Top 10 Most Dangerous Legal Exotic Pets
What Are the Most ‘Dangerous’ Exotic Pets and Why?
Exotic animal attacks are highly sensationalized and are often immediately reported upon their occurrence. For some reason, stories about 'crazy' people who buy alternative animals never fail to astound and conjure rapid emotions in people.
Often, the same handfuls of 'mad exotic pet ownership gone wrong' stories are repeatedly brought up by people who oppose the exotic pet trade, despite the rarity of these incidences.
How to Assess 'Dangerous' Qualities
About this list: There are many factors to examine when assessing how ‘dangerous’ an exotic pet is. First of all, there’s the matter of public safety in contrast to the safety threat posed toward the owner of the animal. In general, animals pose the biggest threat to their owners for obvious reasons, while cases where animals escape and attack a member of the uninvolved public are rare or non-existent with many species currently.
I do not judge animals based on capability to cause harm like many law makers and news reporters do, I categorize based on whether or not these animals actually have attacked, killed, or severely maimed people relative to their numbers in captivity and how these animals are general kept (fully or partially enclosed?).
It should be understood that based on the objective statistics, incidences of exotic animal attacks are very uncommon, occurring approximately 10 times a year with all exotic animal species lumped together. For a comparison, dogs kill about 30 people annually and bite/harm an uncountable number of people. General bites are not often considered news-worthy for most pet species. Consider also that a significant portion of dogs are far too small to severely attack humans. Dog attack scenarios also seem to involve members of the public (and their pets) more often.
I’ve based my conclusions from my current knowledge about the behavior of these animals and a careful analysis of each situation depending on species behavior, severity of the injury or fatality, and circumstances regarding its occurrence. I should reiterate that I’m not declaring every animal on this list ‘dangerous’, but I am listing the species in order based on those that I know are kept as pets.
10. Crocodile Monitor
Sometimes extremely large and carnivorous reptiles are purchased by general 'herp' enthusiasts, and this is a major issue because these lizards are nothing like owning a bearded dragon.
This massive monitor grows to 8-12 feet in captivity and requires large caging that most private keepers can't or won't provide (you will often see large reptiles inappropriately kept in smaller caging than recommended).
Their temperament varies by individual, but bites are always a possibility with these generally high strung animals and can result in finger amputations and deep tissue wounds, even with juvenile animals, due to their uniquely serrated teeth and strong jaws.
Monitors also have saliva that is densely populated with bacteria that will cause severe infectious reactions such as inducing shock (here's one hobbyist's account of a bite from a small crocodile monitor) similarly to komodo dragons.
Although no one has been directly killed by crocodile monitors and other large similar lizards, their bites can potentially be deadly if not treated. One of these rare examples was featured on Animal Planet's Fatal Attractions, where reptile keeper Ron Huff was likely bitten and succumbed to infection that he didn't seek treatment for. Unfortunately, this story was absurdly presented by the program, and it was insinuated that the animals actually ate their keeper before he died from their bite.
An alligator as a pet? That thing will eat you! Well, not quite.
Fatalities from alligator attacks are very rare, and indeed, all of the deaths that have occurred are from wild animals. The reason is obvious; it's far easier to be surprise attacked by a wild camouflaged alligator than one in a clear small pool in captivity.
Also, alligators do not chase people. Alligators may attack defensively but mostly do not view humans as prey. So it should be removed from your mind that they will sneak into your house and eat your children.
At the time of this writing, there hasn't even been a single fatal attack by an alligator in the U.S. in the last 5 years, wild or captive (there has been a case or two of severe maiming by wild alligators). In 2000-2007 there have been around 10 fatalities, again, by wild animals. People who oppose exotic animals in captivity love for the public to ignore things like this.
But as one should expect, owning an alligator (and obviously, a crocodile, which isn't as common), while not likely to be a fatal endeavor as long as you don't do anything monumentally stupid, can be quite dangerous because the handler is at risk of getting bitten.
Alligators have an extremely powerful bite force, being built for tearing apart live prey, and like the crocodile monitor, they can cause severe injury should this happen, including the severing of limbs.
8. Old World Monkeys
All large monkeys have canines that can inflict serious injury (even if they are removed, the remaining teeth are also injurious), and it doesn’t help that monkeys can be prone to dangerous, spontaneous, tantrums when they hit sexual maturity that will surprise unsuspecting first-time monkey owners.
Black-capped capuchin monkeys are said to be the ‘best pet monkey’, and this is the species used by the organization Helping Hands (with their teeth removed), a group that trains monkeys to help disabled people.
Obviously, the physical severity of an injury received from a monkey will depend on its size, with small marmosets not being capable of inflicting large wounds. But I have signaled out old world monkeys here because they carry most of the non-human primate zoonotic diseases that are a health threat to humans.
Diseases from monkeys have subsided dramatically after their import from the wild for the pet trade ceased (also, the idea that they are a significant source of rabies is a farce), and the 'safest' monkeys are those which are captive-bred, isolated from other monkeys in pet-owning situations, and in good health, but any serious disease potential in animals should be acknowledged.
Old world monkeys inhabitant Africa and Asia, and include colobus monkeys, macaques, baboons, mandrills, and langurs. By far, the most popularly kept primates of this group are macaques.
These monkeys are known for the high likeliness of carrying Herpes B virus, which can be transferred to humans with a 70% to 80% mortality rate. This disease is severe, yet rare, perhaps due to vigilance around these animals and lab tests determining their status. The last reported infection occurred in 1997, with a research lab worker being the victim. Old world monkeys are also highly susceptible to tuberculosis (like elephants), and frequent testing for this disease is often conducted.
7. Large Constrictor Snakes
The danger presented by snakes is often way, way, way, too overhyped. Surprisingly, despite decent popularity (Burmese, reticulated, African rock python, anaconda and boa constrictors) all large snakes combined kill on average one human (or less) a year in the United States.
Fatalities Caused by Captive Constrictor Snakes
- 1990-2010: 10 deaths
- 1 boa constrictor, 2 reticulated pythons, 6 Burmese pythons, 1 African rock python
- All victims were owners or family of the owners
Burmese pythons famously infest the Florida Everglades as an invasive species, so even as they roam the wilds of the sunshine state, human fatalities are rare. Are large snakes recommended for beginner reptile keepers?
Of course not, but they are readily available and thus claim a spot on this list, being fully capable of strangling an adult human should misfortune cause the snake to behave uncharacteristically (such as the recent tragedy involving two young boys in Canada).
The problem with keeping a large snake, or any snake for that matter, is that they are excellent escape artists. Should a large snake find a way out of the enclosure of someone who didn’t research their needs diligently enough, sleeping children, pets, and sometimes adult humans are at severe risk from the unseen menace. Negligence is often a factor with escapes and subsequent strangulation of children or pets.
It might surprise people that wolfdogs are likely more dangerous than wolves when owned as pets within our society. While fully wild animals often have a more reclusive attitude and are cautious of humans, some wolfdogs possess the independent nature of their wild counterpart along with the loss of fear of humans that is characteristic of domesticated dogs.
Just like with lions, wolves are natural pack animals and respond well to being given subordinate positions in the hierarchy. This also leads to a reduced tendency to bite. Throwing domesticated dog behavior into this mix can create a more unpredictable animal, yet as genetics vary, so do the produced animals. Therefore, not all wolfdogs will have problematic behaviors, but the issue is we don't know which ones do.
In addition to this, wolfdog owners are probably more likely to raise their pets in a less restrictive fashion than owners of big cats, which may account for the few incidences that wolfdogs have attacked people.
The problem with statistics about wolfdog attacks are that for most people, these animals are difficult to tell apart from very 'wolfy looking' dogs (and sometimes breeders lie), so it is possible that pure dogs have been mistakenly thrown into the list of attackers. As long as wolves and wolfdogs are owned by the proper owners who can give them the large, secure enclosure and time-consuming training that is mandatory in their care, attacks should remain uncommon.
There are not too many certified incidences of wolfdogs causing human fatalities. On August 1999, 4-year-old Cody Tyler Fairfield was killed by his family's German Shepherd/wolf mix when the animal crushed his throat and trachea. Another incident involved 8 wolfdogs killing a 73-year-old woman whose son owned the animals.
Sandra L. Piovesan was mauled and killed by a pack of 9 wolfdogs, and this was presented again in Fatal Attractions. Two of these incidences had multiple animals, obviously increasing the danger.
Even when not deliberately attacking, elephants are obviously large enough to harm people by accident, and that’s why only professionals should deal with them. Just like with horses, when a large animal like an elephant gets spooked, they can harm or kill anyone in close range.
Elephants however, despite a vegetarian lifestyle, have minds of their own and there have been incidences of them intentionally killing their trainers/owners. Due to this, AZA zoological facilities now require protected contact with elephants and trainers. Circuses still use traditional handling methods with the use of a bullhook.
Elephants are not often kept privately outside of circus workers and other exhibitionists. For the few cases where they have been kept as private pets, there have been no fatalities in recent history.
Captive Elephant Fatalities
- 1990-2013: 16 deaths
- 8 USDA exhibitor deaths, 7 AZA zoo deaths, 1 USDA 'sanctuary', no reported private pet deaths.
4. Venomous Snakes
With front-fanged venomous snakes (also called 'hots), one bite will indiscriminately send the victim to the hospital. Since venomous (not poisonous) snakes require their owners to be experienced handlers who have mentored with professionals or other long time owners of ‘hot’ snakes, they are for obvious reasons, quite dangerous.
Venomous Snake Fatalities
- 1990-2009: Approximately 16 deaths
- 6 fatalities from religious ceremonies
- 11 attributed to rattle snakes
Even the 'least deadly' venomous snakes such as copperhead snakes can still cause serious, painful reactions by a single bite which will require medical attention, and many venomous snakes are just as bitey as the most ill-tempered rat snakes.
Unfortunately, many inexperienced people are able to obtain these animals because they are readily available in states where they are legal, such as what's depicted on the anti-exotic pet documentary Elephant in the Living Room.
Based on every incident of envenomations from captive snakes (a good portion of them coming from religious groups that use them in ceremonies), these snakes are only a risk to their handlers and people who live with them. Should a venomous snake escape, they would likely just join the wild population of venomous snakes in posing a threat to the public, which is a very small risk.
3. Big Cats
Big cats can (and have) eaten people. This is unlike the smaller exotic cats that are often blindly accused of the same nature even though their wild counterparts only eat small animals like rabbits. Big cats (lions, tigers, mountain lions, jaguars, leopards, and not cheetahs) probably provide the most exciting news stories when they attack or fatally maul their caretaker, and the news media never misses a beat reporting on it.
So if you can recall the last time you heard of a big cat attack, you will probably realize that they aren't very common either, occurring on average about twice a year. The victim is almost always the owner or caretaker.
Captive Big Cat Fatalities
- 1990-2012: 21 deaths
- 14 deaths caused by tigers, 3 lion, 1, leopard, 1 jaguar, 2 'ligers'
- 4 deaths occurred in AZA facilities, 15 in USDA licensed facilities, and 2 unlicensed pet owner fatalities.
Out of all the big cats, leopards are probably the most dangerous, being non-social, adaptable, particularly powerful animals. You will notice that big cat handlers tend to gravitate towards lions and tigers because they respond better to training and human dominion. Poorly trained big cats can harm or kill with mere playful antics.
However, entering the enclosure (i.e. the animal's territory) of an animal that is not familiar with human interaction will likely spike a defensive and fatal ambush.
Often, zoos that practice 'hands off' husbandry with big cats (which is recommended) will have fatalities due to their animal's likeliness to attack should a keeper forget to fully close a pen while cleaning cages. Most attacks by captive big cats are from tigers, probably because tigers are numerous in captivity.
Many fear that big cats will be a significant public safety threat should they escape into the wild, however it should be noted that no big cat escapes off the property of the animal's enclosure have resulted in a fatality thus far.
Bears are listed before big cats because of their intelligence, dexterity, and omnivorous, opportunistic nature. They have impressive strength and a taste for meat like a big cat, but they can also have an interest in approaching humans, including breaking into their homes which both wild and captive individuals have done.
This makes escaped bears a much larger concern for the public, in contrast to the often reclusive large felines. The bear species most commonly kept as pets are black bears, and this species is also responsible for the most fatal attacks on humans, both wild and captive. However, the scarcity of larger bears like polar bears and grizzly bears being kept as private pets may very well contribute to the lack of fatal statistics from them, or perhaps it is people being less willing to enter their enclosures.
Fatalities Caused by Captive Bears
- Aprx. 6 deaths in 1990 - 2012
- 1 Syrian brown bear, 1 Grizzly bear, and 4 black bears
- All of these victims were employees or were cleaning the cage
Some Examples of Bear Attacks (wild included)
- August 2010: 24-year-old Brent Kandra was fatally mauled while he was cleaning a black bear’s cage.
- October 2009: 37-year-old Kelly Ann Walz was fatally attacked while cleaning the black bear’s cage.
- August 2009: 74-year-old Donna Munson was mauled by a wild black bear that forced its way past a wire fence. Munson had fed bears for over a decade despite warnings from wildlife officials, and the bear that mauled her had previously injured a younger bear she had put food out for.
- August 2001: 93-year-old Adelia Maestras Trujillo was killed by a wild black bear that broke through a glass pane to enter her house.
- August 10th 1993: 24-year-old Colin McClelland was killed by a black bear that broke down the entrance to his trailer.
- July 1978: 30-year-old Lynn Orser was killed by a black bear owned by her friend, that broke into the owner’s home.
- April 2008: 39-year-old Stephan Miller was killed by his trained bear by a bite to the neck.
Chimpanzees, which possess incredible strength, have by no means caused the most fatalities on this list . . . in fact, there hasn't been a fatality from a captive chimpanzee in recent U.S. history, but their near fatalities, such as the famous incident involving ex-TV star Travis the chimp, are chilling.
Chimps, like elephants, have more complex cognition and it can be difficult or impossible to know what's going on in their minds and how they'll react to novel situations. Like monkeys, they have natural hierarchies and their behavior may change unexpectedly, especially if they escape and encounter people they don't know who aren't familiar with chimp behavior.
This danger is especially true of animals that have reached sexual maturity around the age of 7. Thus, chimps are the best qualifiers in the exotic pet world as a public safety threat.
They tend to attack by biting off body parts, noses, fingers, ect. and often enjoy 'playing' with people while not allowing them leave. So while all the victims have survived, the damage was extensive.
Many zoos find housing chimps to be a complicated endeavor. The mindful animals may often figure out how to escape their enclosures, possessing the hands to be able to undo locks and turn knobs. Some chimp escapes have involved the animals opening doors to access terrified people. Their curiosity is unparallelled with the other animals on this list, making them, in my opinion, a very fitting number one dangerous exotic pet (gorillas aren't kept privately to my knowledge, and orangutans are uncommonly privately owned and seemingly less dangerous).
Severe Chimpanzee Incidents
- 2011: A female worker at Riverside Discovery Zoo in Scottsbluff, Nebraska lost three fingers after an attack by two chimpanzees.
- 2010: A privately owned chimp named Sueko ran loose in a neighborhood for 40 minutes, breaking a police car windshield and pounding on cars after escaping.
- 2010: Andrea Maturen, a seasoned volunteer, was attacked by a chimpanzee named Shawn at Suncoast Primate Sanctuary, when he and another chimp escaped into a cage she was cleaning. She escaped further injury by locking herself in a bathroom.
- 2009: A chimpanzee named Timmy had to be shot after he opened a deputy's car door, grabbed his leg, and tried to hit him.
- 2009: The famous Connecticut incident was the most severe chimp attack, resulting in the victim, Charla Nash, losing her eyesight and undergoing a face transplant. Travis, an ex-TV star chimp that belonged to her friend, mauled her, severing her nose, ears, and both hands. Travis was shot after he made an attempt to attack an officer.
- 2008: A chimpanzee named Conner, belonging to Jeanne Rizzotto, escaped her home and latched on to the arm of a woman, causing her to lose 6-8 inches of skin. The animal also entered several vehicles.
- 2008: Kristen M. Howard, worker at Chimps Inc., was injured after a chimp named Kimie entered a cage she was cleaning and repeatedly hit and bit her.
- 2007: A worker at Sunrise Exotic Ranch, a chimpanzee breeding facility, was bitten by a chimpanzee named Ginny while she was handing blankets to the animals through a feeding tray. Once she freed her hand from Ginny, two of her fingers were gone and two were nearly severed. Her hand is still disfigured and required $100,000 in medical bills.
- 2006: A zookeeper at the Columbus Zoo was bitten while feeding a grape to an adult bonobo (a sub species of chimp). She lost part of her finger tip.
- 2007: A chimp bit off the finger of Kathy Harris, caretaker at Dripping Springs wild animal sanctuary.
- 2005: Four chimps escaped from Zoo Nebraska and one tried to open a door to a convenience store. Three of the chimps were shot.
- 2005: Several chimpanzees broke from their cages at an animal sanctuary (Animal Haven Ranch) and attacked two visitors, seriously injuring them. Sanctuary workers shot and killed two of the animals.
- 2005: St. James Davis was visiting a former pet chimp of his at California wildlife rescue center when two chimpanzees escaped their enclosure, ripping off his mouth and nose, gouging out an eye, and devouring his fingers, buttocks tissue, and genitals. He had to be kept in a medically induced coma and underwent 6 surgeries. His wife, LaDonna, also had her finger bitten off. This is the second most severe chimp attack.
- 2005: A chimp reached through cage bars grabbing employee Carol Baker at Wild Wilderness Drive Thru Safari. Two of her fingers were bit off.
- 2000: A chimp provided by 'Ranger Rick Kelly' at a Blockbuster promotion bit a 9-year-old girl.
- 1999: Two Hogle Zoo animal keepers were injured, one critically, when they were attacked Saturday by chimpanzees that escaped their primary enclosure and accessed the employee service area in the Great Apes Building.
- 1997: After being recaptured, a chimp that previously escaped by bending its cage bars jumped on a TV cameraman, knocked him to the ground and bit his arm.
- 1996: Travis the chimp (the same animal that mauled Nash) bit a woman and tried to pull her into a car.
- 1994: An escaped chimpanzee broke the door of a trailer where a family was looking at photos in the living room, dragging a 2 year old by her ponytail. The animal also threw a dog against the trailer, and needed to be fought off with a frying pan.
- 1992: A 78-year-old woman hanging sheets on a clothesline was knocked to the ground and "rolled" by a chimp.
- 1992: Michael “Mike” Casey was attacked by an adult chimpanzee when he entered a cage at his chimpanzee breeding compound. The chimpanzee bit off "a good portion of his nose".
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2014 Melissa A Smith