This Exotic Pet Is Legal in Your State
You might have heard from someone that exotic pets or so-called "wild animals" are illegal to own as pets, but this is exactly like saying it is illegal to hunt animals—it's not exactly true. We know, of course, that it depends on which animal you are talking about (and when). Some animals require specific permits to hunt, and these rules vary by each state. Exotic animal laws are similar in that you might need a license to own them and that the rules vary from state to state. The fact is that no one state technically bans all animals that fall under the exotic or even "wild" designation. With the exception of Hawaii, a group of small islands that has an exceptionally fragile ecosystem, all states allow a high number of reptiles and birds. But when most people assume "exotic" pets are illegal, they are often thinking about mammals, and that’s when the restrictions begin to pour in.
While some of these animals are banned for silly reasons (I'm looking at you and your stance on ferrets, California), some of these animals are banned for good reasons: amateur pet owners don't have the experience to properly care for these undomesticated animals. Finding a vet who can treat a rabbit can be hard enough. Can you imagine finding one who can treat a tiger?
There are numerous—and rather ridiculous—bans on exotic mammals as pets in most states. All states prohibit the ownership of something, whether it’s a restriction on native species or exotics. Still, there are some species you’d be surprised that are still legal even if you think your state bans exotic animals, which is often stated by groups like The Humane Society of the United States or Born Free. What is one of the more interesting species you can privately own in your state?
For the purposes of this article, the term "exotic" shall refer to anything unusual, such as an animal you won't find in traditional pet stores or farms, not non-native animals.
Note: The point of this article is to list at least one interesting pet that is legal in each state; therefore, the list is far from comprehensive ,and laws change all the time. This article should not be used as a source to determine what pet is legal in your state. Laws vary based on city and county ordinances as well. So you'll want to do your own independent research.
In Alabama, you cannot possess any member of Cervidae (deer). You also can't have foxes, raccoons, or skunks—but you can own big cats like tigers. Just be sure not to cross state lines with the animal or to import one from another state, as the Federal Endangered Species Act forbids it. Alabama is one of four states (along with Nevada, North Carolina, and Wisconsin) that doesn't have laws regulating wild cats.
Before you commit to a tiger, know that...
- Tigers usually live about 26 years in captivity and the wild.
- Tigers are obligate carnivores (meaning they cannot survive on plant matter).
- They need about 15 pounds of meat per day to sustain themselves.
- They're dangerous and can kill you. Though they might look cute and be cuddly for a time, they're apex predators, and they're not domesticated. So you'd be taking a big risk by trying to have one as a pet.
Alaska: Chimpanzees (Until Six Years Ago)
Very surprisingly, while Alaska had laws banning non-human primates there was an exemption for chimpanzees, the most difficult and dangerous primate to own of all. But that changed in 2010. Now the state has some of the strictest bans on animals in the U.S. Now only toucans, "non-feral" ungulates like bison, elk, camels, reindeer, and oxen, and hedgehogs are the most 'exotic' animals that remain legal. The legal animals are listed, and all others are prohibited. The Alaska state legislature kindly expounds on which animals you can and can't own. You'll notice that 5 AAC 92.029. Permit section c specifically disallows chimps. Fortunately, you can still own a reindeer (as long as it isn't wild), a single-humped camel, a toucan, or an elk—and you don't even need a permit for these!
The state bans many, many animals as pets as per R12-4-406 Restricted Live Wildlife of the state's administrative code, including but certainly not limited to chipmunks (all squirrels), prairie dogs, deer, foxes, sloths, opossums, bats, nonhuman primates, and anteaters. Surprisingly, it allows wolfdogs (also known as "wolf hybrids") while prohibiting all other animals other than dogs and cats in the carnivora order. Although it sounds like a wolfdog might be "partially domesticated," a true wolfdog would be indistinguishable to the average person from a "pure wolf." In fact, many zoos exhibit these wolfdogs as "wolves." Therefore, to a non-expert, these animals are essentially wolves, and they are definitely not less dangerous than "pure" wolves (if anything, they're perhaps more dangerous than purebreds).
If you want to own pets that are native to your state, pack your bags and move to Arkansas where you can own native animals such as bobcats, foxes, raccoons, and coyotes. (Yet you can't own an alligator...) However, only six of these animals per household is allowed (Section 15.41). And you cannot buy or import foxes, they must be rescued from the wild or given to you.
California: Savannah Cats
Exotic pet owners dread this state because it has some of the strictest exotic animals laws out there. This is a state that bans ferrets under the guise of protecting the environment—even though its inhabitants regularly defy the law, and invasive ferrets have not been observed. Don’t come to California unless you’re only interested in birds and reptiles. But surprisingly, while many states prohibit them, all generations of Savannah cats (a domesticated cat and serval hybrid) and wolfdogs that are not first generation are allowed.
Colorado: Kangaroos and Wallabies
This is another frowny-face state if you are an exotic enthusiast. Colorado is a good example of a state where exotics are supposedly not allowed, but you can still keep very exotic animals like the iconic kangaroo, wallaroo, or wallaby. You can also own a possum, a sugar glider, and a hedgehog if you like.
Connecticut: Patagonian Mara
There was a famous exotic-pet-related incident where a chimpanzee name Travis severely mauled his caretaker’s friend, but that animal was grandfathered in, as primates acquired before October 1st, 2010 are considered okay. "The Hominidae, including, but not limited to, the gorilla, chimpanzee and orangutan" are currently banned (26-40a.4).
Connecticut’s bans are also extensive and ridiculous. Getting an exemption as a licensed exhibitor or educational facility is difficult. Almost all interesting exotic pets are banned, including hybrids such as a wolfdog or a savannah cat. Though the text is perhaps ambiguous, Connecticut's state code says that people cannot own more than one of the following without a game breeder's license (which implies that you can own one of these legally): a partridge (pear tree optional), an otter, a beaver, or a raccoon. Patagonian mara are large rodents that look like deer.
Any animal not native to Delaware needs a permit (State Code 721). The state veterinarian gets to decide if such a permit will be issued based on the species' potential to be injurious or damaging to the environment. Exempted species are "Chinchillas, Degus, Ferrets, Gerbils, Guinea pigs, Hamsters, Hedgehogs, Mice, Norway rats, Possums, Rabbits and Sugar gliders" (6.1.1).
In Florida, animals are grouped by class 1, class 2, and class 3 designations, with class 1 animals requiring the most qualifications to acquire. Class 1 includes tigers, bears, and chimpanzees—and they cannot be "pets." Marmosets are tiny monkeys that are class 3 wildlife, and a permit to own them in Florida is pretty easy to get. All you have to do is answer some questions on the free application about the animal’s care, what you would do in event of an emergency, and your knowledge of the species. Before you commit to owning a marmoset though, you should know that they're really needy and require a lot of attention. They're not a good "just leave it be" pet.
Georgia considers nearly every exotic animal to be "inherently dangerous" regardless of whether or not that is actually true. For instance, wallabies and non-domesticated rabbits are on the list that require a permit, and it's not clear if this permit is obtainable by your average pet owner. However, in the order Artiodactyla (even-toed ungulates), bison (which actually are dangerous), water buffalo, and llamas are exempted, probably because they are seen as livestock. You can also, with a permit, own an alligator, a crocodile, various primates, and even bears—all of which are rather dangerous!
Only several birds and aquarium-dwelling species are legal exotic pets in this unique state, with peafowl (a.k.a peacocks and peahens) being considered poultry. The list of mammals legal to import into the islands consists of guinea pigs, chinchillas, rabbits, mice and rats. No hamsters, snakes, ferrets, and gerbils are allowed. The reason? These animals have the potential to become an out-of-control invasive species in the island’s climate, just like the always-legal domesticated cat that people are even permitted to let free roam. When it comes to banning pets due to environmental concerns, an animal’s popularity can cancel out any level of damage said species causes.
Idaho and Illinois: Deer
In Idaho, wildlife is defined as any animal generally living in a state of nature except, domestic bison, domestic cervidae, domestic fur bearing animals, and fish. So if you follow importation rules, you can own elk, fallow deer, and reindeer. Most other exotics require a possession permit, and it isn’t clear how easy this is to get.
All cervidae appears to be legal to possess in Illinois with only entry permits and health screening required to import them into the state, as they are considered livestock. It seems as though the (720 ILCS 585/) Illinois Dangerous Animals Act, which detailed animal-owning criminal offenses, was repealed by P.A. 97-1108. So, what you can and can't own there (or, at least, what you'll get in trouble for owning) is a bit more muddled.
Unlike many of the other states, Indiana has a really straight forward definition of what a wild animal is: if it lives in the wild or isn't domesticated, it's a wild animal (IC 14-8-2-318). Like Florida, Indiana sorts permit-requiring animals into three categories:
- Class I: These animals aren't harmful to people. Examples include rabbits and squirrels.
- Class II: These animals might be harmful to people. Examples include raccoons, pallas cats (Google these adorable creatures if you don't know what they are), skunks, and more.
- Class III: These animals are definitely dangerous. Examples include purebred wolves, bears, and crocodiles.
Hybrids of domestic dogs and cats don't require permits. So if you want a bear, you're going to have to get a permit.
The usual suspects are all unreasonably banned in this state without a permit. To acquire such a permit, many rules apply, such as implanting a tracking device, maintaining insurance, paying fees (usually between $50-100), and undergoing inspections. However, skunks are legal as long as they are captive bred. Skunkhaven advises that you save your receipt to prove that your skunk isn't wild caught.
Iowa says that dangerous animals include lions, tigers, or bears. You're unlikely to get a permit to own them as an everyday person. While dangerous wild animals are regulated, but there is no mention of this unusual relative of the raccoon, which often slips through the cracks due to being unknown.
Raccoons are illegal in most states because they are rabies vectors, but Kentucky is one of the exceptions. However, raccoons cannot be imported over state lines, so the animal must come from within the state.
This state, like most, bans large carnivores and the list can be found in section 76 of Louisiana's administrative code. It includes wolves, bears, and specific exotic felines as well as primates. The family viverridae is not listed, so this might technically mean civets and genets are legal. Genets are small mammals that have a fox-like nose and face, with a car-like body and a lemur-like tail. Genets are opportunistic eaters that don't particularly care for being held or smothered with affection, though they will bond with an owner in a single-animal household.
Maine: Sugar Glider
Maine is a horrendous state for exotic pet owners, and the restrictions on pets are as extreme as they are indefensible. This northernmost state on the mainland boasts a climate that very few animals could survive in, yet it has a very small list of mammals (gerbils, hamsters, rabbits, mice, rats, guniae pigs, chinchillas, ferrets, sugar gliders, degus) that do not require a permit. Achieving a permit in Maine is said to be near impossible. Reptiles are confined to select species as well.
As of 2018, almost the entirety of Title 12, Chapter 707: LICENSES AND PERMITS, which was where Maine defined what you could and couldn't get permits for, has been repealed. Because they've been repealed, the original text of the laws is no longer accessible on their website.
This South American anteater is not listed on Maryland's highly inclusive list of banned animals, which includes raccoons, foxes, skunks, primates, felines other than domesticated cats, and alligators.
Massachusetts: Flying Squirrel
It's easier to talk about what pets you can have in Massachusetts because the list of animals that you can't have is very long. The exemptions include the most typical pets but also hedgehogs and flying squirrels.
Michigan: Red Fox (Domesticated)
Many are unaware that fur-farm foxes are considered domesticated; however, they're not domesticated in the way that Russian domesticated foxes have been experimentally bred as house pets. "Wild" foxes are not legal, but domesticated foxes in Michigan are legal as long as you obtain a health certificate.
Minnesota: African Crested Porcupine
Prohibited animals appear to be exclusively defined as primates, non-domesticated felines including hybrids, and bears. Rabies-vector laws or native animal prohibitions may possibly restrict skunks, raccoons, and foxes. Exotic rodents, however, should be legal under these rules. And porcupines are classified as rodents. There are mixed reviews about how they are as pets. Some people really like them, others wouldn't have another as a pet.
Fun fact: a baby porcupine is called a "porcupette."
Inherently dangerous members from the family felidae are defined as big cats, snow leopards, cheetah, and cougars. This does not include felines like servals, caracals, and jungle cats.
All you need to do is obtain a Wildlife Hobby Permit. That (and Missouri's admin code) authorizes you to hold no more than one red or grey fox, coyote, beaver, river otter, Eastern grey squirrel, bobcat, badger, or opossum for personal use.
Montana: Two-Toed Sloth
Montana has three categorizations: uncontrolled species, controlled species that require a permit, and prohibited species. Strangely enough, uncontrolled species that can be traded and possessed freely with no permit include pygmy hedgehogs, degus, jungle cats, servals, sugar gliders, two-toed sloths, Bennet's and Tammar wallabies.
This state specifically allows genets, elands, elk, fox, jerboa, and reindeer to be imported, but you can only have one.
Nevada bans some aquatic species, all foxes, some other native species, and some reptiles. Everything else goes! Wolves, big cats, primates, elephants, ect. The state, home of Siegfried and Roy, has a large animal entertainment industry with many private owners as well as a reluctance against governmental overreach, and this might be the reason these laws have survived for so long.
New Hampshire: Ostrich
This large African bird is on the non-controlled species list in New Hampshire. They can grow up to nine feet tall, usually weigh around 400 pounds, and are known to be aggressive and territorial. They're not for the faint of heart. The state lists many species as controlled including genets, wallabies, and anteaters.
New Jersey: Skunk
It is highly unusual for a state in the northeast, but raccoons and skunks, both prominent rabies vectors, are legal if they are purchased from a licensed breeder and if you obtain a captive game permit.
New Mexico: Munjac Deer
I can only confirm that it is unlawful for a person to possess non-domesticated felines, primates, crocodiles, alligators, and wolves in New Mexico (19.35.7). The state may allow other animals under difficult conditions. One source states that deer are legal without a permit. One small popular pet deer species is the muntjac.
New York: Fennec Fox
While exotic pet circles consider New York to be a "ban state," many non-native animals like wallabies, kinkajous, and sloths are most likely legal because they are not a member of the families that are prohibited: ursidae (bears), felidae (wild cats), canidae (wild canines), and primates. Fennec foxes are the only non-domesticated member of canidae because owners of the tiny foxes lobbied for them and brought them to meet legislators while they conceptualized the bill. This proves that common sense can enter the brains of elected officials when looking at the harmless animal in the flesh.
North Carolina: Lions
If you want to keep a fennec fox or domesticated skunk without a USDA license in North Carolina, you're out of luck. The tiny animals are considered rabies vectors (despite these pets never having been found with rabies), but you can have a lion, tiger, bear, and numerous other species as long as you live in a county that doesn't prohibit it.
North Dakota: Russian Lynx
Russian lynx, along with emu, ostrich, ranch foxes, ferrets, and others, are considered to be domesticated and "alternative livestock." They require no license and the owner only needs to comply with health requirements such as being screened for certain diseases by a vet.
After an unstable man (not Federer, the man mentioned below) freed several exotic animals, Ohio went from an extremely lenient exotic-pet state to much more restrictive. Federer, a man who owned a bobcat, argued that his bobcat was literally a housecoat in Federer vs. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources, Division of Wildlife. A loophole currently exempts bobcats from the ban on other felidae species and lemurs are still legal among primates.
It's likely that many more exotic animals, possibly even large animals like bears, are legal in Oklahoma, which is the foe of animal rights organizations who want more regulations (i.e. bans) for exotic animals. However Oklahoma's admin code exempts civets, kangaroos, primates, and coatimundis (a South African raccoon-esque mammal) from all permit and license requirements.
This state used to be somewhat exotic friendly, but then they stopped issuing permits to pet owners. They categorize exotic animals, and you need to call to find out what the law is. But all equidae, including zebras, are legal and just needs a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection when imported.
If you obtain an annual permit, you can keep timber rattlesnakes and northern copperheads captured from the wild. The snakes must also be at least 42 inches in length, having 21 or more subcaudal scales.
Rhode Island: Burmese Python
Burmese pythons are illegal in many states due to their size (15-20 feet) but are not listed as being illegal here (3.17/4/b/2/AA). In fact, Rhode Island law specifically allows for most species of boas and pythons.
South Carolina: Venomous Snakes
South Carolina is one of the nation’s only states that allows the sale and purchase of venomous snakes at reptile shows.
South Dakota: Coyotes
With a permit, you can possess or import any non-domestic mammal or any hybrids thereof of the following orders: carnivora, exotic felidae, canidae, ursidae (bears) mustelidae, and hyaenidae, and various hoofed animals.
Tennessee: Capuchin Monkeys
Some species in Tennessee are illegal to possess, such as bats, skunks, and owls. Others, like flying squirrels, bobcats, native mice, and native chipmunks require a TWRA permit. The species that do not require a permit surprisingly include capuchin monkeys, caimans, giraffes, and sea otters.
Potential owners of "dangerous wild animals" (which includes bears, big cats, and great apes) need to obtain a certificate of registration for that animal issued by an animal registration agency (Texas Health and Safety Code 822.101). Many other rules apply. There are many animals in Texas that are perfectly legal, however, and they include capybaras, lemurs, genets, and small wild felids.
Ranch-raised American mink (Neovison vision) are allowed to be owned, along with other species.
Agoutis are a relatively large South American rodent. They're related to guinea pigs and look quite similar, but agoutis have stretched-looking legs. All species are on Vermont's unrestricted species list.
Virginia: Domesticated Silver Fox
Virginia does not allow any foxes other than those that have fur patterns not found in the wild. This means pet foxes cannot be red, even if they are domesticated. The fur is how the animal is distinguished from a non-fur farm animal.
*UPDATE: Virginia banned all foxes in 2017.
Potentially dangerous animals in the family felidae are described as "only lions, tigers, captive-bred cougars, jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards." Caracals are big cats, but the text of the law reads "only," which insinuates that the caracal should be fine to own. (But I'm not an attorney. If you're thinking about owning one, it's best to call the appropriate governing agency and check.)
West Virginia: Cougar
West Virginia recently enacted regulations for "dangerous wild animals" that allow people to apply for permits to keep them. Animals that aren't the following can be kept as pets: coyotes, minks, weasels, muskrats, beavers, opossums, polecats, otters, red and gray foxes, skunks, bobcat, fishers, and raccoons.
Wisconsin specifically names chipmunks, pocket gophers, mice, moles, opossums, porcupines, rats, voles, ground squirrels, red squirrels, and weasels as legal to possess without a license.
All bears appear to be legal according to Wyoming's exotic animal code except grizzly and black bears. Mountain lions are also named as legal while other big cats are not.
Questions & Answers
Are parrots legal to own in California?
Can I own a Geoffrey's cat in Pennsylvania?
Can you own a sloth as a pet in North Carolina?
Yes, in a county with no bans.Helpful 3
Can I own a serval in Florida?
You need a Class 2 permit.Helpful 3
In what states can you own a regular squirrel?
Arkansas is one.Helpful 5