Exotic pets, such as primates, tigers, wolves and reptiles, are wild animals and pose a danger to human populations. Animals who escape their enclosure may attack humans or carry disease. For example, according to Born Free, USA, 90 percent of reptiles carry salmonella in their feces and 80 to 90 percent of macaque monkeys carry hepatitis-B, both of which are easily transmitted to humans. Federal laws regulate how individuals may import and obtain exotic animals, while state laws regulate keeping an exotic pet. Exception to these laws may be made for circuses and zoos.
Endangered Species Act
The Endangered Species Act makes it illegal to buy, sell, transport or possess any species listed as endangered or threatened with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Internet sales are also prohibited under the ESA. The law is intended to protect these animals and their habitats from extinction at all costs.
The Lacey Act allows the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to prosecute anyone who illegally purchases or obtains an exotic animal. The law does not regulate the possession of an animal, only the way the animal is obtained.
Captive Wildlife Safety Act
The Captive Wildlife Safety Act amends the Lacey Act to make it illegal to transport big cats in the United States or across U.S. borders. The law protects tigers, lions, leopards, jaguars, cougars, cheetahs and any subspecies or hybrids of these cats. While the CWSA does not prohibit owning these animals, you may not buy or sell a big cat or transport one you currently own. Only exempt organizations, such as wildlife sanctuaries, state universities and agencies and individuals licensed under the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, may transport or take possession of big cats.
Public Health Services Act
To protect public health, the Public Health Services Act makes it illegal to import primates into the country. Importation is allowed with the proper permits for scientific, educational or exhibition purposes.
State and local laws for keeping an exotic pet vary widely. Some states, including Alaska and California, completely ban the ownership of exotic pets. Others enforce a partial ban. For example, Louisiana prohibits possessing animals such as pets bears, cougars and non-human primates and requires a permit to keep venomous snakes or constricting snakes longer than 12 feet. Several states, such as Arizona and Delaware, allow citizens to keep exotic pets, but require a permit and registration of the animal. In some cases, states do not require a permit, but may have other regulations such as veterinary health certificates or entry permits for the animals.
- American Bar Association: Exotic Animals as Pets
- Born Free, USA: The Dangers of Keeping Exotic “Pets”
- Animal Legal and Historical Center: Detailed Discussion of Exotic Pet Laws
- Born Free, USA: Summary of State Laws Relating to Private Possession of Exotic Animals
- Cornell University Law School: Endangered Species Act
- U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service: Captive Wildlife Safety Act
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