[2022 Update: On May 21, 2021, a nine-month old Bengal tiger was spotted by neighbors wandering around a Houston subdivision. The tiger was almost shot before it was dragged into a vehicle by its owner. Instances like that are not uncommon in the United States. The World Wildlife fund estimates that there are around 5,000 tigers living in captivity in the United States, more than the estimated 3,900 wild tigers left in the world. See Holly Yan, Ashley Killough and Rosa Flores, Here’s what we know about the tiger spotted in a Houston neighborhood, CNN (May 12, 2021), available at https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/12/us/houston-tiger-what-we-know/index.html.
One of the most infamous incidents involving escaped wildlife is the Ohio Zoo Massacre. In late 2011, residents in Zanesville, Ohio spotted a fully grown male lion roaming in a subdivision. Terry Thompson owned a hobbyist exotic animal farm in Zanesville. On October 18, Thompson committed suicide after he released the 56 animals on his property. In total, 29 animals were killed and six were recaptured.]
On October 18, 2011, a Zanesville, Ohio resident alerted the authorities of a roaming, fully-grown male lion on his property. Terry Thompson owned a hobbyist exotic animal farm in Zanesville. On October 18, Thompson committed suicide after he released the 56 animals on his property from their enclosures. Animal control and local Zanesville law enforcement officers were met with a scene that they were not equipped to control. Tranquilizers could not take down 18 Bengal tigers and 17 lions, and the officers were forced to use lethal force to gain control over the fleeing animals. See Terry Thompson and the Zanesville Ohio Zoo Massacre, GQ Magazine, at (http://www.gq.com/news-politics/newsmakers/201203/terry-thompson-ohio-zoo-massacre-chris-heath-gq-february-2012) (Feb. 2, 2014). In total, 29 animals were killed and six were recaptured. For numbers of animal deaths and recaptures by species, see infographic available at (http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2011/10/20/article-2051418-0E74CF6800000578-472_634x539.jpg).
This case illustrates the need for comprehensive regulation and awareness when it comes to exotic animal ownership. Ohio law allowed for citizens like Terry Thompson to keep large exotic animals with little to no regulation or oversight. Ohio responded to what many considered a chaotic massacre by strictly regulating the ability to privately keep large exotic animals. This paper lays out the way in which others states have responded to the growing concern.
First, this paper details the various policy concerns that private exotic animal ownership presents to the public, the animals, and the environment. Next, this paper briefly lays out the few federal laws that apply and the effects they have on private exotic animal ownership. State laws are then analyzed under four regulatory schemes: bans on private wildlife possession, partial bans on certain wild or exotic animals, a licensing scheme for owning exotic or wild animals, and states with miscellaneous or no regulations, including an analysis of states that ban or regulate hybrids of domestic and exotic or wild animals. Then, a few local regulations are discussed, followed by the way these laws and regulations are enforced. Finally, trends over the last decade are discussed along with conclusions and possible recommendations for comprehensive protection.
II. POLICY: PROTECTIONS AND RISKS OF EXOTIC PETS
A. Public Safety
[2022 Update: Exotic animals pose a special risk due to their lack of domestication. Both owners and the general public are at risk if these animals escape or attack.
In 2020, a Florida man was mauled by a leopard after he paid $150 for a “full contact” experience with the animal. The owner, a notorious backyard primate breeder, Michael Poggi, was charged with a misdemeanor for keeping wildlife in an unsafe condition. See Kitty Block and Sara Amundson, Man charged in leopard mauling incident is a notorious backyard breeder of primates, The Humane Society of the United States (November 3, 2020), available at https://blog.humanesociety.org/2020/11/man-charged-in-leopard-mauling-incident-is-a-notorious-backyard-breeder-of-primates.html.
Some states differentiate exotic pets based on the threat they pose to public safety. Florida, for example, uses a class system as established in West's F. S. A. § 379.303. The state’s Captive Wildlife Office is primarily responsible for regulating the possession of wildlife in captivity in Florida. Class I and II Wildlife are species that are considered to present a real or potential threat to human safety. Possession of these species requires a license. Class I wildlife includes big cats, gorillas, bears, hippos, rhinos, elephants, etc. Class II animals include wild cats, giraffes, wild cattle, wolves, wolf-dogs, badges, etc. Finally, Class III animals are any animals not under Class I or Class II and includes species native to Florida and non-native. It includes animals like exotic birds, small mammals, reptiles, and all amphibians. See Fla. Admin. Code r. 68A-6.001 - 68A-6.018]
Exotic animals are often large and potentially very dangerous. The general public and the owners of exotic animals themselves both need protection from escapes, attacks, and improper care.
In June 2011, for example, a woman in the northern suburbs of New York City died after being bit by her pet black mamba. See World’s Deadliest Snake Suspected in Owner’s Death, Fox News, at (http://www.foxnews.com/health/2011/06/16/bite-from-pet-snake-suspected-in-death-ny-woman/). National Geographic identifies the black mamba as the deadliest snake in the world when you combine its speed (fastest on earth) and its venomous neurotoxic power (the second most toxic on earth). After investigation, seventy-five snakes were found in this collector’s home. See Aleta Stacey of Putnam Lake Dead After Apparent Black Mamba Snake Bite, CBS New York, at(http://newyork.cbslocal.com/2011/06/16/aleta-stacey-of-putnam-lake-apparently-killed-by-bite-from-pet-snake/). There have been nearly two thousand violent incidents such as this between captive exotic animals and humans in the last two decades in the US alone. Eighty-two humans have died as a result. For more information, see the Incident Tracker at http://www.bornfreeusa.org/database/exo_incidents.php.
Some states have acknowledged the danger posed to public safety but only after an escape or injury occurs. For example, in response to the Zanesville incident, Ohio banned the keeping of dangerous wild animals, effective January 1, 2014. Before the Zanesville incident, Ohio had one such after the fact law, which has since been repealed. Ohio’s Revised Code Annotated provided that owners of exotic animals that present a risk of serious physical harm must report any animal escape within one hour. OH ST § 2927.21. As seen in Zanesville, this requirement did not fully promote public safety enough, and the law has since been repealed and replaced with a more strict regulation that instead seeks to prevent the possibility of escape or attack.
To compare, New York takes additional steps in protecting public health. First, New York strictly bans private possession of exotic animals outright in its criminal code. NY ENVIR. CONSER. § 11-0512. This is a state that, like Ohio now, seeks to prevent escape and possible injury to the public outright. Additionally, New York makes owners of wild animals or reptiles strictly liable for any attacks. NY AGRI & MKTS § 370. This means that no negligence needs to be established to recover full damages for any injury cause. The owner could have taken all precautionary steps to prevent the injury but will have to pay in full for any and all incidences.
B. Public Health
[2022 Update: Zoonotic diseases are infectious diseases that have jumped from a non-human animal to humans. They are spread between humans and animals in a variety of ways. This includes direct contact with animals, indirect contact, vector borne, foodborne, and waterborne. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the devastating effects these diseases can have on our world. Zoonotic diseases have been with humans since the beginning, however, their emergence seems to be increasing in frequency. Increases in human-animal contact, due to changes in land use, increased urbanization, and global connectedness all accelerate the rate of zoonotic events. See Edward C. Holmes, COVID-19–Lessons for Zoonotic Disease, Science (March 10, 2022), available at https://www.science.org/doi/10.1126/science.abn2222].
“Zoonotic Disease” or “Zoonosis” is any disease transferred from an animal to a human. This is an especially important concern because the consequences of zoonotic disease affect a broader population than single violent incidences or escapes, and have longer lasting effects on larger populations. Scientists estimate that more than six out of every ten infectious diseases in humans are spread from animals. See Zoonotic Diseases, Center for Disease Control and Prevention, at http://www.cdc.gov/onehealth/zoonotic-diseases.html.
Nonhuman primates, monkeys, and apes are especially unique concerns because of the similarity of genetic makeup to humans. See Nonhuman Primate Biosafety, Research Animal Resources, at http://www.ahc.umn.edu/rar/nhpsafety.html. The macaque, for example, is the most commonly bread monkey in the United States. It is also the most common carrier of Herpes-B virus. See Significant Zoonotic Disease of Non-Human Primates, Walter Reed Army Inst, at http://netvet.wustl.edu/species/primates/primzoon.txt. Unlike the more commonly known Herpes Simplex (or HSV-1 and HSV-2) among humans, Herpes-B is especially lethal. The monkey that was never recovered in Zanesville, OH was infected with Herpes-B. See Missing Zanesville Monkey may carry Herpes, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, at http://www.post-gazette.com/local/breaking/2011/10/19/Missing-Zanesville-monkey-may-carry-herpes-virus/stories/201110190128.
C. Animal Welfare
[2022 Update: Roadside zoos are small, non accredited facilities that often house a menagerie of species. In general, these zoos offer interactions with dangerous animals, particularly baby animals. There are more than 3,000 roadside zoos in 44 states. These facilities often house animals in barren cages with inadequate access to food, water, shelter, and veterinary care. According to Tigers in America, an advocacy organization involved in captive tiger rescue, many of these facilities advertise themselves as sanctuaries because there is no restriction or obligation with the use of the word sanctuary in a business name. For more on the problem of exotic pets at roadside zoos see Tala M. DiBenedetto, Welfare Standards for Animals Used in Zoos and Exhibition, Animal Legal & Historical Center (2020).
In 2018, the Eighth Circuit upheld a decision that found that a roadside zoo in Manchester, Iowa violated the Endangered Species Act by providing substandard care to tigers and lemurs. Kuehl v. Sellner, 887 F.3d 845 (8th Cir., 2018). Plaintiffs, including advocacy organization Animal Legal Defense Fund (ALDF), brought suit against defendants the Sellners and the Cricket Hollow Zoo to enjoin defendants' mistreatment of their animals in violation of the Endangered Species Act, 16 U.S.C. § 1531 et seq. Defendants ran a zoo with over 300 animals, including lemurs, tigers, cougars, monkeys and birds, among others. Several of the plaintiffs visited defendants' zoo and witnessed care that raised concerns about the animals' mental and physical well-being, including lemurs kept in isolation with insufficient climbing structures, and tigers kept in feces-filled cages with inadequate care/enrichment. As to defendants' argument that they could not have violated the ESA because the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) provides a "safe harbor" for licensed facilities, the court found that the AWA does not provide a blanket immunity to the ESA. Here, the defendants harassed the lemurs under the ESA by keeping them socially isolated with insufficient enrichment. The defendants also harassed the tigers under the ESA by failing to provide appropriate veterinary care and keeping them in unsanitary conditions. See also Roadside Zoos, Animal Legal & Defense Fund (last visited June 30, 2022) available at https://aldf.org/issue/roadside-zoos/].
Animal welfare is an important issue coupled with exotic animal ownership. 30,000 large exotic animals are currently held in captivity outside of zoos. Exotic and large wild animals that are non-native to the US rarely get the care they need to live healthy and psychologically rich lives. See Ten Fast Facts about Captive Exotic Animals, Born Free USA, at http://www.bornfreeusa.org/facts.php?p=436&more=1. Most exotic animal owners are ill-equipped to house and care for this type of pet. In nature, many birds, wild cats, monkeys, and reptiles travel large distances in a day. Cages, enclosures, and housing often do not meet the basic needs of such animals. Captivity also breeds aggressive or stressed psychological responses as animals reach sexual maturity See Zoochotic: Is Keeping Wild Animals in Captivity Crazy?, Born Free USA, at http://www.bornfreeusa.org/articles.php?p=1595&more=1. Where zoos or educational institutions are equipped to handle and respond to growing animals, private owners may not be. Stress manifests itself in animals in the form of illness, and owners are often not equipped or aware of the financial burden of veterinary specialists for exotic or wild animals before acquiring them.
D. Environmental Protection
[2022 Update: Exotic animals also pose a threat to environmental health. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, invasive species harm human health and also cause economic and environmental harm. See Invasive Species, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (last visited June 30, 2022) available at http://www.fws.gov/invasives/. For more information on this topic, see Animal Legal & Historical Center’s topic on Invasive Species.
In Florida, non-native Burmese pythons released into the wild from their former owners have established a breeding population that threatens the delicate ecological balance of the Everglades National Park. The pythons are linked to severe mammal declines in the park. A 2012 study found that the raccoon population dropped by 99.3%, opossums 98.9% and bobcats 87.5%. These mammals have routinely been found in the stomachs of Burmese Pythons removed from the park. How have invasive pythons impacted Florida ecosystems? U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), (last visited June 30, 2022), available at https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-have-invasive-pythons-impacted-florida-ecosystems.
It is illegal to import or purchase Burmese Pythons in Florida. Estimates put the population anywhere from 10,000 to hundreds of thousands.
In 2016, nearly 7760 Argentine tegus were trapped in Florida. These large black and white lizards can reach nearly five feet in length. They are known to consume the eggs of important native animals in Florida, such as alligators and turtles. As of April 2021, The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission voted to add 16 new high-risk non native reptiles, including Argentine tegus, Burmese Pythons, green iguanas, and more. Pet owners can no longer purchase these animals and must register and microchip the animals they already own. See West's F.S.A. § 379.2311 and Jessica Meszaros, Florida's New Invasive Reptile Rules Have Breeders Leaving And Activists Rejoicing, WUSF, (April 29, 2021), available at https://wusfnews.wusf.usf.edu/environment/2021-04-29/floridas-new-invasive-reptile-rules-have-breeders-leaving-and-activists-rejoicing.]
Exotic animals also pose a threat to environmental health. According to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, invasive species harm human health and also cause economic and environmental harm. See Invasive Species, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, at http://www.fws.gov/invasives/. For more information on this topic, see Animal Legal & Historical Center’s topic on Invasive Species. See Detailed Discussion of the Laws Concerning Invasive Species.
The best case study for the impacts of exotic pets causing environmental damage is Florida. In Miami, Florida alone, over 40 non-native species of amphibians and reptiles can be found. Everglades National Park was invaded by Burmese pythons and has since become rampant. Between 1996 and 2006, the US imported approximately 99,000 Burmese python hatchlings. These baby pythons sold in pet shops for about $20.00 each. However, these small hatchlings eventually grow to 20 feet long, much too large and aggressive for an inexperienced pet owner expecting a caged, house-friendly reptilian pet. In response, many owners released these exotic snakes into the ecosystem, a common reaction by exotic pet owners when animals get too difficult or expensive to care for. Once released, non-native animals compete with native species. The Burmese python has proven to be a large problem because it has to no natural predators in the US. These pythons prey on house wrens, wood storks, possums, black rats, and gray squirrels, which has an echoing impact on local ecology. There are an estimated 5,000 to 180,000 pythons in the Everglades. See Burmese Pythons, Nat’l Park Service, at http://www.nps.gov/ever/naturescience/burmesepythonsintro.htm; Burmese Pythons in South Florida: Scientific Support for Invasive Species Management, University of Florida IFAS Extension, at http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/uw286. In response, Florida now practices a pet amnesty program allowing exotic pet owners to turn in animals they cannot care for. See Amnesty Day Events, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, at http://myfwc.com/wildlifehabitats/nonnatives/amnesty-day-events/. Florida also has put a bounty on pythons, even holding competitions with prizes to the competitor that can catch and kill the most Burmese pythons in an allotted amount of time. See Florida Holds Burmese python hunt in Everglades, NY Daily News, at http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/fla-sponsors-python-hunt-everglades-article-1.1242665. Florida law also responded by strictly banning all ownership and possession of seven species of invasive, nonnative snakes. FL ST § 379.372.
E. Exotic Pet Trade
[2022 Update: Exotic pet trade is a multi-billion-dollar global business. Every year, thousands of species and tens of millions of individual animals are shipped internationally and within countries. From 2000 to 2014, the United States imported 3.24 billion live animals. About half of the shipments came from the wild and nearly all were intended for commercial purposes. These animals range from reptiles, to birds, to small mammals, to fish. See Eskew, E.A., White, A.M., Ross, N. et al., United States wildlife and wildlife product imports from 2000–2014, Sci Data 7, 22 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1038/s41597-020-0354-5.
While the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) regulates certain at-risk species, it does not offer protection for most species, especially those popular in the pet trade.
Both fish and birds are often wild-caught and then sold into the pet trade. The marine aquarium industry takes up to 41.5 million animals from the wild each year, and the mortality rate for species can range from 5 % to 90%.
The hyacinth macaw is highly popular among pet owners, but it is extremely difficult to breed them in captivity. Often, the bird’s eggs are poached from the wild and sold as captive bred eggs. The macaw’s wild population is believed to have fallen to about 1,500 individuals. See Denise Hruby, This Amazon bird’s eggs are black-market gold. Here’s why, National Geographic ((June 5, 2019), available at https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/article/hyacinth-macaw-egg-laundering-for-pet-trade.
In 2009, authorities raided U.S. Global Exotics, a wildlife wholesaler in Arlington, Texas. More than 26,400 animals were confiscated, with 171 different species and types. Of the animals confiscated, about 80% were identified as grossly sick, injured, or dead, with the rest in suboptimal condition. About 3,500 of the stock, mostly reptiles, were discarded on a weekly basis. A report on the raid found that the animals were dying from cannibalism, crushing, dehydration, infection, and emaciation. See: Morbidity and mortality of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals at a major exotic companion animal wholesaler Ashley, S., Brown, S., Ledford, J., Martin, J., Nash, A. E., Terry, A., Tristan, T., & Warwick, C. (2014), Morbidity and mortality of invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and mammals at a major exotic companion animal wholesaler, Journal of applied animal welfare science : JAAWS, 17(4), 308–321, available at https://doi.org/10.1080/10888705.2014.918511.
Jasen Shaw, the owner of U.S. Global Exotics, accepted a plea agreement with a small penalty of $15,000, and is not barred from trading wildlife. This case, like many others, demonstrates the difficulty in prosecuting gross abuses of animal welfare. Without strict enforcement of animal welfare laws, millions of animals will suffer due to the exotic pet trade.
For further reading on this issue see the Topical Introduction to the Trade in Wild-Caught Reptiles.
III. FEDERAL LAW
No federal law speaks expressly to the issue of private wild animal ownership. The real authority to regulate the keeping and care of exotic animals lies in state and local laws under the police power. Congress is limited to those powers granted to it by the U.S. Constitution, therefore the federal government is limited to regulating exotic animals through an enumerated power such as the Commerce Clause. While federal authority to regulate the keeping of exotic pets is limited, several federal laws address different aspects of exotic pet ownership and regulate them in an attenuated way. These laws address the trade of certain animals and regulate certain species of animals that are listed as endangered or threatened.
A. The Lacey Act; the Captive Wildlife Safety Act
The Lacey Act of 1900 prohibited the transportation of illegally captured or prohibited species of wildlife across state lines. Enacted with Congress’ Commerce Clause power, this act seeks to eliminate poaching and the black market trade of invasive, dangerous, and non-native species of plants and animals across the country. A violation of the Lacey Act could lead to five years in federal prison and civil fines up to $500,000. 16 U.S.C. § 3373(d).
The Lacey Act was amended in 2007 by the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA) to also cover certain big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars and hybrids of these species. 16 U.S.C. § 3371. The U.S. Congress is considering a bill in the 2013-2014 term that would add non-human primates as well, entitled the Captive Primate Safety Act (http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c113:H.R.2856:).
The Lacey Act and the CWSA make it difficult to transport and import wildlife. At minimum, it encourages exotic pet hobbyists to legally acquire the animals for fear of federal prison.
B. Endangered Species Act
The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), enacted in 1972, prohibits “taking” or selling threatened or endangered species. 16 U.S.C. § 1538; see also Overview of the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The United States Fish and Wildlife Service lists species that are either threatened or endangered in whole or part of their range or habitat. While it does little to regulate exotic animal pet ownership, the ESA prevents the release of exotic animals in the wild because owners would be liable should the exotic animal cause destruction of a threatened or endangered species. Private owners of exotic animals regularly circumvent this law by obtaining animals from captive bred programs. The ESA is rarely enforced against private exotic animal owners.
C. Animal Welfare Act
[2022 Update: In 2020, a new rule was published in the Federal Register that amended the licensing requirements in the AWA. The new rule was passed in order to promote compliance, reduce licensing fees, and strengthen safeguards that prevent individuals and businesses with a history of noncompliance from obtaining a license or working with regulated animals. See Animal Welfare; Amendments to Licensing Provisions and to Requirements for Dogs, 85 FR 28772 (2020), available at https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/05/13/2020-07837/animal-welfare-amendments-to-licensing-provisions-and-to-requirements-for-dogs#:~:text=We%20are%20amending%20the%20licensing,or%20working%20with%20regulated%20animals.]
Lyndon B. Johnson enacted the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) in 1966, which has since been amended seven times. The AWA regulates possession of warm-blooded animals for exhibition and breeding purposes by establishing standards of care. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) is responsible for enforcing and inspecting petting zoos, circuses, aquariums, and zoos. 7 U.S.C. § 2131. The AWA does little to nothing to regulate private possession of exotic animals as pets because it speaks only to commercial establishments. Moreover, many private owners of exotic animals use loopholes or pose as animal “exhibitors” and do not have to meet the standards of the AWA. For example, in Zanesville, Terry Thompson was not subject to the AWA licensing and care standards because he did not deal or exhibit animals.
[2022 Update: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) is a major international treaty that controls the movement of wild plants and animals. The treaty creates three categories into which species of concern or risk of extinction may be placed: Appendix I, Appendix II, and Appendix III.
Appendix I species are those threatened with extinction and effectively ends the commercial international trade in that species. This includes giant pandas, gorillas, Asian elephants, and all tigers.
Appendix II includes species that are not currently threatened with extinction but may be threatened if trade is not strictly regulated. These animals include hippopotamus, Southern elephant seals, and African penguins. This Appendix contains the largest number of listings, CITES is less restrictive with these species. They can be traded for commercial reasons if not detrimental to the species in the wild.
CITES regulates approximately 30,000 plant and 5,800 animal species. However, the treaty is limited in scope to international trade and species affected by international trade. Therefore, CITES has no application to domestic markets or the pet trade on an intra-state basis. CITES is limited by its appendix listing system; if a species is not listed, it is not offered protection by the Convention. For a more detailed explanation, see the Overview of CITES and United National Office on Drugs and Crime, CITES and the international trade in endangered species (last visited June 30, 3022), available at https://www.unodc.org/e4j/en/wildlife-crime/module-2/key-issues/cites-and-the-international-trade-in-endangered-species.html.]
IV. STATE LAWS
- 19 states have a comprehensive ban (California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oregon, South Carolina, Utah, Vermont, Washington)
- 13 states have a partial ban (Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.)
- 15 states have a licensing scheme (Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Texas, and Wisconsin.
- 3 states have no ban beyond import or health rules (Alabama, Nevada, and North Carolina)]
Federal authority is relatively limited in addressing private possession of exotic and wild animals, leaving state regulations to govern the issue almost entirely. States have the authority to regulate private pet ownership throughout the exercise of its police power. Police power is a general term that describes the ability of state and local governments to protect local public health, safety, and welfare.
States vary greatly in their approach to this issue. Generally speaking, states have approached this in four different ways:
- Total ban on private ownership (21 states)
- Ban on certain animals/partial ban on private ownership (8 states)
- Private ownership allowed under licensure/permit schemes (14 states)
- No schematic approach/miscellaneous regulations concerning certain aspects of private ownership (7 states).
States have been regulating private ownership more stringently in the last decade. In 2004, only 14 states banned private ownership of exotic animals. In 2014, 21 states now ban the practice. The growing concern is evidenced also by more and more states in the last legislative year introducing bills that would place more comprehensive restrictions on private ownership.
It is important to note that states vary on their terminology. Some states will regulate wildlife or wild animals, where some states will identify exotic animals as inherently dangerous or potentially dangerous. Generally, states that seek to ban all ownership use the more broad terms such as wild animal, wildlife, or exotic animals. Other states that have partial bans tend to classify animals as dangerous, potentially dangerous, or inherently dangerous.
Twenty-two states ban the ownership of wild or exotic animals as pets, either by facially prohibiting the keeping of non-domestic animals as pets or through schematic classifications that only allow those animals to be kept under certain licenses not including pet or private possession (i.e. for educational or scientific purposes).
States that prohibit private possession of wild animals as pets do so in three different schematic ways discussed herein:
1. By facially prohibiting the keeping of certain animals as pets
2. By allowing the possession of certain animals with certain state-issued permits that, when practically applied, function to prohibit the keeping of wild animals as pets
3. By prohibiting private ownership entirely except for very few national or federally licensed exceptions.
1. Facial Bans
Four states speak directly to the issue of exotic pet ownership by facially banning non-domestic, wild, or exotic animals from being kept as pets. In this context, the term “facial” means a statute that directly regulates a problem, or, on its face, bans the keeping of animals as pets.
Alaska is an example of a scheme that bans pet ownership on its face. Alaska empowers its Fish and Game administrative agency to make rules that govern ownership of all animals. 5 AK ADC § 92.029 bars a person from possessing, importing, releasing, exporting, or assisting in such importation, release, or exportation, any live game without a possession permit. 92.029(b) lists certain domestic animals allowed by right without a possession permit such as a dog, cat, oxen, alpaca, gerbil, pigeon, parrot, duck, quail, and non-feral bison, among others. 92.029(c) does not allow the Department to issue any possession permits for either game animals or hybrids of game animals and domestic animals to any person “for use of a pet.” Game animals included in this prohibition are exotic animals, feral domestic animals, and free-ranging, wild animals native to Alaska. Possession permits for game animals are issued only for uses such as for scientific use (5 AAC 92.033) or cultural purposes, such as seen in many Alaskan native tribes (5 AAC 92.034). This is one of the more narrowly tailored schemes regarding private ownership.
New York’s statutory framework is the most direct and effective facial ban on private pet ownership. New York 11-0512 expressly states that no person may “knowingly possess, harbor, sell, barter, transfer, exchange, or import any wild animal for use as a pet.” A “wild animal” is defined by New York as all species of nonhuman primate, venomous reptiles, bears, feral or non-domestic canines, and all species of crocodile. NY ENVIR CONSER § 11-0103. Failure to comply with the law results in a misdemeanor criminal offense. In the 2013-2014 session, the New York legislature considered a bill A2869 [http://assembly.state.ny.us/leg/?sh=printbill&bn=A02869&term=2013] to raise the degree of conduct to that of a felony for keeping a wild animal as a pet. Similarly, Colorado (2 CCR 406-11) and Vermont (10 V.S.A. App. § 18) (http://www.leg.state.vt.us/statutes/fullsection.cfm?Title=10APPENDIX&Chapter=001&Section=00018) both mention private pet ownership in statements concerning policy without expressly prohibiting or criminalizing it in the way that Alaska or New York do.
2. Practical Ban through Permit Schemes
Several states employ the second approach with more complex systems of state issued permits. These differ from the facially prohibitory statutes such as New York or Alaska because, at face value, they do not speak to banning private pet possession. However, it is when they are applied practically and in effect that they function to ban private possession.
An example of the practically applied prohibition is California’s statutory scheme. California expressly states that it is unlawful to “import, transport, or possess [restricted] live animals (…) except under permit issued by the department.” Cal. Admin. Code tit 14 § 671(a). The California Department of Fish and Game has the authority to issue permits for specific purposes laid out in § 671.1. In effect, no one can possess any restricted animal for any use other than those approved in this statutory scheme. § 671.1 allows the Department to issue case-by-case permits for: aquaculture, business of animal exhibition under the American Zoological Association, breeding, animal brokerage, and “animal care.” Upon further review, none of these restrictions would allow for the possession of an animal as a pet. The breeding permit, for example, requires qualifications and evidence of being in the business industry of breeding along with strict permitting for transportation and importation. The permit for animal care sounds like a loophole, but is coupled with strict requirements that, in effect, bar private ownership as well. Under this permit, the owner must have legally possessed the animal prior to January 1992. Moreover, they are not allowed to breed, sell, transport, or release the animal and may only take medically necessary actions. §§ 670.7 and 679amhttps://archive.org/stream/ca.ccr.14.1/ca.ccr.14.1_djvu.txt) provide for the taking of wildlife for scientific purposes and wildlife rehabilitation respectively. Even still, both ensure that pet possession does not occur as it comes with reporting duties such as notification to the Department within 48 hours of animal possession. Other similar systems are in place in both New Jersey and New Hampshire, all of which allow for wildlife animals under specific, enumerated permits that do not allow for private pet possession.
3. Bans on Specific Species of Animals
The third and final statutory system that bans private possession generally first provides a category of enumerated animals that are prohibited followed by few enumerated exemptions. One such state is Ohio that passed a new statutory scheme in 2012 as a response to the Terry Thompson incident. It took effect on January 1, 2014. Ohio Revised Code, Title IX, Chapter 935 § 935.02bars anyone from owning a “dangerous wild animal.” A dangerous wild animal is defined in § 935.01 and means any hyena, wolf, wolf-hybrid, lion, tiger, leopard, big cat, big cat hybrid, elephant, rhino, hippo, buffalo, wild dog, komodo dragon, alligator, crocodile, and nonhuman primate, among others. There are enumerated exceptions to these rules under 935.03, such as facilities accredited by the American Zoological Association (AZA), federal research facilities as defined by the federal Animal Welfare Act, circuses, wildlife sanctuaries, and educational institutions.
Overall, the most effective schemes that best protect wildlife and human welfare are those that facially bar private or pet possession outright.
4. Grandfathering Provisions
Some of these states, although they ban the private possession of wild animals, have a few exotic animal owners that legally posses their pets through grandfathering provisions. A grandfathering provision allows for continuing conduct of illegal activities so long as some aspect of the illegal behavior existed or is ongoing at the time of passage of a new law. Among the states that have grandfathering provisions in their bans are California, Ohio, and Washington. Washington, for example, prohibits all possession of certain animals such as rattlesnakes, elephants, non-human primates, bears, and big cats. WA ST §§ 16.30.010, 16.30.030. One exception to the prohibition in Washington are those that were in legal possession prior to July 22, 2007. Those that possess the animal may only keep the animal for the remainder of the animal’s life and must keep full records. WA ST § 16.30.030.
B. Partial Bans
Eight states have partial bans on exotic pets. This means that the state bans specific, enumerated animals by statute, but not all non-traditional, non-domestic animals. These partial bans tend to focus on large animals, big cats, or categories of “dangerous animals.” Arizona § 20-19-501 uses the term “large carnivore,” which means any bear, lion, or tiger. § 20-19-502 bans any person from owning, breeding, or transferring ownership of any large carnivore. Moreover, § 20-19-602 further regulates non-human primates.
Illinois’ criminal code includes an act making it a crime to own certain wild animals, known as the Illinois Dangerous Animals Act. 720 ILCS 585. 720 ILCS 585/0.1 defines dangerous wild animal as a lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, lynx, bobcat, bear, hyena, wolf, coyote, and poisonous reptile. The act also defines “primate” as a chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, bonobo, gibbon, monkey, lemur, loris, aye-aye, and tarsier. Section 1 of the act prohibits any person from keeping, harboring, caring, or having a right of property in any dangerous animal or primate, except those owned before January 1, 2011.
Similarly, Kansas § 32-1301 defines a “dangerous regulated animal” as a lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, cheetah, mountain lion, or a hybrid thereof; any non-native venomous snake; and all species of bears. § 32-1302 prohibits the possession, slaughter, sale, and purchase of dangerous regulated animals.
Similar to the loopholes found among states that fully ban, some private possessors get away with owning wild animals as pets through grandfathering provision.
C. Licensure Scheme
[2022 Update: Fifteen states permit exotic animals under a licensure scheme. These tend to resemble municipal licensure schemes seen among typical domestic animals such as dogs or cats, requiring application, registration, and payment of nominal fees.
Texas, a state with a sizeable population of captive tigers, prohibits private individuals from owning or having custody of a nondomestic animal (dangerous wild animals, including lions, tigers, bears) unless the individual has a certificate of registration from either the city or county animal control department. V. T. C. A., Health & Safety Code § 822.101. The application requirements include proof of liability insurance, a photograph and statement of the dimensions of the primary enclosure in which each animal will be kept. Regulations vary in Texas from county to county, and there is no statewide law prohibiting private ownership of exotic animals.
Maine is an example of a very detailed and succinct licensure scheme. Maine requires a permit to take, possess, or import any native or exotic wildlife for enumerated purposes (see 12 M. R. S. A. § 12152). One such enumerated purpose is for “personal use of wildlife.” Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife issues such permits including the General Wildlife Possession Permit (available at http://www.maine.gov/ifw/licenses_permits/pdfs/2013-2014wildlifepossession.pdf), which costs $27 every two years. The permit itself requires the applicant to identify one of two reasons for applying: (1) “serious professional or vocational animal husbandry” or (2) “legitimate therapy or aid for disabilities.” The permit also requires a brief description of the applicant’s handling experience and directs the holder to only sell or transfer ownership of animals to other licensed wildlife propagators. While the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has discretion in approving, permit holders must also comply with state laws that place standards of care for the animals based on species.]
Fourteen states permit exotic animals under a licensure scheme. These tend to resemble municipal licensure schemes seen among typical domestic animals such as dogs or cats, requiring application, registration and payment of nominal fees, such as in Indiana 14-22-26-4 as low as $10.
Maine is an example of a very detailed and succinct licensure scheme. Maine § 7.00 requires a permit to take, possess, or import any native or exotic wildlife for enumerated purposes. One such enumerated purpose is for “personal use of wildlife.” Maine’s Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife issues such permits, including the General Wildlife Possession Permit [http://www.maine.gov/ifw/licenses_permits/pdfs/2013-2014wildlifepossession.pdf], which costs $27 every two years. The permit itself requires the applicant to identify one of two reasons for applying: (1) “serious professional or vocational animal husbandry” or (2) “legitimate therapy or aid for disabilities.” The permit also requires a brief description of the applicant’s handling experience and directs the holder to only sell or transfer ownership of animals to other licensed wildlife propagators. While the Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife has discretion in approving, permit holders must also comply with state laws that place standards of care for the animals based on species.
Permit holders are subject reporting requirements, registration fees, and even strict standards for cage requirements broken down by species. § 7.08(10), lists minimum cage requirements by species. Marmosets, for example, require one cage per two adult marmosets that are at least 3 feet long by 2 feet wide by 4 feet high.
Maine is one of the more complex and exacting licensing systems. States vary in their requirements and do not often provide for animal care specifications. Mississippi, for example, requires insurance policies with a minimum liability of $100,000 § 49-8-7(b)(ii) but not care standards or requirements.
D. Miscellaneous Regulations
The remaining seven states do not have a regulatory scheme that directly addresses or controls the private ownership of exotic pets [Alabama, Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina, West Virginia, and Wisconsin]. Some of the remaining states have miscellaneous regulations on certain aspects of it. Alabama, for example, only regulates wild or exotic animals for the purpose of public exhibition. § 9-11-320 broadly defines wildlife as any “wild mammal, wild bird, reptile or amphibian.” § 9-11-321 states that no person may possess any wildlife for public exhibition purposes without a permit issued under § 9-11-324. West Virginia § 20-2-52 similarly has a permit scheme for roadside menageries, but does not directly regulate private ownership of exotic animals. § 20-2-51 states that the director of the Department of Natural Resources has the authority to issue permits to keep wild animals as pets for a nominal fee of two dollars. However, the West Virginia Department of Natural Resources does not have a scheme or application set up, so, in effect, this law is ineffective at regulating exotic animal possession.
The legislatures of some of these unregulated states, however, have recently been considering laws that would regulate or ban private possession of exotic pets. One example is Nevada, a state notorious for having exotic animals in hotels and as props for stage shows. Nevada Senate Bill 245 [http://www.leg.state.nv.us/Session/77th2013/Bills/SB/SB245.pdf] sought to ban private ownership of a long list of exotic animal species. It would also make it a misdemeanor to sell, transfer, or breed certain animals in the state, and also a misdemeanor to allow any person to come into contact with a wild animal. Upon consideration, the bill was stripped down to a different version that deleted all regulations regarding private possession of exotic animals. The version that passed [http://www.leg.state.nv.us/Session/77th2013/Bills/SB/SB245_R1.pdf] granted local counties the authority to regulate possession and importation of wild animals. In effect, the possession of exotic animals as pets is legal unless a local county bans or licenses the practice otherwise.
West Virginia and South Carolina [http://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess120_2013-2014/bills/3985.htm] introduced bills to their respective legislative bodies in 2013. West Virginia house bill 2209 [http://www.legis.state.wv.us/Bill_Status/bills_text.cfm?billdoc=hb2209%20intr.htm&yr=2013&sesstype=RS&i=2209] was never voted on and thus failed to pass. South Carolina house bill 3985 [http://www.scstatehouse.gov/sess120_2013-2014/bills/3985.htm] would similarly ban private possession. Current South Carolina law § 50-16-20 only prohibits the possession or import of wild animals if the purpose is to release or introduce that animal into the wild. South Carolina referred the bill to a specific committee and has yet to take action on it. While these bills have failed to yet pass into law, it shows that states are starting to consider the issues and policy concerns coupled with unregulated ownership of exotic and wild animals.
V. HYBRID PET LAWS
[2022 Update: In more recent years, it has become a growing trend to have hybrid or crossbred animals as domestic house pets. Most common are crosses between domesticated animals and their wild counterparts. Wolf-dogs, coyote-dogs, savannah cats (serval with domestic cat), Bengals (domestic cat with Asian leopard cat), etc.
These animals are especially challenging for states to regulate. The diversity of genetic composition with one litter of hybrid wolf pups can vary immensely in terms of appearance and behaviors. Some states classify these crosses as wild animals and owners must follow their state’s laws as if the animal were 100% wolf. Other states view hybrids as dogs and only require the vaccinations and licenses as domestic animals.
A special concern for these wolf hybrids is the lack of an approved rabies vaccine for wolves or wolf dogs. Vet care can be difficult to obtain for wolfdogs and the animals often require different physical or psychological needs than their domesticated counterparts.
Legislation is inconsistent on state and local levels. Connecticut, for example, treats all hybrids as potentially dangerous animals and bans the possession, sale, or trading of them. C. G. S. A. § 26-40a.]
In more recent years, it has become a growing trend to have hybrid or crossbred animals as domestic house pets. A hybrid or crossbreed is a mix of one or more species or breed of animals. This happens frequently with designer dogs, specifically the golden-doodle or the labra-doodle, crosses between golden and Labrador retrievers with poodles. Designer dogs like this are not an immediate public welfare concern. However, in recent decades it has become a trend to cross breeds of domestic house pets with wild animals. For example, hybrids between wolves and domestic dogs have become common. When wolves approach sexual maturity, they do not regard humans as masters and can frequently become violent and aggressive. Moreover, there is no approved rabies vaccine, a disease that is incredibly lethal to humans, that is effective for wolf hybrids. See So You Think You Want a Wolf or Wolf Hybrid?, Wolf Park, at (http://www.wolfpark.org/Images/Education/ArticlesWordDocs/SoYouThinkYouWantAWolf.pdf). Breeds of domestic cat with wild or exotic cats have become more popular as well.
In response to the growing concern for public welfare and safety, 12 states have banned ownership of at least wolf-hybrids outright. Massachusetts, for example, limits possession of feline and canine hybrids for research and educational purposes only, and with a specific permit. 321 CMR 2.12.
A handful of states require a license, permit, or certain inspection and record-keeping duties as a requirement to owning wolf or cat hybrids. [AR (require records, license, care, inspections), DE (permit required), FL, GA (permit, insurance), ME (must be licensed, nothing on cats), MO (permit for wolf), MS (cage/permit on wolf), MT (50% or higher wolves need permanent ID),
Recent legislative sessions show that hybrid animals are a remaining, if not growing, concern of states. Texas, for example, introduced a bill that would strictly ban big cats, nonhuman primates, and hybrids thereof. S.B. 1627 (http://www.capitol.state.tx.us/tlodocs/83R/billtext/pdf/SB01627I.pdf#navpanes=0). West Virginia, a state relatively liberal to the keeping of exotic animals, introduced a bill in 2013 that would ban dangerous animals and all of their hybrids. S.B. 466 (http://www.legis.state.wv.us/bill_status/bills_text.cfm?billdoc=sb466%20intr.htm&yr=2013&sesstype=RS&i=466). It is important to note that with all of these areas, public participation on a local, municipal, and state level can compel your state to regulate more stringently, as the writers and sponsors of bills such as these answer to their constituents.
VI. LOCAL CODES
The state laws reviewed, in practice, act as basic or minimum requirements of state residents. Municipalities, villages, towns, and counties may all enact more stringent regulations. State constitutions typically authorize municipalities to exercise their police powers through legislation tailored to the needs of a locality. This is exercised through zoning laws or by general municipal ordinances. For example, in Seattle, Washington, the city municipal code regulates private possession of wild animals more strictly than Washington State does. Seattle is the most dense and populous city in the state, so there is a greater concern for public welfare and safety when there are greater numbers of persons per square foot. While Washington state law is silent on hybrid animals, Seattle has enacted municipal code that makes all generations of wolf-hybrid illegal to own, no matter how far removed the wolf ancestor is. [http://clerk.seattle.gov/~scripts/nph-brs.exe?s1=&s2=hybrid&S3=&Sect4=AND&l=0&Sect3=PLURON&Sect5=CODE1&d=CODE&p=1&u=%2F%7Epublic%2Fcode1.htm&r=5&Sect6=HITOFF&f=G]
There are pros and cons to having regulation of exotic animals on a local level. On the plus side, localities can enact policies and regulatory schemes more quickly than state legislatures can. Towns, counties, municipalities, etc. tend to be composed of smaller councils as opposed to large, two partied and bi-cameral legislatures that the state’s legislature has. Localities can respond immediately to exotic animal incidents. However, a con of local regulation is lack of continuity. Effects of wild animals in the environment (such as the invasive effect of Burmese pythons in Florida) do not have locality specific, isolated effects. Thus, a location that permits exotic animals with permits or licensure may still effect the location that strictly prohibits the wild animals. Moreover, the same inconsistencies that exist with irregularity and the lack of uniformity among state laws exist interstate as well among local regulations.
While the majority of states have enacted some form of exotic animal regulation, many do not address enforcement. States may or may not enact a civil or criminal consequence for violating exotic pet laws. Additionally, a minimum of states that allow for possession have any regulations that address minimum standards of care for these wild species.
Some states delegate the authority to regulate wild or exotic animal possession to a state agency or department. The state either sets the agency’s standards in the administrative code or the agencies themselves set the applicable laws and any punishments that flow from violations. Delaware, for example, is a state that allows exotic animals with a license. Delaware’s Department of Agriculture is responsible for enforcement and its regulations are codified in the state administrative code, Title 3, Division 300, Chapter 304 on Exotic Animals. § 304-10.0 dictates that the Department determines if someone has failed to obtain the necessary exotic animal license and notifies the owner that they have ten business days to apply for a permit. Failure to apply is grounds for seizure and “disposal” of the animal by the state veterinarian. No administrative hearing or criminal proceeding is necessary for the vet to seize and dispose. Other states have civil enforcement procedures that are less drastic and focus on nominal fines for failure to comply.
Alternatively, some states regulate exotic animal possession in their criminal code. Enforcement, therefore, is a criminal one rather than an administrative one. Illinois codified the Dangerous Animals Act its criminal code under “Offenses Against the Public.” People or corporations that violate the law are guilty of a Class C misdemeanor with each day in violation constituting a separate offense. Class C is the lowest criminal offense in Illinois and violators are issued a fine, not jail time. However, it is included on one’s criminal record and is disqualified from being later expunged. New York, which also qualifies this behavior as a misdemeanor, recently considered raising the severity of the offense to a felony.
B. Minimum Care Standards
Few states regulate to protect the animal welfare concerns coupled with keeping exotic animals. Animal cruelty laws are enacted at the state criminal level and vary from minor fines and misdemeanors to felonies coupled with prison sentences. Laws criminalize violent, intentional injuries, neglect, and abandonment. This protects exotic animals generally but as discussed, exotic animals have special needs for care and have a more serious effect on the public. These special needs are not laid out legally so it is much less straightforward to know where a caged animal is abused in the form of neglect with respect to matters such as psychological and enclosure needs.
Maine is an example of a state that includes minimum care standards for animals by species in its regulations, however this is not the norm. ME ADC 09-137 Ch. 7, Pt. I, § 7.08(10). Moreover, enforcement and inspection is not stringently regulated or applied, even in states with standards like Maine’s.
VIII. TRENDS AND CONCLUSION
The last decade saw some general trends in the regulation of exotic pets. First and foremost, seven states instituted total bans on the possession of exotic animals and eight states issued partial bans. This shows that the issues of public welfare and safety have been recognized by at least 15 states. Licensing and permitting schemes are often costly to set up, oversee, and enforce, so that may explain why states erred on the side of total or partial bans to respond to the public necessity of regulation. A pattern seen across state regulation is that states with higher population densities or larger urban areas tend to regulate or prohibit exotic animal ownership. Consider New York, California, and Illinois – the states with the three largest urban cities in the country. These three states have strict, comprehensive schemes either fully or partially banning private possession of exotic animals. New York and Illinois both also do so through the criminal code with criminal penalties attached. This makes sense comparatively. States with low population densities like Montana or Wyoming are less in need of regulation because large open space makes dangerous incidents with animals less likely. Certain animals also became more popularly regulated in the last decade. Specifically, big cats and non-human primates became a more prevalent concern for states.
The largest problem with the current regulatory regime among the states is the inconsistency between federal, state, and local law. As discussed earlier, the negative effects associated with keeping exotic pets, such as the danger posed to the public or the environment, is not isolated. The difference in laws leaves loopholes and lends to confusion as well. There are several ways that the US federal government could adequately regulate this issue.
To incentivize uniform policies and regulations nation wide, the federal government has used the Spending Clause of the Constitution . As an example, Congress exercised this power when they threatened to de-fund highways if states did not raise the drinking age to a uniform age of 21. Similarly, Congress could have the power to compel states to ban exotic animals except in narrow suggestions. Environmental concerns that are coupled with private possession could be addressed through the National Invasive Species Act of 1996. Congress could amend this to more strictly ban species that have a history or proven capability to invade and cause harm to ecosystems like the Burmese python in Florida.
As with all laws, lobbying local and federal governments to address the concern is the foremost answer to the problems posed by unregulated private ownership of exotic animals. A strict, uniform ban at the federal level is the most direct answer to the problems posed to public health, animal welfare, and the environment.
 West Bend, WI where passed ordinance against exotic pets when resident was walking around with large snake or Muskego, WI where wallaby attack injured two children