Exotic Animals as Pets

big catIn 2007 Iowa passed Iowa Code §717F.1-.13. which makes it illegal to own or possess "dangerous wild animals" for any reason including for breeding.

Dangerous wild animals are defined as those including tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, cheetahs, ocelots, bears, pandas, rhinos, elephants, primates (other than humans), crocodiles, alligators and some lizards and snakes.

There are exceptions, though, including for any USDA licensed breeder, dealer, retailer, exhibitor, or operator of an auction. Hunters, trappers, circuses, farmers using the animals for "agricultural" purposes, research facilities, and state fairs are also exempt. 

Some pretty big exceptions. But the idea is to keep people from owning at least some wild animals as pets, the ones that could be dangerous to humans.

Any person in possession of a "dangerous wild animal" at the time the law was effective in December, 2007, may keep it as long as the registration requirements and other restrictions are met except that no one convicted at any time of animal abuse or a felony or any drug crime in the past 10 years is eligible; nor is anyone eligible who has had an application or permit suspended or revoked for a business for the care, breeding or sale of animals. The fees for registration of an already owned dangerous wild animal range from $50 to $500. Iowa Code § 717F.4

Civil penalties for violations range from $200-$2000. There are criminal penalties as well. There are provisions for obtaining injunctions against violators and seizure and forfeiture of custody of the animals. 

Purpose of these laws addressing wild animals or exotics as pets 

The purpose of these laws generally as the Iowa law demonstrates, is to protect the public from dangerous animals, not to protect wild animals.  

But it is the public that has little knowledge or understanding of these animals and often no real concern for the well being of these animals and puts them in jeopardy. The Animal Rescue of League reports in Iowa it has rescued wild or exotic animals from more than a dozen owners in the past 3 years. In one case there were 30 exotic animals in one house. 

Wild animals belong in their native habitat in the wild, not in a circus, zoo or wildlife exhibit, not in a breeder’s facility, not in a pet store, not in someone’s back yard or living room and certainly not in a cage. 

Rescuers work for the day when human beings see animals belong in the wild and not as an exotic pet or trophy they should be traded, displayed or confined in a small yard or cage. 

It won’t be easy.

The trade of wild animals is at least a $25 billion industry worldwide. About a quarter to a third of the trade worldwide is illegal, second only to drugs and guns. 

Wild animals do not adapt well to capture and trade and living in confinement. Over 90% of reptiles, for example, die within the first year of captivity.  In fact, many do not survive capture and transportation.

animalTrappers apparently have no incentive to treat the captured animals humanely. After all, they are "free" inventory. The trappers only need sufficient numbers to sell profitably. There is no point from their perspective in investing in the care of these animals otherwise.

Of course, it should be noted the capture of these animals often destroys their habitat as well.

There are some guidelines established by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) for the shipping of animals.  The United Nations treaty, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), requires live animals regulated by the treaty to be transported according to IATA guidelines.

But CITES can only be enforced through laws in each member country. Many countries do not enforce IATA guidelines. Some airlines simply ignore the guidelines. In the US the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service inspects less than 25% of live animal shipments. And regardless, the penalties usually consist of a warning. 

The multi-billion dollar illegal trade in wild animals does not comply at all with IATA or CITES. The animals are illegally smuggled in horrific conditions. One recent report estimated 75% of all wild caught animals traded illegally die during capture and smuggling.

Also, while most of these animals may seem harmless as babies, they grow into adults that can be dangerous to humans. Wild animals are not domesticated simply because they are raised in captivity. The domestication of a wild animal is an evolutionary process that takes thousands of years. The behavior of wild animals kept as pets or used in circuses is unpredictable.  It is the animal that pays the price when it behaves according to its instincts as a wild animal.

Wild animals can carry diseases that may be harmless in their native habitat. But they diseases can cause serious illness and even death when introduced to humans or other animals whose immune systems are not prepared to fend off imported diseases.  In fact, the incidents of zoonotic diseases, those transmitted from wild animals to humans, is on the rise. Of "1415 known human pathogens, 62% were of zoonotic origin" according to a March 21, 2006 CDC report.

The most notable recent case in the U.S. has been the outbreak of monkeypox from prairie dogs sold as pets. The monkeypox actually originated from Gambian rats brought to the U.S. as pets.  As a result, in a rare move the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services shut down the import and sale of the Gambian rat. Click here for more information on diseases of zoonotic origin.

pet alligatorMoreover, wild animals often require care far beyond the capabilities of most people. When people cannot care for them properly, give them the space they need, or grow tired of them, these wild animals end up abandoned or neglected, left in a cage or maybe at best, a questionable rescue or sanctuary.

These animals often suffer terrible abuse. 

These wild creatures should not be pets or captive trophies in the first place.

Federal regulation of wild or exotic animals

There is little federal regulation of ownership of wild animals. The Animal Welfare Act, 7 U.S.C. 2131-2157, requires a dealer’s license for any one importing, buying, selling, or trading animals foreign to the United States including those selling domestically bred exotic animals. Anyone selling wild animals found in the U.S. must also obtain a license. All exhibitors must obtain and exhibitor’s license. 9 CFR §2.1. There are regulations for veterinary care, record keeping and the care and handling of some exotics. 9 CFR Subparts D, E, and F. The regulations provide minimal, vague standards enforced by APHIS, an agency of USDA. There are few inspectors for the thousands of licensed animal dealers, exhibitors, retailers, and research facilities in the U.S. 

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which amended the Lacey Act, 16 USC §3371et seq. effective December 19, 2003 prohibits the interstate sale and transportation of big cats such as lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, and cougars without the proper permit or accreditation. 

The Endangered Species Act, 16 USC §§1531 – 1544, bans the trade, possession or transport of endangered species. 16 USC §1538. The Act also enforces CITES by banning trade in species listed in Appendices I, II.  But, the Endangered Species Act does not prohibit private ownership of endangered animals.

There is also the Wild Bird Conservation Act, 16 U.S.C. §§4901-4916, discussed more fully here and here

Otherwise, it has been generally left to the states and local governments to regulate the ownership and trade of wild animals, particularly their use as pets.

Some states like Iowa ban possession of captive wildlife as pets. 

California, for example, has enacted a law banning private ownership of most wild animals. Cal. Fish & Game Code Sec. 2118, 2119, 2120, 2150-2157, 2186-2195; 14 CCR 671, 671.1 The law does provide some instances when these animals may be kept under a permit or are exempt: certain aquatic animals and researchers, breeders, dealers, exhibitors, persons accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AZA), universities, colleges, governmental research agencies or other bona fide scientific institutions. 14 CCR §671.1  Any California organization which is not accredited by the AZA may apply to the department for a waiver of permit requirements. For a list of the animals banned as pets, see §671(c).  California bans some of these animals because they pose a "detriment" to native species or the health and safety of humans. Others are banned to protect the welfare of the animals.

Massachusetts Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 131, § 23 also bans private ownership of exotic animals to "protect wild animals from unnecessary or undesirable interference and from improper treatment," as well as to "[protect] … the public health, welfare and safety." Mass. Regs. Code tit. 321, § 2.12(1) (2004).  There are exceptions which require licenses, but the law bans ownership of wild animals as pets or where the  "purposes or intentions [are] based purely on curiosity, impulse or novelty, or to provide for personal amusement or entertainment." § 2.12(9)(b).  

Some animals are exempt from the law:  Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 131, § 23 (2004).

These species must meet four criteria: first, the animal cannot pose any threat to a native Massachusetts ecosystem; second, the animal cannot pose a threat to human health or safety; third, care for the animal is no more demanding than care for "common domestic animals"; and fourth, the captivity of the animal cannot have a significant adverse effect on the animal’s natural population. § 23.

The animals that have been added to this license-exemption list include boas and pythons, skinks, parrots, hedgehogs, chinchillas, and flying squirrels, among others. § 9.01(8)-(12). A separate statute allows ferrets as well. Mass. Gen. Laws Ann. ch. 131, §77 (2004).  

Pet elephantNevada prohibits private ownership of alligators, foxes, coyotes, and others, while allowing pet elephants, monkeys, wolves, and even yaks. Nev. Admin. Code ch. 503, §110, §140.

Michigan bans acquisition and possession of wolf-dog hybrids and large carnivores (lions, leopards, jaguars, tigers, cougars, panthers, cheetahs, and bears) though the law grandfathers in the animals already in the state as pets; those animals are regulated, however. Mich. Comp. Laws §287.1101-1123.

Other states have enacted permitting or licensing schemes that regulate the ownership of wild animals as pets.  The law in Delaware declares:  "No person shall bring into this State, possess, sell or exhibit any live wild mammal or hybrid of a wild mammal or live reptile not native to or generally found in Delaware without first securing a permit under this chapter." Del. Code Ann. tit. 3 § 7201

Texas‘ exotic pet law states, "A person may not own, harbor, or have custody or control of a dangerous wild animal for any purpose unless the person holds a certificate of registration for that animal issued by an animal registration agency." Tex. Health & Safety Code § 822.103-822.112 

Other states regulate only the importation of animals across their borders. Currently, in Ohio, for example, "non-domestic" animals are allowed into the state if they are "accompanied by a permit issued prior to entry and certificate of veterinary inspection," are test-negative for infectious diseases and parasites, are in compliance with other state and federal regulations, and were legally residents in the state or country of origin. Ohio Admin. Code §901: 1-17-12.

Beyond this, the state of Ohio does not currently regulate exotic pets.

Other states have similar approaches, including Washington (Wa. Admin. Code §16-54-030) and Idaho (Idaho Code §36-701).