Chris Weller wears one of those alarm bracelets that elderly people wear if they need to send for help in the event of a fall. He must be the only person who wears it as a precaution in case his pet crocodile attacks.
Not that Caesar, the 6ft-long caiman with whom he has shared his bungalow for nine years, has ever shown the slightest hint of aggression.
“He’s relaxed. He never gets upset about anything. He’s nice company. He responds to his name and will come up to you with his mouth open like a dog. Sometimes you get a grunt.”
The spectacled caiman — native to South America but in the case of Caesar bought as a juvenile from a specialist shop in Kent — is one of thousands of dangerous, wild or exotic animals living at private properties or on private land throughout the UK.
There are tigers and lions in the West Midlands, pumas in Swansea, black widow spiders in Stoke-on-Trent, tapirs in King’s Lynn, cheetahs in Northern Ireland and bison near Aberdeen.
Many of these creatures, which all require a dangerous wild animal licence from the local council, belong to people who run circuses, rescue centres or small wildlife sanctuaries.
Others belong to enthusiasts. Mr Weller, 69, has spent about £20,000 converting his home in Strood. The conservatory is an 8ftx8ft pool. The dining room is his “land area”. A stable door allows the caiman free passage through parts of the house. “Sometimes we pass each other in the hallway,” said Mr Weller. “He’s walking in one direction, I’m walking in the other. As long as you respect him, he respects you. We’re used to each other’s ways.”
Mr Weller lives alone — or, at least, not with anyone of his own species. He also has three parrots, a cockatiel, a cockatoo, five ponds of fish and several terrapins. A monitor lizard, Monty, lives in the bedroom, restricting the human habitat to a tiny loft conversion, where Mr Weller sleeps above the menagerie.
“Caesar is really clever. If he wants to watch TV, he lays his head on a cushion in one spot. If he wants to listen to the radio, he lays his head on another spot.” (He likes Classic FM and his favourite video is of animals in the jungle.)
Every so often, on hot, sunny days, he bellows, says Mr Weller. “It’s like a roar underwater. I think he’s trying to attract a lady, but I have to tell him there are no ladies around here for him. We have quite a good laugh.”
Mr Weller claims that the neighbours don’t mind. They are possibly reassured that he spent 40 years as a prison officer at HMP Rochester, so the chances of Caesar making a bungalow-break are slim. “You’re much more likely to get bitten by a dog than a crocodile,” said Mr Weller, who renews his £350 licence every 18 months.
Animal welfare groups complain that restrictions don’t place enough emphasis on the health and wellbeing of the creatures. The RSPCA said it was deeply concerned about the number of wild animals kept across the country, after details of all the licences were revealed earlier this week.
Last December two caimans, two monitor lizards, one gecko, three iguanas, five tarantulas and several snakes, including an anaconda and a juvenile python, were found dead in a lock-up garage in London.
DWA licence holders such as Mr Weller argue that those committing such cruelty are the ones on the unlicensed black market, not those who go to the bother and expense of winning a licence and maintaining it.
“It’s not everyone’s cup of tea,” said Mr Weller. (Beyond going out for essentials, he can’t really leave the house, though he doesn’t seem to mind.) “It takes a lot of expertise.”
There are wolves registered to 15 addresses in the UK. Phil Watson and Caroline Elliott keep two of them, sisters named Kaya and Aiyana, in a secure field in Bedfordshire. Their wolves were hand-reared as cubs. “You used to be able to walk into Harrods and walk out with a cheetah, but now it’s so difficult to get hold of these animals,” Mr Watson said. “If you break the rules, the authorities would be on the case.”
He estimates that it costs £10,000 a year for security, including 24-hour CCTV, infrared lights, floodlights, and a steady diet of chicken and beef.
Ms Elliott said that the word “pet” was misleading. “You’d have to be a lunatic to keep a dangerous animal as a pet,” she said. Kaya and Aiyana are much more to her than that, she said. “It’s a privilege to share my world with these beautiful creatures.”