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Who Is Exempt From Exotic Pet Bans?

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

All 50 states have a ban on one or more types of exotic animals. But why? Most laws classify "wild" and exotic animals as inherently dangerous species that threaten public safety, public health, or pose a risk to the environment. Animal welfare concerns are rarely the reason why an animal is made illegal for private ownership.

Since America is a country known for "freedom" and a supposed lack of infringement on personal liberty (yes, even if you don’t agree with it) as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others, I thought it would be interesting to list some situations where various governing bodies deem this alleged "unacceptable risk to the public" suddenly acceptable. (I’d imagine there would have to be a risk to the public in order to justify infringing on a pet owner’s personal liberties.)

What situations are so important that it becomes ok to endanger the public?

Exceptions to Exotic Pet Bans

  1. Fur Farms
  2. Zoos
  3. Animal Educators
  4. Circuses
  5. Sanctuaries
  6. Research Facilities
  7. Facilities That Raise Exotic Animals for Food
  8. Service Monkey Users
  9. Exotic Animal Breeders

1. Fur Farms

Many states like to ensure that so-called dangerous animals like foxes can't be pets. You cannot keep a fox in most states, but if you want to skin hundreds of them, then that is OK. While animal rights activists constantly push to make it illegal to pamper a pet red fox, keeping numerous red foxes in basic, small cages in farming operations is exempted, possibly in all states. Some exotic pet owners try to get around the law by claiming they are fur ranchers and try to qualify by trying to sell some of their pet's naturally shed fur.

In Virginia, domesticated red foxes are allowed only because of a loophole that exists to cater to people who produce fox fur…and now legislators are attempting to close that loophole and push pet owners out. Apparently, fur coats are necessary enough to endanger the public with foxes owned and maintained by people who are untrained in dealing with ‘dangerous wild animals.' That’s something to think about the next time you consider that exotic pets should remain illegal because it is ‘cruel to the animals.’

2. Zoos

How many occupations can you think of that involve an exemption for the use of something normally illegal because it is considered too dangerous for the general public, even though the person has little or no formal training?

While the larger government-owned zoos often have higher safety standards and sometimes require their animal-handling employees to have a formal education, private zoos also exist, and many of their owners are essentially private animal owners that charge people admission to see their collection. They aren't required to have any formal training with exotics. For example, the founder of the anti-exotic pet sanctuary Big Cat Rescue started her business with a background in real estate.

Formal training for individuals who work with wildlife and exotic animals often does not involve hands-on work with animals. For example, a Bachelor’s Degree in Zoology or Biology is often preferred for individuals to work at AZA-accredited institutions, but that teaches you nothing about working with large carnivores and the proper safety protocols involved.

When zoos look for ‘animal experience,' animal shelter volunteering, veterinary office work, and past pet store employment are often acceptable! Degrees from ‘Teaching zoos,' like the EATM program at Moorpark College, are uncommonly held. It is supposedly too dangerous to let private owners have exotics whether they are experienced or not . . . unless, of course, they are exhibiting to the public.


3. Animal ‘Educators’

Many exotic animal owners bring their animals to libraries, schools, fairs, and museums. These exhibitors must be USDA-licensed, just like zoo owners. These animal owners, who frequently state they aren’t pet owners, often refer to their animals as educational ambassadors for their species. They make the presenting of a live animal while listing some basic facts about them sound thoroughly important for the educational integrity of our society.

Some of these presenters have some experience or training, but many don’t, and it isn’t required. Therefore, the public needs to be put at risk in order for small children to watch how high a serval can jump or learn that fennec foxes have large ears to cool themselves.


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4. Circuses

Circuses are probably the most hated exotic animal-owning ‘offenders.’ Even though the largest circus in America has recently called it quits due to low ticket sales, circuses remain exempt from exotic pet bans and are even accommodated so that they can transport animals through state lines.

This is all despite that they harbor very large and therefore dangerous animals like big cats and elephants. Again, no formal training is technically required. Many circus workers are exotic pet owners that play with their pets in front of an audience.

5. Sanctuaries

Sanctuaries may or may not be accredited, depending on the state. The concept behind them is that they are not supposed to ‘exploit’ animals by breeding them or collecting them for monetary compensation, although more often than not, sanctuaries will find a way to charge for visitors to view the animals, and they also solicit massive numbers of donations. Sanctuaries often house a large number of exotic animals, but they are deemed worth the risk.

6. Research Facilities

Exceptions are always made for the use of exotic animals for scientific purposes. Does the nature of the research need to be deemed important enough (for example, cancer research) to put the public at risk? There is no such assessment. Animal research also tends to be not so humane, so why is the notion of keeping a monkey as a pet often met with more shock and derision than testing on it in a laboratory?

On another note, while fear-mongering activists describe the dangers of the Herpes B virus that macaque monkeys can carry, the only documented occurrence of these animals transferring the virus to a human occurred in a laboratory. Large colonies of old-world monkeys are riskier than single or small numbers of privately cared-for pets.

7. People Who Raise Exotic Animals as Food

It’s funny how exotic animals are supposed to be dangerous when owned as pets, but if you want to sell their meat, that changes things. In most states, large African animals are illegal to keep as pets, but not ostriches, which are often exempted because they are considered to be agricultural animals.

Due to this law, these giant birds are often legal to keep for even pet owners in some states. This is also the case for emus and rheas; these species would undoubtedly be illegal if they didn’t have profitable meat. So once again, people are willing to look past the so-called danger of certain exotic animals. This is also the case for other economical exotics like bison, deer, and alligators. A few exotic animal ranchers will raise and sell the meat of antelope, kangaroo, and even lions!

8. Service Monkey Users

Many states (potentially all states) make it legal to own a black-capped capuchin monkey if it is for the purpose of assisting the disabled. These are Helping Hands monkeys; they are specially trained to service handicapped individuals with extremely limited mobility and dexterity. This would certainly be a good reason to allow an animal normally considered to be too dangerous to be kept by the public. However . . . there is some clear irony here.

How is an ‘inherently dangerous’ primate able to not only live with a disabled person but care for one? Even though these monkeys go through rigorous special training and have their canine teeth removed (a controversial practice that some monkey owners carry out), this flies in the face of the mentality that primates are forever wild, forever unpredictable, and totally impossible to keep as a pet successfully.

9. Exotic Animal Breeders

Yes, in some states, you cannot own a ‘wild animal’ deemed dangerous, but you can breed those animals. If you are a breeder, you can obtain a USDA breeder's license and produce banned species for profit; you just need to send your ‘dangerous’ animals to terrorize owners outside of your state. Letting people own pets = bad, selling people pets = allowed.

Exotic Pet Keeping Is Stigmatized

If exotic animals are so dangerous, why do state laws exempt entities from using them for profit? Do animals become less dangerous when the owner is compensated? One can try and argue that these facilities must be USDA-licensed and are therefore regulated, but meeting the criteria for this license isn’t so extraordinary.

The only reason pet owners can’t get a USDA license is because it only regulates businesses. Many states in effect require USDA licenses because that removes animal keeping as a personal hobby from the picture. Why? Shouldn’t animal owners be judged by their ability to care for the animals, regardless of the reason they are keeping it? If you follow any animal rights blog, you’ll see that there are plenty of USDA-licensed facilities that are in shambles.

It’s clear that exotic pet bans exist because our culture, the same culture that sanctions smoking, dangerous recreational motor vehicle activities and drinking, has stigmatized exotic pet keeping and thus deemed it not entitled to legal protection from nonsensical and indefensible regulations.

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.


Rospahim on June 12, 2020:

Is a USDA breeder license recognized in all 50 states? And how difficult is it to obtain one?

AP on March 15, 2017:

Oh, and Massachusetts is a good example of the absurdity of the way agricultural animals are exempted, since Massachusetts is a state that simply legalizes common meat animals, rather than requiring you farm them for food as with furbearer regulations.

I think I've noted elsewhere on your blog that in Massachusetts hornbills, mousebirds, tenrecs, short-tailed opossums, and prairie dogs are all illegal as pets, as were sugar gliders until 2013. Meanwhile, there's no restrictions on who can own ostriches, emus, rheas, and bison.

Also, this is an awesome article, though legislators are likely to respond by saying "OK, let's ban some of these things" rather than "let's legalize exotic pets."

AP on March 15, 2017:

In Texas, furbearers are illegal as pets. This is because of a state law requiring a permit to keep furbearers for fur farming purposes, and rather than reading that law as not requiring a permit for purposes other than fur farming as would be sensible, the TPWD has interpreted it as banning the keeping of those animals for *any* purposes other than fur farming.

In Texas, aside from furbearers, armadillos, and native endangered species you can have pretty much anything as a pet. I find it frustrating that I can have a pet hyena or baboon but not a ringtail "cat" or a Virginia opossum. It's fairly clear that some bureaucrat with either animal rights sympathies or a strong fear of disease and even stronger ignorance of science is behind this.

Also, the legislators who drafted the law didn't use scientific names, the animals defined as furbearers are defined by their common names. This worked well enough with the TPWD intepreting the law to refer to native species used in fur farming as obviously intended until a few years ago. Then, some bright young bureaucrat decided to interpret "fox" and "opossum" to mean any animal with the common name "fox" or "opossum."

Suddenly fennec foxes and short-tailed opossums (two of the least dangerous exotic pets imaginable) became illegal except for fur farming, despite the fact that these are non-native species *never* kept for fur farming and obviously not what the law referred to. "Fox" isn't even a coherent taxonomic grouping; it's just a name applied to a variety of canids with pointy snouts and ears.

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