals to my collection but it all depends on money.
“To start this business on a small scale, one won’t have less than N1m. But there is good profit in it, for example baby tortoises cost between N15, 000 and N50, 000. It is serious business.
“Tortoises are interesting to have around. The big ones can even carry two people on their back while moving around,” he said.
Confirming that exotic pets business is now growing in Nigeria, an expert in the field, Kenneth Umedi, told Saturday PUNCH that with the growing demand for such rare animals, the market can only expand in the country.
“The exotic animal business can be rewarding. Apart from raising them as pets, others nurture them for tourism purposes which can bring in a lot of money. “Although, there is a good profit potential, expensive animals require more care and closer attention than ordinary ones.
“In recent times, more Nigerians are beginning to appreciate some of these unusual animals as pets especially celebrities, traditional rulers, politicians, retired officers and other well-to-do individuals. I have had people calling and asking if I could help them get a lion or hyena as pet. It is indeed an industry that will continue to grow,” he said.
According to the Head, Department of Forestry and Natural Environment Management, University of Uyo, Akwa Ibom State, more Nigerians are beginning to appreciate the essence of exotic animals as pets, especially snakes, which he describes as not only a friendly creature, but better for providing security than dogs.
“Snakes are used as pets and for security and they are cheaper to feed than dogs.
“We get orders for snakes from individuals and organisations to be used as pets and security guards and that brings a lot of cash.
“Snakes produce more expensive products than any other animal and they are in hot demand all over the world. Everybody is against snakes but I advocate for them. I have become their senior advocate,” he said.
Though there is no data on the number of exotic pets in the homes of ‘rich’ Nigerians, the submission of experts interacted with by Saturday PUNCH reveal that indeed the figure could be higher than thought, especially with these rare animals giving traditional pets such as dogs and cats a run for their game.