A Goffin’s cockatoo, looking for some attention, pokes its beak out of a plastic enclosure and chirps. Down the hall, a pigeon with a fractured wing is operated on, a mourning dove has its physical exam, and a Uromastyx, a spiny-tailed lizard, is given an oral calcium supplement.

The Center for Avian and Exotic Medicine on the Upper West Side is the only hospital of its kind in New York City, and one of roughly 10 exotics-only veterinary practices in the United States.

Many New Yorkers mistake exotic animals for pets that are inexpensive and easy to care for, according to doctors at the center. The lack of appropriate care early on often leads to irreversible illnesses that plague the animals for the rest of their shortened lives.

“I cringe when I hear someone is bringing a kinkajou in,” said Lorelei Tibbetts, a nurse and practice manager at the center. “They belong in the canopy of the rainforest, not in a New York City apartment.”

On average, the center sees 70 patients per week, and about 80% of the illnesses the center treats are related to the inadequate care these unusual pets receive in captivity.

Iguanas, potbelly pigs, alligators, and a domesticated fox are among the illegal animals residing in New York that the hospital has admitted over its 12 years in business.

The practice isn’t lucrative—avian and exotic pet owners don’t habitually bring their animals in for dental work, flea and tick prevention and vaccines, which is how most veterinary hospitals that treat dogs and cats turn a profit.

And when these animals do need medical care, pet owners can be reluctant to shell out cash. Some exotic pet owners avoid treatment altogether, for fear that they’ll be penalized for breaking the law.

“It’s not the family golden retriever,” said Tibbetts. “They’re not prepared to spend thousands of dollars on a parakeet or a rabbit for the most part.”

Nick Bianchino lives in Brooklyn and shares his home with a green iguana that he purchased at an exotic pet exposition in Pennsylvania. He said he takes better care of his pet Iggy’s health than he does his own.

When Iggy cut her dulap—the little flap of skin that hangs under iguanas’ chins—while burrowing before she laid eggs, Bianchino brought her to the center.

“I was very impressed because they had treated it before and knew exactly what was wrong with her,” he said. Iggy took oral antibiotics for two weeks before returning to her usual healthy state.

Bianchino says owning an iguana is rewarding, but that he’s glad they’re outlawed in the city. “They’re very difficult to care for, and the lighting you have to buy for them to live in optimal conditions is expensive."

Iggy lives in a six-foot tall, four-foot wide and three-foot deep enclosure that’s humid and equipped with special UVA and UVB lighting. At four feet long, she’s starting to outgrow it, he said. He plans to expand the length a few feet to accommodate her increase in size. Eventually, when he buys a house, he'll eliminate the enclosure altogether and dedicate a whole room to her. 

“Most reptiles require really specific care,” said Dr. Anthony Pilny, one of the center’s veterinarians. “Either it’s hard for people to do or the novelty wears off and they don’t want to do it.”

Marie Theresa, another client, lives with five ferrets—Simba, Precious, Nemo, Lady Marley, and Joey. Theresa says she recognizes the value of regular trips to the vet for her brood, noting that “their diet, physiology, medical care, illnesses and treatments cannot be compared to those of dogs and cats.”

Theresa’s ferrets have even caught the flu from her, and vice versa.

“Anything that could go wrong with us could go wrong with them: not eating, loss of appetite, behavior changes, injuries, diarrhea, or a fight with another animal,” says Dr. Pilny, who shares his home with 15 birds, a cat, and a snake.

On a recent weekday, Dr. Pilny performed a surgery on a pigeon, pinning its ulna and splinting its wing. The entire surgery took half an hour.

Later that afternoon, he treated a bearded dragon reptile for constipation.

The center also recently boarded a self-mutilating African gray parrot, Miko, who had been pulling out its own feathers, and ripping holes in its skin.

“You see that with the birds a lot. They have vivid personalities and if the captivation and social interaction is not handled properly, it can have ramifications on the bird that aren’t positive,” said Joe Hendler, a veterinary assistant.

Industry studies show a decline in exotic pet ownership in New York City. Tibbetts said that this is a good thing, even though what’s best for the animals could be bad for business.

“Overall it’s something we do because we love the animals,” said Tibbetts. She said that it’s difficult to properly care for some exotics, like the rare kinkajou, or fennec fox, in captivity. “To care for them properly in captivity so that they don’t get sick and so that they have a decent quality of life is almost impossible.”

Megan Cerullo is an award winning journalist based in New York City.