Exotic Pets Update (2013)

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Brief Summary of Exotic Pets Laws
Martha Drouet (2014)

The pet industry is forever growing and is an integral part of humans’ lives.  Wild animals are not excluded from this want of unique, special pets.  Private pet ownership of wild, exotic animals – known commonly as an issue on “exotic pets” – has been a growing issue over the last few decades in the United States.  Violent incidences between large animals from escape and attack is an avoidable issue that has grown over the last two decades.  Common exotic pets are either large and carnivorous or small and venomous and effects from accidents are detrimental to human health.  Moreover, the environment is endangered by escape of invasive species and the animals themselves rarely receive the standard of care needed for fully rich lives.  Animals in captivity, especially private or unexperienced captivity, is of great concern.

To protect public health, safety, and welfare, the federal and local state and municipal governments have responded by adopting laws, regulations, and rules that govern if and how private parties can keep exotic pets.  These laws vary greatly by locality so it is important to track and be aware of what they all do and what they all mean.

Overview of Exotic Pet Laws
Martha Drouet (2014)

Over the last decade, eight states have chosen to impose more strict regulations on the ability to own exotic, wild animals as pets.  Nearly half of the states in the country now ban private ownership of exotic pets – 21 states total.  This change was prompted by a number of important policy concerns and risks posed by owning exotic pets.

Ohio, for example, used to have a liberal policy regarding exotic pets.  2011 saw a major catastrophe when Zanesville resident, Terry Thompson, released all 56 wild animals from his hobby farm before taking his life.  As a result of the release, 29 exotic, globally endangered animals were killed.  Chaotic scenes like this and the risk to human life are avoidable with more comprehensive or strict regulations.  Ohio responded to this incident by banning all exotic pets as of January 1, 2014.

Public health and safety is the largest concern of having exotic animals in captivity.  Born Free USA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit whose mission is to stop the practice of keeping any wild animal in captivity, including zoos.  The organization tracks violent incidents between humans and exotic animals in captivity, including incidents with exotic pets.  The last two decades has resulted in 2,011 injuries, 82 of which resulted in death of the person involved.  To keep up with the incident toll, see their tracker at http://www.bornfreeusa.org/database/exo_incidents.php?state%5B%5D=CA&species=LC.  Exotic animals, often illegally traded, are also frequent carriers of zoonotic diseases.  Traditional pets, such as dogs or cats, have been domesticated to the point where most diseases dangerous to humans, such as rabies, are vaccinated and prevented.  Conversely, exotic animals do not have comprehensive veterinary prevention plans and pose lethal risks of diseases to the public.

Animal welfare and environmental concerns are both triggered by exotic pets as well.  Exotic pets have especially high standards of care as they are wild and not domestic.  Exotic pets are larger and have higher psychological demands for space, freedom, aggression, and exercise that owners are frequently no equipped to handle.  Neglect and abuse are rampant in the exotic pet industry.  Moreover, invasive species are detrimental to the environment.  Where owners can no longer handle their exotic pets, the animals are released to the wild and wreak havoc on local ecosystems.

Exotic pet concerns are local in character but have national effects.  The federal government has little regulatory power over local issues so there is not a comprehensive federal law that addresses exotic pets.  Some federal laws effect the ability to purchase and sell exotic animals across the country but the regulation of exotic pets is largely and traditionally a state issue.

States vary greatly across the board on how they approach this issue.  21 states ban exotic pets, but they all do so in unique ways.  For example, Alaska facially bans the practice stating that game or wild animals may not be kept as a pet.  California, conversely, does not allow anyone to have an exotic animal without a permit.  California then issues permits for narrow purposes, none of which include pet ownership.  This is a practical ban because, in effect, it functions to ban the practice but does not do so outright like Alaska.  Eight states have partial bans where the state government has identified an enumerated list of specific species that are banned.  14 states allow for exotic pets along with a license.  State requirements for licenses vary by state.  Some states require paying a nominal fee, some require minimum insurance policies, and some, such as Maine, have standards for care and enclosures to protect from escape.

Local municipalities and counties are free to regulate more stringently than the state in which they are located.  This happens quite often.  However, the effect of local regulation is inconsistency.   More strict regulations by one town does not isolate it from the practices of the local town nearby.  Thus, the negative effects may still manifest.

Hybrid pets are animals that are some part traditional domestic animal and some part wild.  The most common example is cross-breeding a household dog with a wild wolf.  Wolf-hybrids are growing in popularity but also have hidden dangers.  Because wolves are not domestic, they retain aggressive and wild behaviors that manifest as the animal matures.  The same health and safety concerns from exotic pets come with hybrid pets as well and states have started to acknowledge this and regulate accordingly.

Finally, enforcement too is dealt with by states in a variety of ways.  Some states assess minor civil fines while others impose criminal penalties.  Similarly, some states leave it to local administrative agencies where others leave it up to law enforcement.  Moreover, states do not address care standards.  The few that do specific to exotic pets do not have full enforcement or inspection standards and is largely left to private parties to comply at their own free will.

The detailed discussion on this topic explores all of these issues in detail.  First, it explores the public policy reasons that these laws are need to protect the welfare of the public, the animals, and the environment.  Second, it discusses what little federal regulations speak to exotic pets and how it applies to the exotic pet industry and owner.  State laws, where the bulk of the regulation lies, is then fleshed out in fine detail, including how they are starting to address hybrid pets as well.  This topic concludes with an exploration of enforcement, the trends between the states, and a few suggested resolutions for more comprehensive protection.

Related articles

Behind a Glass, Darkly, Jennifer L. Tilden, 2 Journal of Animal Law 143 (2006).

Related cases

Wilkins V. Daniels, Slip Copy, 2012 WL 6644465 (S.D.Ohio, 2012)

Related laws

Related Links

Web Center Links:

New! Detailed Discussion of the Exotic Pet Trade (2022)

Exotic Pets Topical Introduction (2004)

Trade in Wild-Caught Reptiles Topical Introduction (2005)

Map of Private Exotic Pet Ownership Laws

External Links:

BornFree Summary of Laws Related to Exotic Animal Possession - http://www.bornfreeusa.org/b4a2_exotic_animals_summary.php

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