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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. We know of course that it depends on which animal you are talking about (and when). Some also require specific permits and these rules vary by each state. Exotic animal laws are similar. 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 various high number 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.

All photos, unless otherwise stated, are from Tambako the Jaguar Via Flickr
All photos, unless otherwise stated, are from Tambako the Jaguar Via Flickr | Source

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 don'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 it is far from comprehensive and laws change all the time. Therefore 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.

Alabama: Tigers

In Alabama you cannot possess any member of cervidae (deer) or foxes, raccoons, and skunks, but you can own big cats like tigers. Just be sure not to cross state lines with the animal or import one from another state, as the Federal Endangered Species Act forbids it.

Alaska: Chimpanzees (until 6 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 and pathetic 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.

Arizona: Wolfdogs

The state bans many many animals as pets, including but certainly not limited to chipmunks (all squirrels), prairie dogs, deer, foxes, sloths, opossums, and anteaters, but surprisingly 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 high content animal 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, more-so than). Arizona used to allow some primates as pets, but that has unfortunately changed.

Arkansas: coyotes

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. This is rather uncommon among the states that tend to fiercely prohibit warm-blooded species that are native to North America. This includes states that are ‘lax’ on so-called exotic pets such as Nevada (where you can have tigers and elephants). However, in Arkansas only 6 of these animals per household is allowed, and you cannot buy or import foxes, they must be rescued from the wild or given to you.

California: Savannah cats

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Exotic pet owners dread this state. It is royalty in the preposterous, should-be-criminal-animal ban kingdom. 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 frown-face state if you are an exotic enthusiast, but here 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.

Connecticut: Patagonian mara

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There was a famous exotic pet-related incident where a chimpanzee severely mauled its c arataker’s friend, but that animal was grandfathered in. Connecticut’s bans are also extensive and ridiculous, and getting exempted as a licensed exhibitor or educational facility is difficult. The banned lists almost all interesting exotic pets, but in the order rodentia, hamsters, mice, guinea pigs, Patagonian mara, American beaver, dwarf hamster, chinchilla and rats are exempted. Patagonian mara are large rodents that look like deer.

Delware: Possums

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Exotic mammals non-native to Delware require a permit and 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".

Florida: Marmosets

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, just 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.

Georgia: Bison

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 for a typical 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.

Hawaii: Peafowl

Only several birds and aquarium-dwelling species are legal exotic pets in this unique state, with peafowl 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

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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.

Indiana: bears

As of 2015, and possibly to change in 2016, the state Department of Natural Resources stopped issuing permits for wild animals and regulating their ownership following a February ruling that said it didn’t have the authority to regulate wild animals. Venomous snakes, big cats, bears, primates, deer, and other animals used to require a wild animal possession permit but currently do not with this court order.

Iowa: Skunks

The 'usual suspects' are all unreasonably banned in this state without a permit, and to acquire such a permit many rules apply, such as implanting a tracking device, maintaining insurance, paying fees and undergoing inspections. However skunks are legal as long as they are captive-bred.

Kansas: Kinkajou

So-called 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.

Kentucky: Raccoons

Raccoons, being rabies vectors, are illegal in most states, but Kentucky is one of the exceptions. However, raccoons cannot be imported over state lines, so the animal must come from within the state.

Louisiana: Genets

This state has an extensive list of prohibited species that are sadly generalist (all canids, including harmless foxes are banned as well as skunks, deer, squirrels and all non-human primates), but the family viverridae is not listed so this might technically mean civets and genets are legal. Ignorance to animal diversity, not society's acceptance of this exotic pet, are likely responsible.

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Maine: sugar glider (that’s the best you can do)

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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 glider, degu) 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.

Maryland: Tamandua

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

I'm legal? Really!?
I'm legal? Really!? | Source

Unfortunately in this state there is a short list of exempted mammals. It includes 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 not in the way of Russian domesticated foxes that 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

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Prohibited animals appear to be exclusively defined as primates, non-domesticated felines including hybrids, and bears. Rabies vectors laws or native animal prohibitions may possibly restrict skunks, raccoons, and foxes. Exotic rodents however should be legal under these rules.

Mississippi: Servals

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.

Missouri: Opossum

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All you need to do is obtain a Wildlife Hobby Permit, and that 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

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Montana has three categorizations: uncontrolled species, controlled species which require a permit, and prohibited species. Strangely enough, uncontrolled species which can be traded and possessed freely with no permit include pygmy hedgehogs, degu, jungle cat, serval, sugar gliders, two-toed sloth, Bennet's and Tammar wallaby.

Nebraska: Eland

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This state specifically allows genets, elands, elk, fox, jerboa, and reindeer to be imported.

Nevada: Elephants

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

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This large African bird is on the non-controlled species list in New Hampshire. 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. 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 New York is considered in exotic pet circles to be a 'ban state' many non-native animals like wallabies, kinkajou, and sloth 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, because the tiny animals are 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.

Ohio: Bobcats

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After an unstable man freed several exotic animals Ohio went from an extremely lenient exotic pet state to much more restrictive. A loophole currently exempts bobcats from the ban on other felidae species and lemurs are still legal among primates.

Oklahoma: Coatimundi

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 civets, kangaroos, primates, and coatimundis and others are exempt from all permit and license requirements.

Oregon: Zebras

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 is legal and just needs a Certificate of Veterinary Inspection when imported.

Pennsylvania: rattlesnakes

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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

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Burmese pythons are illegal in many states due to their size (15-20 feet) but are not listed as being illegal here.

South Carolina: Venomous snakes

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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 surprisngly include capuchin monkeys, caimans, giraffes, sea otters, and "cervils" (servals?)

Texas: Lemurs

Potential owners of 'dangerous wild animals' which include bears, big cats, and great apes need to obtain a certificate of registration for that animal issued by an animal registration agency. Many other rules apply. There are many animals in Texas that are perfectly legal however and they include capybara, lemurs, genets, and small wild felids.

Utah: mink

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Ranch-raised American mink (Neovison vision) are allowed to be owned, along with other species.

Vermont: Agouti

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Agoutis are a relatively large South American rodent, and all species are on Vermont's unrestricted species list.

Virginia: Domesticated silver fox

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Virginia does not allow any foxes other than those which have fur patterns not found in the wild. This means foxes cannot be red, even if they are domesticated. The fur is how the animal is distinguished from a non-fur farm animal.

Washington: Caracal

Potentially dangerous animals in the family felidae are described as only lions, tigers, captive-bred cougars, jaguars, cheetahs, leopards, snow leopards, and clouded leopards.

West Virginia: Cougar

West Virginia recently enacted regulations for 'dangerous wild animals' which allow people to apply for permits to keep them. Animals that aren't coyotes, minks, weasels, muskrats, beavers, opossums, polecats, otters, red and gray foxes, skunks, bobcat, fishers, and raccoons can be kept as a pet.

Wisconsin: Porcupine

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.

Wyoming: Bear

All bears appear to be legal according to Wyoming's exotic animal code except grizzly and black bears. Mountain lions are also named while other big cats are not.

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Comments 20 comments

Rochelle Frank profile image

Rochelle Frank 6 months ago from California Gold Country

I had no idea that such a huge variety of animals could be kept as pets in certain places. You did an amazing amount of work in putting this together.


aethelthryth profile image

aethelthryth 6 months ago from American Southwest

This is one of the funnest articles I've seen in a long time, and I'm sharing. I am happy to know I could keep a wallaby here in Colorado, since I've wanted one for about 25 years now. However, I wouldn't actually subject a wallaby to the state of our house/yard right now! Maybe instead I will move to NJ so I can have a pet skunk again. But some of those others are tempting too - the deer maybe....


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

Rochelle Frank: Thanks, it took far longer than I expected but I learned a lot from it.

aethelthryth: Thank you, wallabies can make great pets for people with the right fenced in yard. I wish I were in a situation where I could get one. I also want a muntjac deer, but they aren't legal where I'll be moving.


ManNewt 6 months ago

So much restrictions... I lost my faith from the "land of the free and the home of the brave".


AP 6 months ago

While Massachusetts is one of the most restrictive states, it actually has a pretty schizophrenic approach to exotic animals. Prairie dogs, hornbills, pied crows, and fennec foxes are all illegal, but bison, ostriches, emus, and rheas are legal without a permit.


Alex 6 months ago

You might want to change your raccoon picture to be an actual raccoon and not a raccoon dog.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

Nevermind! I'll change the picture later. Peace.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

AP: Yes, those animals are sometimes considered livestock. If you are farming animals for food the state is more accommodating, they just hate pets.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

It's depressing. There are no states that I can be free to get all the animals I prefer without getting a USDA license.


AP 6 months ago

Technically, the reason that those animals are legal is because they're considered "domesticated animals." And you're right that it is the influence of farmers which keeps them legal. However if you want to keep an emu or a bison as a pet in MA, it's totally legal.

The problem isn't that most state legislatures hate exotic pets. Some of them do, particularly the ones funded by animal rights groups. The problem with most legislatures is that they don't see any UPSIDE to keeping exotic animals and don't understand why we can't get a cat or a dog like a normal person. Therefore, ANY downside to exotic pets, no matter how slight, is enough to ban them.

If all that's required to keep your animals is a USDA exhibitor's license, I don't think that's much of a hurdle. Anyone can get and keep one by doing a few free shows a year and paying a small yearly fee. I think the big question for me would be whether the state will let me keep them with a USDA license if you're open about keeping them as pets.

Most states that grant licenses with USDA permits explicitly state that licenses may not be granted for the purpose of keeping an animal as a pet. I know I don't want to be one of those people who helps the animal rights agenda by parroting the line that the animals I'm obviously keeping as pets should not be pets.


AP 6 months ago

I'm curious, what is your list of animals you want?

My list includes a raccoon or a ringtail cat (restricted in most states for being a carnivore and/or a native furbearing species), an opossum (restricted in most states for being native furbearers), a handful of small primates (restricted in most states due to being primates), an armadillo (often restricted due to leprosy concerns), a dwarf caiman (restricted in most states for being a member of the crocodiles family), and a crested coua (restricted in many states because it's a member of the cuckoo family).

Nonetheless, there are several states where it appears I could hypothetically have all the animals I want (except animals like meerkats and native birds which are banned under federal law). These include Arkansas, Nebraska, Delaware, and Florida. Florida requires permits for most animals I'd like to keep but is very liberal about granting them.

I think I could also have all of the animals I'd like to keep in the United Kingdom (included meerkats and US-native birds, assuming they're available there), though a permit might be required for some of them.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

Palm civet, armadillo, sloth, fennec fox and/or bat-eared fox, bush baby, prehensile-tailed porcupine, springhare, crowned pigeon, pied crow, skunk (maybe), prevost squirrel (on the way). I think that's it. I want to get USDA, but having to commit to doing shows is nothing small to me. I'm not very social. I need someone who'll present, and a place who will want the service. Animals will need to be extensively conditioned to accept being viewed by strangers, and that's if they aren't taken out of the cage. My spotted genet is heavily stressed leaving my house.


Jbp 6 months ago

Thank you for the article. Just wanted to mention a typo: the Maine section says that it is the northernmost state on the mainland, but that's incorrect. Out of the "Lower 48" states, the northernmost state is Minnesota (see Wikipedia articles "Angle Inlet, Minnesota" and "Northwest angle"). And then of course Alaska is the most northerly of all.

West Virginia just repealed much of its recent anti-exotic pet law, so now many more species are capable of being owned legally there.

Also, you may want to consider adding paragraphs about exotic pet laws for the following entities:

District of Columbia

Puerto Rico

American Samoa

Northern Mariana Islands

Guam

U.S. Virgin Islands

I wonder what cool pets could be kept in those 6 U.S. jurisdictions. I do know that American Samoa has banned all reptiles due to its fragile ecosystem (much like Hawaii). The 6 places listed above are jurisdictions in the United States that most people don't think about.


ManNewt 6 months ago

What a great taste of animals Ms. Smith. I would also want to post my list of animals I prefer keeping, but since no one is asking for it I don't think that it would be necessary telling. P.S.: You can hire me if you want, I need a reason to get out of Turkey, and I can be hired legally since I already have a U.S. citizenship. You can "pay" me with marshmallow creme, root beer, or sweet potatoes.


AP 6 months ago

Can you even get a springhaas?

I asked about it at one point, and was told that even non-AZA zoos haven't been able to get new ones. Because looks like they were easy to import and hard to breed, so nobody figured out how to breed them (and a lot of people who had them only had one anyways) before the CDC put a blanket ban on African rodents, and there are basically none (aside from a few aged imports and a few that AZA zoos sold to other zoos under the AZA's strict "it's better to kill the offspring than sell them as pets" policy) outside of AZA zoos.

Aside from that, I think all of the animals you mentioned can be kept in the four states I mentioned. Some require permits, but I don't *think* that those permits are dependent on getting USDA exhibitor licenses.

It's interesting that most people I've met who are into exotic animals (or at least the people who are into responsibly caring for exotic animals) aren't very social. I imagine that it has to do with liking animals better than people and wanting to invest time in them.

I'm not social either, but happen to love lecturing people about things that interest me. Taking exotic animals to libraries and schools and telling them about their life in the wild, evolutionary history, and care, and then telling my listeners that that anyone who says they don't make good pets is lying--that sounds like a lot of fun to me. However you certainly need animals that handle travel and crowds of noisy children for that.

@ManNewt: I'm curious about your list. Incidentally, that's not my full list; just the list of animals that are commonly restricted. My full list approaches private zoo territory, though most of the animals on it are aviary birds, making them relatively easy to look after.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

ManNewt- I'll think about that.


Melissa A Smith profile image

Melissa A Smith 6 months ago from New York Author

AP: I'm in contact with a breeder that has imported 3 pairs. Keep your fingers crossed that they have babies. If they don't breed and he sells adults, I'll be all for that as well.


ManNewt 6 months ago

@AP: If all animals were easy to breed and keep and legal to import and keep in U.S.A. my choices for pets would include: mantled guereza, slow loris, owl monkey, squirrel monkey, cotton-top (or golden-handed) tamarin, ring-tailed and red-ruffed lemurs,streaked tenrec,von der deckens hornbill,wallaby, hercules beetle, frill-necked lizard, Madagascar day gecko,blue jay, eurasian eagle owl, yak, minature-pig, reindeer,emu, gray kangaroo,red-kneed tarantula and so on... I might as well make my own zoo.

My list would also include some animals that Ms. Smith and you have already mentioned such as bush-babie, meerkat,ring-tailed cat, spring-hare and skunk.

P.S. Come to think of it, I have too many animals on my list. I will blame the strict laws of Turkey that kept me away from ferrets and the animal encyclopedias I have read for making me turn into a crazy potential animal hoarder.


blake 2 months ago

if you think that wild animals should be kept in captivity then you have issues


Noah Schipper 6 weeks ago

I myself own a Bison in the state of Massachusetts. His name is Ronald and I have taught him to chase intruders off my property. I have personally never had a problem with Ronald and I am in the process of obtaining several more.

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