The 12 Coolest Exotic Pets That You Can't Own
Highly Desirable Pets That Are Mostly Illegal in the US
Warning: This is a potentially dream-killing hub for the adventurous pet keepers out there in the US.
Many animals such as meerkats, sloths, and slow lorises have risen in popularity due to being featured in TV shows and viral YouTube videos. What are some of the most sought-after exotic pets in the US? Is it possible to get these animals as pets in the United States (without owning a zoo)? Read on to learn about them (and some possibly legal alternatives):
Note: Just because this article discusses which animals are possible to get in the US doesn't mean you should get one. Pet purchases of any kind should never be made on an impulse because an animal is cute, and many exotic animals are uncommonly kept as pets for a reason—they are very difficult to care for.
1. The Slow Loris
When the detrimental effects of the illegal exotic pet trade are discussed, the slow loris is often brought up. The popularity of these Asian primates took off when a private owner of one uploaded a video of their pet, named Sonya, getting its under arms tickled. Lorises have the similar appeal of sloths—with their lazy, human-like appearance and mannerisms, complemented by strange nocturnal eyes, many videos of the creatures soon become viral hits after.
Due to this, conservation groups retaliated and implored viewers to consider the unfortunate source of slow loris pets. They are often removed directly from the wild, their teeth painfully yanked out (but slow lorises are not actually venomous), and shipped to other countries. These animals are not easy to breed, hence why they are uncommon in zoos. Therefore it is unlikely that there are captive breeders selling animals to the people who own them in an ethical and sustainable fashion. It's feasible that claims of captive-bred slow lorises are fabrications.
Why you can't have one: They aren’t available in the United States due to their exportation being illegal, for good reason. However, other countries do sell them. The famous tickled loris Sonya resides in Russia. Some people keep them in Japan as well. The most common place for them to be kept as pets is in their native countries where they are sold directly, hence why it is pointless to blame the pet trade in North America for this devastating result of people’s pet-keeping desires.
The Kinkajou: An Alternative to the Slow Loris
The kinkajou closely resembles a primate but is actually a procyonid, which is a taxonomic group containing raccoons, ringtail cats, and coatimundis. Kinkajous may be legal in more states that have bans on wild animals. Like raccoons, kinkajous are intelligent and need space for their nocturnal activity. They are somewhat easier to own than primates but should never be underestimated since they may also have aggressive tendencies that need to be considered. Another animal that is similar-looking to slow lorises but currently uncommonly kept as a pet is the cuscus, which is a marsupial.
2. The Cheetah
Many people are not aware that cheetahs, compared to other big cats, are not really dangerous and are sometimes kept as pets (often illegally) in other parts of the world where they can be walked on a leash like a dog. Scientists are now considering taking cheetahs out of the definition of a big cat.
While these cats are certainly big compared to a typical tabby, they are not muscular like lions and hunt by chasing down their prey and tripping them. They will not see humans other than very small children as potential prey.
Still, cheetahs epitomize grace, ferocity, and allure for many people. Cheetahs are one of the first animals you see in the powerful Circle of Life opening in The Lion King, and they were featured in the film Duma.
Why you can't have one: Cheetahs are rare in the United States and are mainly found in accredited zoos. These animals haven't made it to the private sector because they are very difficult to breed. This is a contrast to other cats such as tigers, which reside in captivity and private ownership in far higher numbers.
The Serval: An Alternative to the Cheetah
For potential wildcat owners, servals are a common and easily propagated medium-sized African cat that have the exotic look of the cheetah wrapped up in a smaller package. If your idea of a good pet is an animal that adapts to the household as readily as a typical domesticated cat . . . then a serval will make a miserable, horrendous pet for you, so don't bother. It is best that owners of these animals have an outdoor run for them as they will spray and have aggressive tendencies (but they are not a danger to the public).
Servals are also illegal in about as many states as cheetahs. A better alternative for many people may be lower generations of Savannah and Bengal cats.
3. The Red Panda
The red panda is not to be confused with the panda bear, which they are not closely related to. However, like the panda bear, the red panda are threatened in the wild due to habitat loss, although they are classified by IUCN as vulnerable with only 10,000 mature individuals existing in the wild.
Red pandas are surging in popularity. The Dreamwork film Kung Fu Panda features an anthropomorphic animated version. These animals have striking coloration and a superficial resemblance to their namesakes. While in the past they were placed in the bear and raccoon family, recent phylogenetic evidence suggests they are in their own taxonomic group. These animals are sometimes kept illegally as pets in their native range, which may contribute to their threatened status in the wild.
Why you can't have one: With its cat-like face and attractive coloration, many people make inquiries about red pandas as pets. Not only would this not be a good idea for the species, but they aren’t going to be legally available anyway. There are only small populations existing in captivity in the United States, and they are probably restricted only to accredited zoos.
The Raccoon: An Alternative to the Red Panda
Captive-bred raccoons are legal in some states in the US. However, due to the concern of rabies, of which they are a significant vector for in the wild, they are often believed to be dangerous zoonotic disease sources and are heavily regulated in many areas. Raccoons originating from the wild shouldn't be kept as pets in most cases, and those in need of rehabilitation should be given to certified wildlife rehabilitation centers.
4. The Penguin
Penguins have gained obvious popularity. Again, their human-like qualities and waddle make them a favorite with people, and this was highlighted by the 2005 film March of the Penguins and 2006's Happy Feet.
Emperor penguins are obviously only suitable for captivity in publicly funded professional zoos and aquariums, but there are smaller penguins that tolerate warmer temperatures which originate from Africa and New Zealand (however, here is one owner of a king penguin, a bird which originates from Sub-Antarctic regions).
While not all penguins live in the frigid Antarctic waters and require subzero temperatures, they are still uncommon as pets. There is a shocking YouTube video shows a store in Japan where there was a penguin being sold (shown below.) Entitled "The Most Controversial Pet Shop," the depicts a shop in Japan called The Inner City Zoo. It displays and sells otters, bats, sloths, penguins, meerkats, and more, along with more traditional pets. The penguins in the video appear to be African penguins, which are endangered.
It is not impossible for a private owner to provide for these aquatic birds, but it is not likely that responsible, educated owners would patronize a store like this. The animals require more room than a traditional kiddie pool.
Why you can't have one: Penguins are protected under the Lacey Act and are illegal to possess without certain permits that aren't likely to be available to pet owners. If you are determined, however, perhaps you can get one if you start an educational facility or some form of exhibition.
What you can get: Ducks, obviously.
The World's Most Controversial Pet Shop (Penguins for Dale)
5. The Tree Kangaroo
Tree kangaroos are marsupials that are the most threatened and native to Australia and New Guinea. They are arboreal and are far more content in the trees than on the ground. Several species of this unique animal exist. Tree kangaroos are thick, fuzzy, and people often find them very appealing.
Why you can't have one: Like other threatened and uncommon exotics, these animals are not in the private sector and are distributed amongst accredited zoos only, as they should be. You wouldn't want this animal as a pet anyway—they require massive enclosures to simulate their arboreal habitats.
The Wallaby: An Alternative to the Tree Kangaroo
Wallabies are common amongst exotic mammal keepers and are easier to care for than tree kangaroos. Typical species that are kept are Bennett's wallabies and the smaller Dama wallabies. These animals however are not indoor pets, they must have an outdoor run to exercise in and a climate-controlled enclosure to retreat to. When young, they demand a lot of attention, and the owner should carry them in a makeshift pouch if they are to be raised alone. This is certainly not a pet for someone who just wants a pet and not specifically a wallaby.
6. The Jerboa
This is a super cool rodent from the deserts of Africa that you may have never heard of unless you landed on the popular YouTube videos. They come in different sizes based on the species, and they closely resemble a kangaroo rat, although they have a far stranger appearance. On some of the videos, they have been described as aliens for a good reason. Balanced on teeny legs, they dart and hop across the floor. The video "Dramatic Little Monster" popularized them somewhat and featured a very strange-looking individual. There are pygmy species of jerboa, as well as larger jerboas that have rabbit-like ears known as Euchoreutes naso.
Why you can't have one: The United States has banned the entry of African rodents into the country because of the monkeypox scare, which may be a good reason. The animals were once available here. Then, what may be due to their difficult care and breeding, once the imports stopped, they eventually disappeared in North American captivity. However, it appears that they are still kept as pets in Japan where there are many videos of them as pets (see one below.) These animals are probably mostly wild-caught importations.
What you can get: Gerbils, which are popular pets and anyone with common sense can properly care for one. I haven't seen kangaroo rats in captivity recently either, possibly because they are not easy-care rodents and no one is trying to breed them.
Video: Greater Egyptian Jerboa
7. The Pygmy Marmoset
Marmosets are small, New World monkeys in a group along with tamarins called callitrichids. They are intriguing and unique, being monkeys that appear small and almost rodent-like in appearance. Don't let their toy size fool you, though. Keeping small monkeys as pets is just as involved as keeping their larger counterparts.
These small monkeys, which really should be kept with members of their own species, would need caging that allows enough space for them to carry out species-specific behavior. In other words, around 6x6 feet minimum.
Pygmy marmosets are a particular type of marmoset that is incredibly small, and pictures of them circulate and induce a lot of "Awws." People like teeny things, such as toy breeds of dogs (including those blasted teacup dogs), "mini pigs" (which are not so mini when they reach their adult size,) and pocket pets like dwarf hamsters. Marmosets of any sort are the size of pocket pets, but they are anything but an animal like a dwarf rabbit or hamster. They are demanding and relatively socially complex.
Why you can't have one: I'm not sure, but they just don't seem to exist in the American pet trade, unlike many other monkeys and lemurs.
Video: Bubbles the Pygmy Marmoset
The Common Marmoset: An Alternative to the Pgymy Marmoset
Marmosets and tamarins are somewhat common in the exotic mammal trade. During my visit to Las Vegas, there was even one being sold in a pet store. Red-handed tamarins, Geoffrey marmosets, and cotton-topped tamarins are examples of some of the callitrichid species that are found in private ownership. However just because these are legal in the few remaining states that haven't outlawed non-human primate ownership doesn't mean they should be sought out as pets by anyone other than those who are dedicated to providing longterm (at least 20 years) of high-quality care.
8. The Koala Bear
Many people love koalas, and I am not sure why. These marsupials have become a symbol of fuzzy cuteness even though they can be quite vicious. People are probably unaware of this fact because these animals are not very common, even in North American zoos. They have a highly specialized diet of eucalyptus, which must be grown on-site to support these animals. For obvious reasons, they wouldn't make a suitable pet for people.
Why you can't have one: Koala bears are highly endangered, and Australia has restrictions on which animals can be imported out of the country. Obviously, koalas are on it and are even uncommon in accredited American zoos.
What you can get: Sugar gliders are popular Australian marsupials that require some research to care for but are readily available in the pet trade. Actual bears are also sometimes kept as pets (the closest resemblance to the koala would be the sun bear) but that is obviously not recommended.
9. The Snowy Owl
These magnificent birds were popularized by the absurdly popular Harry Potter books and movies. In fact, these birds are purchased illegally in India as pets by 'muggles' due to the craze. This bird is also responsible for the O RLY meme. However, owls as pets would require a large flight home, and they are not house pets.
Why you can't have one: Birds of prey are heavily regulated in the US. Harboring any native owls requires a federal permit under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Snowy owls inhabit Alaska, Canada, and Eurasia, and I'm not certain if they are illegal at the federal level, but I do know that the birds are rarely offered to private owners.
What you can get: Pretty much any parrot.
10. The Sand Cat
Sand cats are strange-looking, small, and exotic felines that have a somewhat close resemblance to our domesticated fare, but their heads have an interesting distinction. They are the only feline native to true deserts and have a distribution that includes Northern Africa and Central Asia. The sand cat was voted as the cutest cat in a contest held by Big Cat Rescue, which has held five of these animals which were surplus from other zoos.
Sand cats are sometimes illegally kept as pets in their home range and are under threat from habitat loss (although they are not listed as threatened). In captivity, their enclosure must be kept arid to ward off upper respiratory infections that are a common cause of their death in captivity.
Why you can't have one: They are restricted to accredited zoos and institutions. As of 2009, there were only 200 individuals in 45 facilities around the world. Captive sand cat populations should be reserved for those actively breeding them in participation with a species survival plan. Update 2018: One seller started offering sand cats for the hefty price of $20,000 for a pair.
The Fennec Fox: An Alternative to the Sand Cat
Sand cats are basically the feline version of the fennec fox in appearance, which is a desert canid that requires relatively easy care and make fascinating pets. They adapt well to human households, so there is no need to simulate the desert to care for them. They are active and noisy, and have traditional exotic pet tendencies that may make them a handful for people expecting more tame cat and dog-like behavior.
11. The Meerkat
Meerkats have been made famous by Disney's The Lion King. They are popular for their stance that implies, "look out," in which they stand on two legs like a person. Meerkats are actually mongooses and make pretty bad pets, although some people keep them in Asia and even Europe.
Why you can't have one: These animals are sold as pets sometimes in other countries but are heavily regulated in the States. They are also difficult to breed and maintain outside of natural-esque colonies, so their populations are not high even where captive-bred animals are available. Their rareness as pets is probably for the best, considering their difficult care and the extreme bond they would have with their owners. This would essentially make re-homing them impossible without psychological overhaul.
The Prairie Dog: An Alternative to the Meerkat
Prairie dogs stand bipedally like meerkats, live a similar lifestyle in the wild, and are not prone to aggressive attacks toward strangers in captivity. The animals are even said to have a distinctive language. They also don't require deep sand boxes to satisfy digging urges and are far more adaptable to a more typical pet-keeping situation. Like the jerboa, their imports are restricted due to the African rodent embargo, but there are enough captive animals to sustain the American pet trade. Prairie dog babies are only born in the spring.
12. The Tarsier
The tarsier is an animal with comically gigantic eyes. Amusing videos of the creatures, which are Asian primates (not monkeys), can be found on YouTube with high view counts. Their small size and sheer uniqueness may make them appear to be cool pets, and they very well may be (for advanced keepers as they are primates, although not as intelligent as monkeys and apes.) However, most of us will never know. Some of the sub-species are critically endangered, and they are heavily protected.
Why you can't have one: They have special feeding requirements and do not breed well in captivity, therefore, accredited zoos and on-location breeding sites only (if any) keep them.
Video: Funny: Big Eyes Tarsier
The Bush Baby: An Alternative to the Tarsier
Bush babies are primates called prosimians (like tarsiers), and they originate alternatively from Africa. They are sometimes kept as pets where nonhuman primates are legal. Their eyes are a bit smaller, but they are also nocturnal. One unpleasant trait the animal possess is their desire to rub urine on their hands for scent marking purposes. Scent marking seems to be a trait that consistently ruins potentially awesome pets.
Exotic animals can also be kept in outdoor enclosures (in the right climate) if their unpleasant habits become overwhelming.
Are you interested in owning any of the animals on this list?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
why can't anyone own a koala bear?
They are rare, even in zoos. Australia doesn't allow any exports of their wildlife, except for conservation purposes.Helpful 5
© 2013 Melissa A Smith