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7 Reasons Why Exotic Pets Are Illegal and Why They Shouldn’t Be

Updated on May 9, 2017
Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa is an exotic pet owner, zoo attender, and plant-obsessed person and doesn't think there is anything wrong with that.

1. Public Safety

It is extremely frustrating to exotic pet owners that many animals are illegal because of public safety concerns. The reasoning is often hideously unfounded and silly.

You will find that most states (and counting) have bans on the following families of animals that I refer to as the "big 5":

  • Canidae (dogs)
  • Felidae (felines)
  • Urisidea (bears)
  • Primates
  • "Dangerous Reptiles": Venomous Reptiles, "Large" Constrictor Snakes, "Large" Monitor Lizards, and Crocodilians

This might sound reasonable, but often thrown into that mix are smaller non-lethal species like the fennec fox or marmoset. If an animal has teeth, it can bite, but that is not grounds for banning it, particularly when we certainly don’t care about the millions of dog bites or infectious cat bites and scratches that are just accepted as part of life’s misfortunes.

While drastically overstated, the largest carnivores are a public safety issue but owners should be judged by their capacity to house these animals properly, not by the nature of the captivity (exemptions to the bans are often given to zoos, sanctuaries, and research but never for pet owners).

2. Diseases and Rabies

Some state officials fear the spread of zoonotic diseases (agents transferable to humans) from exotic pets with rabies being considered the most. Many states ban rabies vectors which are canids, skunks, raccoons and bats.

Domesticated dogs, cats, and ferrets have an approved rabies vaccine. Species that don’t never will because they aren’t popular enough for someone to fund the research for them, therefore, while the vaccines more than likely work, it can't be proven.

Therefore, non-domesticated mammals may be killed so that their brain can be tested for rabies if they bite someone. Despite this, outdoor cats and wildlife are most commonly found with the virus although overall incidences of rabies transmitted to humans are extremely rare. In fact, all serious diseases an exotic pet could potentially transmit to humans are rare and preventable.

3. Native animals

Many native animals are illegal to possess and fall under the jurisdiction of the state’s Department of Agriculture. This includes, depending on the state, animals like red foxes, 6-banded armadillos, grey squirrels, opossums, white-tailed deer, and Canada geese. The laws exist to ‘protect’ our country’s wildlife from over-exploitation. These laws have resulted in the extremely unnecessary removal and euthanasia of orphaned wildlife successfully taken in and raised by private individuals.

Keeping native animals as pets should be legal, provided that the proper controls are put in place. States should allow licensed breeders to sell native animals and the owner would only need to provide proof it was captive bred. This is the case in New Jersey with skunks and raccoons.

People should be allowed to apply for a license to keep confirmed, orphaned, and non-releasable wildlife like deer, which would also decrease euthanasia rates or dependency on the rehabilitation facilities.

4. Environmental Concerns

Many exotic pets are illegal because someone thinks they will harm the environment either by escaping and forming invasive populations or introducing diseases.

I don’t want to tempt fate, but it is slightly ironic that the exotic pet species with the highest potential to cause problems in the ecosystem are the least likely to be banned. Reptiles, birds, and aquatic life are far more accepted in our society than mammals like primates, raccoons, and non-domesticated felines. Lionfish, Burmese pythons, and green iguanas are popular examples of problematic pet trade species; of course, only Florida and Hawaii and possibly teeny portions of nearby states have hospitable climates for these animals.

While most reptiles and birds need tropical climates, one exception to this is the monk parakeet, a green parrot that can survive and reproduce as far north as New York. Due to this, this species is banned in many states. It makes a lot more sense to prohibit species that we know are causing a problem, and certainly not to ban species that we know are highly unlikely to cause an issue with basic common sense. For example, a Burmese python will never escape and breed in the wilds of Minnesota.

My research has shown that problematic populations of mammals from the exotic pet trade are very rare. On the other hand, introduced populations of formally domesticated animals are wide spread and very problematic. Cats, dogs, horses, swine, and goldfish are causing severe damage to the areas where they’ve been introduced and most of these animals are established with increasing populations.

California’s famously stupid laws ban ferrets and gerbils for fear that they will propagate or hybridize with wild ferrets in the state’s mild climate. Tons of people keep ferrets there anyway and no such feral populations exist.

5. Because it’s cruel?

People make the most noise about how it is somehow wrong to own pets that happen not to be traditional, but I rarely see states banning animals on the grounds that the welfare of the animal is compromised in the pet trade. California is one exception. Their ordinance states:

The commission has determined the below listed animals are not normally domesticated in this state. Mammals listed to prevent the depletion of wild populations and to provide for animal welfare are termed "welfare animals", and are designated by the letter "W". Those species listed because they pose a threat to native wildlife, the agriculture interests of the state or to public health or safety are termed "detrimental animals" and are designated by the letter "D".

Some animals deemed 'welfare' include anteaters, elephants, otters, hyrax, and sloths. Most states carelessly toss all non-traditional pets into a 'dangerous' category while California labels most animals as either detrimental to the environment or having compromised welfare.

Placing so many animals into the same group is ridiculous. They are not all difficult to care for and neither are all owners the same in how they care for their pets. There are people who cannot care for ‘easy’ pets like cats and dogs but that is no reason to ban everyone from having them.

6. Fear

People waste their time making it illegal to own exotic pets because people fear that which is the least likely to cause them harm. It is common for a single exotic pet-related incident to cause legislators to scramble to ban a formally legal animal when the public responds with outrage.

In another article I determined that out of the 260ish exotic cat attacks that resulted in a serious injury between the years 1990-2014, only about 6 of these incidents involved members of the uninvolved public (if you do not intentionally visit, handle, or live with the cat). That means captive exotic cats seriously harmed only 6 people who couldn't have avoided the attack (or children who live with the owners) in 25 years when thousands (or millions?) of exotic cats exist in the country.

Most exotic pets are not large and dangerous yet most people perceive them as such and legislators follow suit.

7. Not enough support

There are millions of dog and cat owners in the United States so any problems associated with these pets will never affect their legal status (with the exception of certain dog breeds).

Due to its sensitive, tiny, ecosystem Hawaii has very strict rules on what pets can be kept, but zero prohibitions on cats, feral or otherwise, that hunt prolifically and cause damage.

Exotic animals don't even need to cause a problem to get banned. Why? Not enough people keep them, therefore no one really cares. To make matters worse, sometimes established exotic pet owners enjoy the bans if they can somehow exempt themselves.

As it is uncommon for people to own a fox, anteater, or capybara, there's less people to stand up against proposals to ban them. Meanwhile, there is currently a battle between cat colony caretakers and bird conservationists to remove the feral animals from a protected wildlife sanctuary in New York.

The fate of the exotic pet trade is in the hands of our misguided culture, not in real, informed decisions about why or why not it should be allowed.


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      Pet lover 4 months ago

      I love that you write things about exotic pets but I would like if you wrote something about bunnies please(Only if you like and know about them).

      Thank you!