Exotic Pet Laws

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Brief Overview of Exotic Pet Laws Matthew G. Liebman (2004)

Private ownership of captive wild animals, commonly referred to as “exotic pets,” has increased significantly over the last few years. There have been hundreds, if not thousands of incidents in which these pets have escaped, attacked, spread diseases, or been abused. Because exotic pets like tigers or bears are not domesticated, they are far more likely to injure their owners, even when they are just “playing.” Also, exotic pets like monkeys and reptiles are far more likely than cats or dogs to carry unusual diseases or parasites. Wild animals also have very different lifestyles than traditional pets, so caring for them is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for owners. As a result owners often neglect or mistreat these animals, and they suffer miserable lives.

In reaction to these concerns about animal welfare, public safety, and public health, governments have adopted laws to prevent or limit exotic pet ownership. This has occurred at all levels of government, federal, state, and local. The federal government has made it illegal to transport large cats like lions and tigers across state lines in interstate commerce. Some states and cities have completely banned exotic pets, while others just require a license to have them.

Exotic pet owners have challenged these regulations in court, but they almost always lose because judges find that states and cities are free to decide to limit exotic pets. Since the courts have now affirmed the right to regulate exotic pets, it is up to executive agencies (such as local police or wildlife officers) to enforce the regulations that the legislatures have passed.


Overview of Exotic Pet Laws Matthew G. Liebman (2004)

Over the last decade there has been a rapid increase in private possession of captive wildlife, or so-called exotic pets, and a corollary increase in exotic pet-related incidents such as maulings, disease outbreaks, and animal abuse.

Since much of the trade in exotic pets occurs on the black market or over the Internet, it is difficult to determine exact statistics of such incidents. However, the statistics that do exist are startling. See, e.g., Richard Farinato, The Whims and Dangers of the Exotic Pets Market , Humane Society of the United States, at http://www.hsus.org/ace/19518 (last accessed Sept. 1, 2004).

With regard to animals kept as exotic pets in the U.S., the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, an alliance of animal protection groups and wildlife professionals fighting the trade in exotic pets, estimates the following numbers: 5,000-7,000 tigers (more than the wild population in Asia), 10,000-20,000 large cats, 17.3 million birds, 8.8 million reptiles, and at least 3,000 great apes. CWAPC Fact Sheet , Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, at http://cwapc.org/education/download/cwapc_factsheets1.pdf (last accessed August 6, 2004).

The Animal Protection Institute, an animal welfare group, catalogues attacks or escapes involving exotic pets. It details over 120 captive large cat incidents (attacks or escapes) since 1990, 75 nonhuman primate incidents since 1994, nearly 200 reptile incidents since 1995, and nearly 75 incidents involving other exotics such as bears, wolves, ferrets, and even a hippo, since 1995. All of these lists show drastic increases over the last several years, and API stresses that these are only partial accounts of the number of incidents. Captive Feline Incidents , Animal Protection Institute, at http://www.api4animals.org/383.htm (revised July 6, 2004); Captive Non-Human Primate Incidents , Animal Protection Institute, at http://www.api4animals.org/381.htm (revised July 6, 2004); Captive Reptile Incidents , Animal Protection Institute, at http://www.api4animals.org/380.htm (revised July 6, 2004); Incidents Involving Miscellaneous Captive Held Exotic Animals , Animal Protection Institute, at http://www.api4animals.org/382.htm (revised July 6, 2004).

The Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition releases a monthly report of incidents including human injuries and fatalities, animal injuries and fatalities, confiscations, and escapes. For April 2003, CWAPC reported 4 human fatalities, 93 animal fatalities (most from a single California faux-sanctuary), 17 confiscations, 4 escapes, and one indictment of an individual for selling lion and tiger meat. Captive Wild Animal Report: March 31 to April 30, 2003 , Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, at http://cwapc.org/news/IncidentReportApril2003.pdf (2003). For the two-month period of November through December 2003, CWAPC reported one human fatality in the U.S. (a ten-year old boy), four human injuries, six U.S. animal fatalities, 179 confiscations (most from a private breeder in Texas), and eight escapes. Captive Wild Animal Report: November-December 2003 , Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, at http://cwapc.org/news/IncidentReportNovDec2003.pdf (corrected and updated Feb. 20, 2004). However, these statistics are somewhat imprecise since several of the reported incidents involved private zoos, unaccredited sanctuaries, and other institutions that blur the line between commercial possession and private possession.

Spurred by concerns about public health, public safety, and animal welfare, lawmakers have begun to realize the dangers posed by private possession of exotic animals. Public health can be endangered by the introduction of non-native microorganisms with which the population is not prepared to cope. For example, an outbreak of monkeypox in the Midwest caused by pet prairie dogs resulted in bans on the keeping of those animals in several cities, counties, and states. Similarly, threats to public safety, in the form of attacks by exotic pets, can also spur new laws, as did the mauling of a young boy in North Carolina. Physical attacks may be even more likely than disease outbreaks to encourage regulations since the media covers them in a more sensational manner. Finally, to a lesser degree, lawmakers consider animal welfare in prohibiting or restricting exotic pet ownership. Numerous stories of poorly nourished, poorly housed, and abused animals have taught that personal possession of exotic pets is not in the interest of the animals themselves.

Depending on which of these concerns serves as a motivation for the enactment of protective laws, different animals may be covered. In instances where a local citizen has been attacked by a tiger or other similar animal, the governing body is more likely to ban or restrict possession of lions and tigers and bears, and other “dangerous” animals. On the other hand, where there has been an outbreak of monkeypox or salmonella, possession of reptiles, rodents, or other “dirty” animals is more likely to be banned or restricted. As will be discussed in more detail later in this paper, nearly every animal, with the exception of domestic cats and dogs, is subject to exotic regulations in some jurisdiction. This includes big cats, wolf-hybrids, ferrets, snakes, bears, primates, hippos, alligators, and many others.

Just as the type of animal varies by jurisdiction, so does the type of regulation. The law may be a complete ban, in which the exotic animals are simply prohibited from private individual possession. However, these bans frequently explicitly exclude zoos, circuses, and other types of possession that are distinguishable from pet ownership. Rather than flat-out banning possession, some jurisdictions establish licensing schemes, whereby individuals must obtain a permit, usually from the state fish and wildlife department, prior to owning an exotic pet. Other states regulate (though do not ban or license) the possession of animals, creating limits to the quantity of animals an individual may have or setting standards for importation and animal care. Finally, a few states have no regulations whatsoever of exotic pets.

These various regulations have been challenged in courts under various common law and constitutional doctrines. However, courts have almost universally upheld the validity of exotic pet regulations as a legitimate exercise of state police power that does not infringe on the constitutional protections of equal protection, due process, or takings.

The associated detailed discussion on this topic discusses these issues in detail. First, it examines the three major reasons for enacting exotic pet restrictions. Second, it discusses the characteristics of various legal responses to exotic pets by examining the jurisdictions that may pass such regulations (federal, state, and local), the types of regulatory schemes (bans, regulations, and permits), and the types of animals covered (tigers, bears, snakes, etc.). The following section examines the case law surround exotic pets by discussing the common law and constitutional issues raised by such regulations. Finally, it concludes with some recommendations for combating the private trade in wild animals.


Related articles

Behind a Glass, Darkly , Jennifer L. Tilden, 2 Journal of Animal Law 143 (2006) (on the private keeping of big cats).

Related cases

Table of Cases Dealing with Exotic Pets


Related laws

Table of Laws Dealing with Exotic Pets



Related Links


Web Center Links:

Update on Exotic Pet Laws Topic Area (2014)

International Trade in Wild Caught Reptiles Topic Area

Endangered Species Act (ESA) Topic Area

CITES Topic Area

Animal Welfare Act (AWA) Topic Area

External Links:

ASPCA's Page on Exotic Pets - http://www.aspca.org/adopt/adoption-tips/exotic-animals-pets

National Animal Interest Alliance position statement on owning exotic pets - http://www.naiaonline.org/about-us/position-statements/pet-ownership#exotics


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