Wild Matters: The Nature of Exotic Pet Laws


As a kid, I dreamed of living with lions or tigers. Perhaps this attraction to animals both soft and powerful is my earliest example of “cat-person” leanings, but adulthood revealed ethical and legal concerns woven into this dangerous childhood fantasy.

Laws which define and restrict “exotic” and/or “wild” pets vary by states, counties and localities. News topics are just as diverse, ranging from people upset over ferret bans to a boy killed in North Carolina by a pet tiger in 2003, leading to a federal ban on interstate sale of lions, tigers and more. Itchmo articles include Paris Hilton’s menagerie plus zookeeper and a woman mourning for her pet monkey. A Maryland community newspaper covering the same pet monkey situation quoted Humane Society estimates that 15,000 nonhuman primates and 10,000 lions and tigers are kept as pets in the United States.

The Animal Protection Institute offered another monkey story in July 2007 – this one about a Japanese macaque attacking an IRS agent in Mississippi. The monkey’s teeth had been removed, apparently as an attempt to keep it from expressing its wild nature. The blog for Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle recently featured more monkey anecdotes and the Captive Primate Safety act, a federal bill.

Itchmo also mentioned the story of a family who saved, rehabilitated and raised a deer only to have it seized by authorities. I was relieved when Newsweek reported Snowball would not be euthanized and thought it interesting the anonymous tip to authorities came, not from a neighbor concerned with nuisance or animal welfare, but from “an estranged relative.”

At a glance, the reasons behind exotic/wild pet restrictions are generally concern for public safety, animal welfare or ecosystem stability since some animals are lost or intentionally released. A friend of mine cares for two small conures, one an owner give-up and the other obviously tame bird recovered from an outdoor feeder. An Alabama regulation banned possession, sale or release of “non-indigenous venomous snakes” after a spitting cobra went missing in Moody, Ala. in 2001 (see point 7). The Birmingham News reported the five-foot snake, owned by a man who tied snake handling to his religious beliefs, was capable of spitting venom up to 15 feet. He kept the reptile in a fish tank until its disappearance. I see no record the cobra was ever found.

A Stokes County, N.C., ordinance identifies both non-exotic and exotic (prohibited or restricted) animals while Daviess County, Ken., lists “All felines (other than the domestic house cat), non-human primates, bears, wolves, coyotes, foxes, and venomous reptiles, and any crossbreed of such animals which have similar characteristics of the animals specified herein” as non-domestic animals which are prohibited. Daviess County also allows people to keep existing animals if they can prove the animals arrived before the ordinance was enacted. As I write, the state of Ohio is considering an exotic pet bill. The Animal Protection Institute is one of several online resources for those who wish to learn more about laws at the state level. Running Internet searches, visiting town and wildlife conservation Web sites or contacting local authorities can reveal other laws and ordinances.

Like so many animal issues, exotic or wild pets are a “hot” topic, with passionate opinions and generally good intentions running in multiple directions. Once again, I reveal my affection for disclaimers by stating such a multi-faceted subject cannot be fully explored in 1,000 words, and this entry is admittedly more a reflection of my own mental gymnastics than every point of view on this issue. We can hunt these animals, but we cannot help them? Where should a legislative line be drawn? At what point does Good Samaritanism become potentially harmful to the animals, their caregivers or the public? Is it better for a wildlife rehabilitation center to handle recovery, instead of a local family? The questions in my head go on and on.

At times human life helps wildlife in a way that offers insight into their world. When I read Providence of a Sparrow by Chris Chester, I looked at the house sparrows at my feeder with new eyes. After finding a baby sparrow, Chester cared for the bird for years, turning his home into an aviary, with the help of his girlfriend and a vet tech. The journey of Chester and the bird, nicknamed “B,” is an experience rich with facts, opinions, ideas and friendship.

A fellow bird-watcher was less enthusiastic. Each attempt I made to discuss the book was met with, “I do NOT agree with keeping wild birds as pets.” Keeping wild birds as pets was not my point or, I felt, that of the author, but I changed the subject after a few rounds of interruptions. I am in unspoken agreement with her, actually, a contradiction to my instinct that, also, Chester did the right thing by saving B and other birds.

More than ten years ago my sister and I took the family dogs to a photo opportunity with “Santa” to raise money for a local humane charity. As we waited in line, we saw all kinds of pets – mostly canine. A woman behind us carried an animal in a blanket, and I expected a pug until I noticed a thick bald tail. She told us she found the cross-eyed opossum wandering around on her porch years earlier, its eyesight seemed compromised, and she raised it indoors. As she talked, I still remember the way the animal turned toward the sound of her voice, looking up at her caregiver with what I could only interpret as affection.

Who can help us identify when animals are more likely harmed than helped? An article on wolf-dog hybrids by Dr. Michael W. Fox, former vice president of the Humane Society of the United States, includes questions which could apply to a variety of “wild” or “exotic” pet situations. Fox recommends local governments target hybrid breeding and trading, while allowing existing hybrids to remain in their current homes if the environments are suitable.

Our lives are enriched by spending time with other species, and I believe companion animals’ lives are enriched as well. The two little cats I love have non-domestic ancestors in a distant family tree. But my own ancestors did not have modern knowledge to fuel their ethics during domestication or an Internet to offer them a monkey or lynx by mail. Even sincere interest, assistance or affection by some can lead to exploitation or abuse by others, a sad reality which should be considered.

I flinch at a photo of a large kitten crying out at the end of a leash, perhaps at the home of the Web site’s owner who sells wildlife born in captivity. I’ve heard a Chicago-area store has monkeys, foxes and more. And although no “Buy a Bambi” operation was involved, even the Oregon deer story felt exponentially more complicated when another wild animal was born into the family.

Ask if a tiger makes a good pet (or a good neighbor) and you’ll probably get a quick “No!” Lines often blur when defining “wild” and “exotic” in the court of public opinion regarding birds, reptiles, ferrets and so on. May legislators and others trying to create such definitions choose wisely. For now, I return to the research that may firm up the boundaries of my own opinions.

Photo: greenstreet software

6 Responses to “Wild Matters: The Nature of Exotic Pet Laws”

  1. Lynne says:

    This is why one of my favorite charities is Noahs Lost Ark.
    They rescue animals such as big cats, wolves, etc. from owners who thought that bear cub would make such a cute pet…. Take a look at their site. They do remarkable work and have some wonderful lions, tigers, etc. that started out horribly abused and now have a safe and healthy place to live out their lives. I give a little out of each paycheck to support their efforts.

  2. highnote says:

    Any time a person sees a wild hurt animal or a wild baby of any kind it is hard to know what is the best thing to do. It is difficult to walk away and do nothing at all.
    I was always taught that it was natures way of doing things and the strongest survive but when I rotortilled up a family of baby rabbits and one of them lived, that was not natures way. I changed that with my rotortiller. I took the rabbit in and raised it. Rabbits can carry rabbit fever so I was taking a chance when I took the rabbit in to my home. I felt I did not have a choice because it was my fault it happened.
    The family that took the deer noticed that it had a problem with it’s feet and if they had called a game warden out, they would have distroyed the deer. Would this have been right? The family took it to a vet and spent the money to help it. So what was right?
    I thought they were wonderful to help the deer because it would have died in the wild.
    I feel it is sometimes our duty to help those wild animals out. They are alive and are not just for a hunters trophy lodge.
    There was a dead mother possum on the side of the road and in her pouch were many babies and some of them were coming out of the pouch. I left them there and and felt so sorry for the babies but knew I could do nothing to help them. Sometimes we have to walk away and let nature take its course. It is a hard thing to watch when you love animals but those same animals can carry many diseases and bring it home to your family. We do need to be careful when we pick up wild animals because we would not want to bring a disease home to our children. They are wild animals and it is always the possibility that they could turn on us too. They are not domesticated and everyone should realize that when they try to help them.
    I personally do not believe in buying exotic pets. I have always felt they would want their freedom and would not be happy locked up in a little cage.
    I watched the wolf pack in our zoo and noticed how they ran back and forth constantly, I could tell they were very unhappy and wanted their freedom. Instead of feeling excited that I got to see a wolf up close, I felt depressed because I could tell that freedom meant more to them then having a good meal and someone to care for them.
    I realize that everyone has different feelings about this issue and I only thought I would share some of my own.

  3. Jeanie says:

    This was a very thoughtfully written article. There is a big difference between rescuing an injured or handicapped wild animal and breeding / selling wild animals for the pleasure of ignorant humans. One of my favorite animal organizations is Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, FL. Go to www.bigcatrescue.com to read about how many of their big cats came from HORRIBLE situations where people sought to profit off these majestic creatures. They were neglected, abused, starved and mutilated (de-clawed and de- fanged). There should be stricter laws to prevent the breeding of wild animals to sell as as pets or killed for their fur.

  4. Trudy Jackson says:

    I saw a lion breeder on TV once, and it was terrible. They were kept in tiny cages, and the babies were taken right away from the mother to be hand raised. The guy would throw a large something over the fence to feed them. They looked terrible.
    I know someone here who bought a baby lion. She had Him, nuetered, declawed, and de-fanged. so what is left of the poor lion?

  5. Jamie says:

    If someones did that to a lion what would be the point in it being a lion is the point everyone seems to have made. Although it could be a good idea if the lion turned on you of course!

  6. Andrew says:

    It’s important to have these types of laws in place otherwise people who wouldn’t normally be able to encounter/home an exotic pet would feel free to do so and the potential for catastraphy is much greater than if the exotic creature were cared for by someone who actually understood what the pet needed and required.

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