For renters with exotic pets, it’s a jungle in here

July 3

Finding a place to rent is never an easy task for Ethan Hutton, 33, who has a dog, a cat, two birds and two geckos. He lives in an apartment in Hyattsville, Md. (Jason Hornick/For Express)

Think it’s hard finding an apartment when you have a dog or cat? Imagine if Fluffy had scales — or feathers.

“It just limits probably 80 percent of the housing possibilities,” says Ethan Hutton, 33. “You just can’t live there.”

He lives in a two-bedroom basement apartment in Hyattsville, Md., with a dog, Lady; a cat, Delilah; a parrot, Sky; a parakeet, Skeeter; and two geckos, Witch and Wizard Lizard. (He’s also fostering a parakeet.)

A serious animal lover who used to work at the National Zoo, Hutton says he knows six pets — all rescues — is a lot, but it’s still tough for him not to bring home more rescues. “I wanted to save them all, and knew I couldn’t,” he says. Among other reasons, it’s already a stretch finding a landlord willing to take on his crew.

The hurdles to rentership can be many, even for those who share their space with just a goldfish. But Washingtonians who own exotic fauna — reptiles, birds, rodents — can struggle to find a place at all. Not all apartment buildings accept pets, and fewer still allow unusual ones.

Asked if he’s ever thought about reducing his menagerie to make it easier to find a rental, Hutton bristles.

“It just never was an option,” he says. “You wouldn’t tell a family that had three kids, ‘Hey, why don’t you just get rid of your kids?’ ”

Some exotic-pet owners don’t feel quite as strongly — or they simply are left without a choice. Of the past 70-odd exotic pets surrendered to her organization, about a dozen were given up because of landlord issues, says Marika Bell of the Washington Humane Society.

“We do get exotics in on a fairly regular basis,” she says, noting that snakes are probably the most common. The group either puts those animals up for adoption or asks a local rescue group that focuses on that breed to take them in.

One option for renters whose landlords don’t like their pets is to seek a foster home for the pets while they look for a new place, Bell says. The Humane Society has set up a website (fosteradcpet.com) to help facilitate those exchanges.

Finding a landlord that accepts exotic pets can be difficult. Private homeowners tend to be more flexible on pets than corporate management companies, Bell says. “If you go with a big company, it’s almost impossible to get them to change their minds,” she says.

That’s due in large part to company-wide policies. Take Avalon Bay, for example, which runs nearly a dozen properties in the region. Company policy allows dogs, cats and birds, but not snakes or lizards, spokesman Richard Wolff says. There are restrictions on some dog breeds and no resident may have more than two pets, he says.

Even if a pet isn’t expressly forbidden by a pet policy, you have to be careful, as ChristieLyn Diller, 32, of the Washington Humane Society, learned. She was living in a company-managed building in New York when she adopted a rat.

“They’re not the kind of pets where you pay the pet fee,” so she didn’t notify the building, she says.

Someone, well, ratted her out after entering her unit to make repairs. “It was sort of an immediate, ‘[It needs] to go or you need to go,’ ” she says. She gave up that rat, but got two more when she moved to the D.C. area. (She now owns a home in Baltimore.)

Be proactive about being a good neighbor, too, to avoid ruffling your neighbor’s feathers. Keeping noise under control is a primary concern for Arialle Hence, 26, who lives in a town house in Crawford, Md., and owns a parrot, Chloe.

“As long as I don’t get a noise complaint and she stays in her cage when she’s not being monitored, I don’t have a problem,” she says of her white-capped pionus.

Choosing the right type of home can make it easier for renters with exotic pets. Hutton says his parrots can be noisy, so he always looks for a basement or freestanding house. But even that solution isn’t always perfect: Once, when he landed a house in Mount Rainier, Md., that was ideal for his animals, he struggled to find roommates who would both accept his pets and reliably pay their bills.

“I was really worried about leaving that house, because I knew it would be difficult to find another place,” he says.

Hutton says landlords are often uncertain about the six animals he calls his “kids” — and not just the exotics. “A lot of people just say, ‘No pets.’ And it’s not even a debate.”

Diller says she thinks the challenges she faced as a renter with rats were often about ignorance.

“I have run into trouble with landlords primarily because they just don’t like them or they don’t understand them,” she says of her rats, Mabel and Rosie, which she describes as fantastic pets: intelligent, social and cuddly.

Owners and managers might fear a mess or noise, she says, but “any responsible pet owner works to make sure that’s not the issue.” BETH COPE (FOR EXPRESS)

The Legal Side

The laws for tenants with exotic pets are pretty straightforward: It’s all about the lease.
“When you sign the lease, you’re agreeing to those terms,” says Joel Cohn, legislative director of D.C.’s Office of the Tenant Advocate. In other words, don’t bring home a snake when you’ve signed a lease saying only cats and dogs are allowed.
But what if the lease says nothing about animals? Cohn says you might win a legal case in that situation, but why take the risk? “It’s always a good idea to check with the landlord” first, he says.
Cohn also notes that there are plenty of animals that D.C. residents are allowed to keep as pets: domestic dogs, cats, rodents and rabbits, “captive-bred species of common cage birds,” nonpoisonous snakes, fish, turtles and even racing
pigeons.

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