Owning an Exotic Pet: Legalities & Liabilities [2022]

19 states have comprehensive bans on owning an exotic pet, and four states have no statewide laws or liabilities about owning an animal classified as “exotic.” While many people want one of the numerous options of exotic animals for their pet, there are several legal and insurance issues that people must go through for legal exotic pet ownership. Some individuals strongly believe exotic animals should never be pets, while others disagree and will do all they can to purchase one.

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D. Gilson is a writer and author of essays, poetry, and scholarship that explore the relationship between popular culture, literature, sexuality, and memoir. His latest book is Jesus Freak, with Will Stockton, part of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 Series. His other books include I Will Say This Exactly One Time and Crush. His first chapbook, Catch & Release, won the 2012 Robin Becker Prize from Seve...

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Written by D. Gilson, PhD
Professor & Published Author D. Gilson, PhD

Leslie Kasperowicz holds a BA in Social Sciences from the University of Winnipeg. She spent several years as a Farmers Insurance CSR, gaining a solid understanding of insurance products including home, life, auto, and commercial and working directly with insurance customers to understand their needs. She has since used that knowledge in her more than ten years as a writer, largely in the insuranc...

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Reviewed by Leslie Kasperowicz
Farmers CSR for 4 Years Leslie Kasperowicz

UPDATED: Jun 17, 2022

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The Highlights

  • One in 10 Americans owns one or more exotic pets according to the American Veterinary Medical Association
  • 19 states have comprehensive bans regarding exotic animals in place
  • Four states Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, Wisconsin have no statewide regulations of exotic animals
  • Owning an exotic animal will almost always require more expensive homeowners insurance coverage

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We can all agree: Owning an exotic pet has become an important issue, with implications ranging from public health and safety to individual rights and liberties.

In this study of exotic animal ownership, we’ll take a deep dive into the legalities and liabilities of owning an exotic animal as a legal pet. We’ll cover some of the exotic pets for sale and some animals like the serval cat you might see on an exotic pets list. By the end of this analysis, you’ll also have an idea how these laws affect the exotic pet trade.

We’ll define exotic animals, look at state-by-state laws in place, consider the liabilities of owning such pets, explore organizations working both for and against exotic pet ownership, and finally, turn to some expert advice on this timely topic.

Along the way, we’ll also look at insurance options, because buying protection if you’re an exotic animal owner isn’t as simple as just filing a car insurance claim.

In March 2020, Netflix reignited the public debate over exotic animal ownership with its docu-series, Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Chronicling the journey of Joe Exotic from small-town Oklahoma “zoo” owner to one of the most interesting of the FBI’s most wanted, the show quickly became an instant hit and sparked much public debate.

The show is sensational, but it also brings up many important issues within the exotic animal trade, such as ownership, poaching, breeding, and interstate sales, not to mention competition among exotic animal private zoo owners and how they affect world animal protection efforts.

Not every exotic animal owner is Joe Exotic, but we all face the ramifications of exotic pet ownership in the United States as residents of this country.The one subject that will come up later in the article is insurance. For an exotic pet owner, having their pet damage someone or that person’s property can lead to lawsuits and confiscation of the pet to animal services. This is no different than if you were to hit someone with your car. You would face legal penalties.

Insurance for exotic pets can be difficult, if for no other reason than there is not a straightforward directory of insurance companies that specialize in policies for exotic pets, unlike, for instance, comparing the best insurance companies.

Unlike insurance for exotic pets, other types of insurance coverage such as health, life, home, and car are not as complicated. But they can still be expensive. One of the best ways to save on insurance is to compare live quotes from different insurance companies.

Enter your ZIP code into our free online quote comparison tool to do just that and start saving on insurance today.

While purchasing exotic pets is often not as easy as walking into an exotic pets store and finding them an exotic pets vet may be more difficult than searching for a regular vet, some people still advocate for owning an exotic pet even with the dangers they present.

Some people believe that these dangers are reasons exotic animals shouldn’t be pets and speak to the issue of why exotic animals should not be pets. There are multiple sides to this topic. In this article, we’ll also cover the best exotic pets, keeping wild animals as pets, the consequences of owning exotic pets, and illegal exotic pets.

Read on to find out more about each state’s laws and legalities surrounding the ownership of an exotic pet.

Table of Contents

What is the legal definition of exotic pets?

What animals are considered exotic pets? The term “exotic pet” might be confusing at first glance. What some folks consider exotic, like a ferret, others might consider as domestic animals. Luckily, we have a federal statute that defines what an exotic pet actually is under the law.

According to federal code 9 CFR § 1.1:

Exotic animal means any animal… that is native to a foreign country or of foreign origin or character, is not native to the United States, or was introduced from abroad. This term specifically includes animals such as, but not limited to, lions, tigers, leopards, elephants, camels, antelope, anteaters, kangaroos, and water buffalo.”

what animals are considered exotic pets

The most common exotic pets are reptiles, from boa constrictors to Komodo dragons. But the exotic pets that have been making the most news are large cats, specifically lions, tigers, leopards, pumas, and hybrid bred felines.

These cats pose the most questions to those of us interested in public and private liabilities, as well as animal welfare in general, as many people believe exotic animals shouldn’t be pets.

You might be wondering: How much does it cost to buy exotic animals as pets? They’re not cheap, but for better or for worse, they might not cost as much as you would think. In the table below, we’ve gathered the average purchase price for a few of the most popular (non-reptile) exotic animals.

Exotic Pets: What's the average purchase price?
Lion$2,000 - $3,500
Tiger$2,000 - $3,500
Leopard$3,000 - $5,000
Elephant$10,000 +
Camel$500 - $2,500
Kangaroo$2,000 - $3,000
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Most of these costs are to buy the animal as a cub. And please note: these figures do not include any ongoing costs associated with any pet, such as food, permitting, and veterinary care, all of which can be rather costly, especially for exotic animals such as these.

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State Laws Governing Exotic Pet Ownership

What are each state’s laws governing exotic pets? Is owning an exotic pet illegal? Well, it depends. Though we have a federal code loosely defining an exotic animal across the United States, most laws governing the ownership, sale, and breeding of exotic pets can be found on the state and local level.

If you are wondering how to get an exotic pet license, it will depend on the laws in your state which we will discuss below.

According to the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University:

“Because of the limited nature of the federal government, most regulations occur at the state and local levels, where the police power allows general regulations for the public welfare. Federal laws do exist, however, that regulate captive wild animals in some of the constitutionally enumerated areas, such as interstate commerce and foreign policy.”

The most extensive federal law concerning exotic animals is the Captive Wildlife Safety Act (CWSA). Signed in 2003 and effective as of September 17, 2007, the CWSA primarily focuses on large cats and public safety concerns; the CWSA specifically applies to lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and cougars.

What does the CWSA actually do? The CWSA has four specific prohibitions regarding the aforementioned species of cats and their hybrids; under the act, residents of the United States cannot:

  1. Import into or export out of the United States
  2. Sale or purchase in an interstate fashion
  3. Transport across state lines
  4. Receive or acquire big cats if the animals are moved from one state to another

Beyond this federal legislation which sadly contains many loopholes, exotic animal legal protections and restrictions are mostly left to individual states. Let’s look at these relevant state laws, the information we gathered from the animal rights organization Born Free USA.

We have divided the types of relevant state laws into four categories:

  1. States with comprehensive bans on exotic animal ownership
  2. States with partial bans on exotic animal ownership
  3. States with some form of exotic animal licensing or permitting
  4. States with no exotic animal statutory or regulatory scheme

Which 20 states have comprehensive bans on exotic animal ownership?

20 states have comprehensive bans in place regarding exotic animal ownership, breeding, and sales. According to Michigan State University’s Animal Legal & Historical Center:

“These bans typically classify wild cats, large non-domesticated carnivores, reptiles, and non-human primates as ‘dangerous animals’ or otherwise prohibit private ownership of these species. These laws may outright ban the ownership of wild or exotic animals as pets or only allow those animals to be kept under certain licenses not including pet or private possession.”

These 20 states with comprehensive bans can be seen in the graphic below.

states with exotic pets comprehensive bans

1 – Alaska

Summary of the state law: No person may possess, import, release, export, or assist in importing, releasing, or exporting, live game animals as pets. Live game animals are defined as any species of bird, reptile, and mammal, including a feral domestic animal, found or introduced in the state, except domestic birds and mammals.

The Department interprets live game to include all animals, including exotics, such as wild felines, wolves, bears, monkeys, etc., not listed as domestic under Alaska Admin. Code tit. 5. §92.029. No person may possess, transport, sell, advertise or otherwise offer for sale, purchase or offer to purchase a wolf hybrid possessed after January 23, 2002.

Citation: ALASKA ADMIN. CODE tit. 5. §92.029-030; ALASKA STAT. §16.05.940.

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2 – California

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess wild animals unless the animal was in possession before January 1992.

Under one of the California exotic pet laws, they outline which animals are prohibited from being pets. Wild animals include, but are not limited to the following orders: Primates; Marsupialia; Insectivora (shrews); Chiroptera (bats); Carnivora (non-domestic dog and cats); Proboscidea (elephants); Perissodactyla (zebras, horses, rhinos); Reptilia (crocodiles, cobras, coral snakes, pit vipers, snapping turtles, alligators); etc.

Do you enjoy the sounds of birds and want to enjoy some pretty exotic species that call California home?

Filmed in the San Luis National Wildlife Complex along the San Joaquin River west of Merced, California, visiting such preserves is a responsible and generally safe way to experience animals up close that you might not think of as living so near you.

Citation: CAL. CODE REGS. Tit. 14, §671 and §671.1.

3 – Colorado

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess most exotic species unless it is for commercial purposes. People may, however, possess up to six live native reptiles, and unregulated wildlife. Unregulated wildlife includes but is not limited to sugar gliders, wallabies, wallaroos, kangaroos, etc.

Citation: 2 COLO. CODE REGS. §406-8.

It might be wise to consider how your home insurance in Colorado might extend to your domestic pets, by the way.

4 – Georgia

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess inherently dangerous animals as pets. Inherently dangerous animals include, but are not limited to the following orders: Marsupialia (kangaroos); primates (chimpanzees, gorillas, macaques); Carnivora (canines, felines); Proboscidae (elephants); Crocodylia (crocodiles, alligators, cobras, all poisonous rear-fanged species).

Only people engaged in the wholesale or retail wild animal business or people exhibiting wild animals to the public will be issued a license to possess inherently dangerous animals.

Citation: GA. CODE ANN. §27-5-4 and §27-5-5.

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5 – Hawaii

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to introduce exotic animals for private use into Hawaii. Exotic animals include, but are not limited to the Felidae family (lion, leopard, cheetah); Canidae family (wolf and coyote); and Ursidae family (black bear, grizzly bear, and brown bear), etc.

Not surprisingly, Hawaii is home to many beautiful wildlife refuges, which allow animals to roam free and be protected in their natural habitat.

Visiting Hawaii provides you the opportunity to see some of the most exotic wildlife on earth without taking that wildlife out of its natural habitat. There are many tour companies offering responsible guided tours for those who wish to see such animals in the wilds of the Hawaiian islands.

Citation: HAW. ADMIN. RULES §4-71-5, §4-71-6, §4-71-6.1, and §4-71-6.5.

6 – Illinois

Summary of the state law: No person may harbor, care for, act as a custodian, or maintain in his possession any dangerous animal or primate except at a properly maintained zoological park, federally licensed exhibit, circus, scientific institution, research laboratory, veterinary hospital or animal refuge.

“Dangerous animal” means a lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, lynx, bobcat, jaguarundi, bear, hyena, wolf, coyote, or any poisonous life-threatening reptile.

People who had lawful possession of a primate before January 1, 2011, from continuing to possess that primate if the person registers the animal by providing written notification to the local animal control authorities on or before April 1, 2011.

There are no state requirements for a person possessing other exotic species not defined as “dangerous animals.”

Citation: ILL. REV STAT, ch. 720, para. 585/0.1, 585/1, 585/2, and 585/3.

7 – Iowa

Summary of the state law: A person shall not own, possess or breed a dangerous wild animal.

A dangerous wild animal is defined as any member of the following families, orders or species: Canidae (excluding a domestic dog), Hyaenidae, Felidae (excluding a domestic cat), Ursidae, Perissodactyla, Proboscidea, order primates, Crocodilia, and water monitors, crocodile monitors, beaded lizards, Gila monsters, designated species of venomous snakes, reticulated pythons, anacondas, and African rock pythons.

Citation: IOWA CODE ANN §717F.1-.13.

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8 – Kentucky

Summary of the state law: No person may possess inherently dangerous exotic animals. Inherently dangerous exotic animals include, but are not limited to, tigers, lions, non-human primates, dangerous reptiles, bears, etc. If you possessed an inherently dangerous exotic animal before July 2005 you may keep your animal, but cannot possess any new animal or breed your current animals.

Citation: 301 KY. ADMIN. REGS. 2:082.

9 – Maryland

Summary of the state law: No person may possess or breed the following species of animals as a pet: foxes, skunks, raccoons, all species of bears, alligators, crocodiles, all species of wild cats, wolves, nonhuman primates, various venomous reptiles, etc.

People possessing one of the listed animals before May 31, 2006, may continue to keep the animal as long as the person provides written notification to the local animal control authorities on or before August 1, 2006, of said possession.

Want to experience some Maryland exotic wildlife?

Filmed in Maryland’s Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, you might be surprised to learn that such wild areas are within a short drive of some major metro areas such as Baltimore or Washington, D.C. But you don’t always have to go far or buy an exotic animal to experience the wonders of wildlife.

Citation: MD. CODE ANN., CRIMINAL LAW § 10-621.

10 – Massachusetts

Summary of the state law: No person may possess as a pet a wild bird, mammal, fish, reptile, or amphibian unless the animal was owned before June 30, 1995. A wild bird, mammal, fish, reptile, or amphibian is defined as any undomesticated animal that is not the product of hybridization with a domestic form and not otherwise contained in the exemption list.

Citation: MASS. REGS. CODE tit. 321, §2.12 and §9.01; and MASS. GEN. LAWS ANN. ch. 131, §23.

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11 – New Hampshire

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess exotic animals such as felines, bears, wolves, poisonous reptiles, and non-human primates unless they are exhibitors.

However, there are certain noncontrolled animals that may be privately possessed within the state without a license. Noncontrolled animals include but are not limited to sugar gliders, non-venomous reptiles, ferrets, etc.

Citation: N.H. REV. STATE ANN. §207:14 and N.H. CODE ADMIN. R Fis §802.01, §804.01, §804.02, §804.03, §804.04, §804.05, Table 800.02.

12 – New Jersey

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess a potentially dangerous species as a pet.

Potentially dangerous species include the following orders: Primates; Carnivora (non-domestic dogs and cats, bears); Saura (venomous Gila monsters); Serpentes (venomous coral snakes, cobras, vipers, pit vipers); Crocodilia (alligators, crocodiles, gavials); Psittaciformes (ring-necked and monk parakeets); and Rodentia (prairie dogs, ground squirrels).

Zoos and other exhibitors may possess these restricted species upon showing that specific criteria have been met, such as extensive experience handling and caring for the animal.

Citation: N.J. ADMIN. CODE tit. 7, §25-4.8 and §25-4.9.

13 – New Mexico

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for a person to possess non-domesticated felines, primates, crocodiles, alligators, and wolves.

Citation: Policy Statement by the Department of Game & Fish.

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14 – New York

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for a person to possess a wild animal. A wild animal is defined as all members of the Felidae family (except domestic cats); all members of the Canidae family (except domestic dogs); all bears; all non-human primates, venomous reptiles, and crocodiles.

A person who possesses a wild animal on the effective date of the law, January 1, 2005, has 60 days to obtain a permit for the animal with the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Citation: N.Y. ENVTL. CONSERV. §11-0103, §11-0303, §11-0511, §11-0512, §11-0516, §11-0103, and §11-0917; N.Y. AGRIC. & MKTS. §370.

15 – Ohio

Summary of the state law:

It is unlawful to possess a dangerous wild animal after Jan. 1, 2014. People in possession of dangerous wild animals before Oct. 1, 2013, must obtain a permit to keep the animal after Jan. 1, 2014.

Ohio is one of the states that is more explicit in listing which wild animal belongs to their restricted species list. The definition of a wild animal includes but is not limited to hyenas; gray wolves, excluding hybrids; lions; tigers; jaguars; leopards; cheetahs; cougars; bears; elephants; rhinoceroses; hippopotamuses; African wild dogs; Komodo dragons; alligators; crocodiles; caimans, excluding dwarf caimans; black-handed, white-bellied, brown-headed and black spider monkeys; common woolly monkeys; red, black and mantled howler monkeys.

In October of 2011, the Zanesville Animal Massacre took place. A private exotic animal zoo owner had a breakdown and freed his animals, causing a public emergency in the area, before killing himself.

ABC News reports that “when the carnage was over, 49 animals were slaughtered, including 18 Bengal tigers, 17 lions, six black bears, a pair of grizzlies, three mountain lions, two wolves, and a baboon.”

The Zanesville Animal Massacre shows a glimpse of what it is like when exotic animals briefly take over a small Ohio town. Like the release of Tiger King, the Zanesville Animal Massacre reignited the public debate over exotic animal ownership, breeding, and sales.

Citation: O.H. REV. CODE §1533.71; and §935. O.H. ADMIN CODE 901:1-2 and 901:1-4.

16 – Oregon

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for a person to possess an exotic animal. An exotic animal is defined as any wild cat, non-human primate, canine not indigenous to Oregon, bear (except black bear), and any alligator, crocodile, or caiman.

A person who possesses an exotic animal on the effective date of the law may continue to keep the animal and has 90 days to obtain a permit for the animal with the Department of Agriculture.

Citation: OR. REV. STAT. §609.305-§609.335.

17 – South Carolina

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful to possess wolves or coyotes within the state. It is also illegal to possess wildlife indigenous to the state without a permit. Specifically, one cannot possess members of the Cervidae, Suidae, Tayassuidae (peccaries), Bovidae (bison, mountain goat, mountain sheep), nor can they possess coyotes, bears, turkeys, and furbearers.

However, there are no state laws governing the possession of non-domesticated felines, primates, reptiles, and other wildlife not listed above.

Citation: S.C. CODE REGS. §50-11-1765 and §50-16-20.

Find out more: Car insurance in South Carolina.

18 – Utah

Summary of the state law: A person may not possess live zoological animals classified as prohibited. Prohibited animals include, but are not limited to, the following families: Ursidae (bears), Canidae (all species), Felidae (all species except non-domesticated cats), Mustelidae (all species), Non-human primates, and certain species of reptiles, etc.

However, in rare circumstances, a person may possess these animals as a pet if the person obtains registration certificate from the Wildlife Board. Generally, exhibitors and educational and scientific facilities only obtain these registrations. A certificate of registration is not required for non-controlled species that alligators and crocodiles fall under.

Citation: UTAH ADMIN. R. 657-3-17, R. 657-3-24, R. 657-3-25, and R. 657-3-27.

19 – Vermont

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess exotic animals, such as large felines, bears, wolves, poisonous reptiles, and non-human primates as pets. People may possess exotic animals for exhibition and educational purposes if they obtain a permit.

Please note that the state statute says a person may not bring into the state or possess an exotic animal unless they obtain a permit. However, no personal possession permits for pets are issued to individuals.

Citation: VT. STAT. ANN. Tit. 10, §4709.

20 – Washington

Summary of the state law: No person may possess or breed a potentially dangerous animal after July 2007. A potentially dangerous animal includes but is not limited to large cats, wolves, bears, hyenas, non-human primates, elephants, alligators, crocodiles, water monitors, crocodile monitors; and various species of venomous snakes.

Washington has some great spots to see its beautiful native wildlife in their native habitats.

Washington, one of the most beautiful states with a diverse ecosystem, is home to many wildlife refuges.

Citation: WASH. REV. CODE §16-30.

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What 12 states have partial bans on exotic animal ownership?

1 – Arkansas

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful to own or possess a large carnivore for personal possession. A large carnivore is defined as a lion, tiger or bear. It is unlawful to possess six or more bobcats, coyotes, deer, gray foxes, red foxes, opossums, quails, rabbits, raccoons, and squirrels.

If a person wishes to possess other animals not originally from the state and not listed above, then they must show upon request verification that the animal was legally acquired in the previous state.

Citation: ARK. CODE ANN. §20-19-501-§20-19-511 & GFC 18.17.

2 – Connecticut

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess potentially dangerous animals. Potentially dangerous animals include the Felidae family; the Canidae family; the Ursidae family; and Great apes (gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans).

Citation: CONN. GEN. STAT. §26-40a and §26-55.

3 – Florida

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for a person to possess any Class I Wildlife unless the animal was in possession before August 1, 1980. Class I Wildlife includes, but is not limited to the following: chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, baboons, leopards, jaguars, tigers, lions, bears, elephants, crocodiles, etc.

People may possess Class II Wildlife if they obtain a permit from the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Class II Wildlife includes, but is not limited to the following: howler and guereza monkeys, macaques, cougars, bobcats, cheetahs, ocelots, servals, coyotes, wolves, hyenas, alligators, etc.

All other wildlife in personal possession not defined as Class I or II Wildlife must obtain a no-cost permit.

Florida is home to the other star of Tiger King, Carole Baskin, who runs the organization Big Cat Rescue, featured in the video below.

In addition, Florida has promulgated regulations governing possession of Class II and III animals (caging requirements, etc.). In 2010, Florida passed state regulations prohibiting importation, sale, use, and release of non-native species.

The regulations include a ban on capturing, keeping, possessing, transporting or exhibiting venomous reptiles or reptiles of concern (listed python species, green anaconda, Nile monitor, and other reptiles designated by the commission as a conditional or prohibited species.)

People who hold pre-July 1, 2010 permits for these species may legally possess the species for the remainder of the reptile’s life. Traveling wildlife exhibitors who are licensed or registered under the United States Animal Welfare Act and licensed zoos are exempted.

Citation: FLA. ADMIN. CODE ANN. r. §68A-6.002, §68A-6.0021, and §68A-6.0022. FL ST. §379.231-2 (nonnative animals.).

4 – Kansas

Summary of the state law: No person may possess or breed a dangerous regulated animal as a pet.

Dangerous regulated animals include the following: lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, cheetah, mountain lion, hybrid of a large cat, bear, or venomous snake. People who are licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and hold an Animal Welfare Act license are exempt as well as zoos accredited by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, a wildlife sanctuary, research facility, etc.

Citation: KAN. STAT. ANN §32-1301-32-1312.

Learn more: Car insurance in Kansas.

5 – Louisiana

Summary of the state law: No person may possess, purchase, or sell any black bear, grizzly bear, polar bear, red wolf, gray wolf, wolf-dog hybrid, big cat or hybrid big cat, or non-human primates as a pet.

Individuals who possessed a nonhuman primate before the effective date of the regulation or a big cat (only one) before August 15, 2006, are grandfathered in as long as they obtain a permit. No person may possess venomous or large constricting snakes (defined as more than 12 feet long) without first obtaining a permit.

Louisiana is already home to some pretty exotic wildlife, so what are they doing to protect these animals? Let’s take a look.

Given that Louisiana is home to many endangered or nearly-endangered species, several wildlife refuges serve the state. Take a drive through the Lacassine Wildlife Refuge in the video above.

Citation: LA. ADMIN. CODE tit. 76, §115; Part XV §101.

6 – Michigan

Summary of the state law: No person may possess as a pet any member of the Felidae family (large cats), including their hybrids, any bear species, and any wolf-hybrid unless the animal was possessed before July 7, 2000.

A prior entry permit must be obtained from the director for all other wild animal or exotic animal species not listed above or regulated by the fish and wildlife service of the U.S. Department of the Interior or the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

Prior to an exotic animal entering the state, the Department of Natural Resources may require the possessor to have the animal examined by an accredited veterinarian to determine the health status, proper housing, and husbandry and to verify that confinement standards are being met.

Citation: MICH. COMP. LAWS §287.731, MICH. COMP. LAWS §287.1001-1023, MICH. COMP. LAWS §287.1101-1123.

7 – Minnesota

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for a person to possess a regulated animal. A regulated animal is defined as all members of the Felidae family (except domestic cats); all bears; and all non-human primates.

A person who possesses a regulated animal on the effective date of the law (January 1, 2005) has 90 days to register the animal with the local animal control authorities. People possessing a registered regulated animal may replace the regulated animal if it dies but may replace it only once.

Citation: MINN. STAT. 346.155.

8 – Nebraska

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess any wolf, skunk, or any member of the Felidae (cats, except domesticated) and Ursidae (bear) families unless the animal was in possession before March 1, 1986. However, there are no state requirements for non-human primates and reptiles.

Citation: NEB. REV. STAT. §37-477.

9 – Tennessee

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess Class I wildlife unless they owned the animals before June 25, 1991.

Class I wildlife includes the following orders: Primates (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, gibbons, siamangs, mandrills, drills, baboons, Gelada baboons only); Carnivores (all wolves, all bears, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars); Proboscidia (all elephants); Perissodactyla (all rhinoceroses); Artiodactyla (all hippos and African buffalos); Crocodylia (crocodiles and alligators); Serpentes (all poisonous snakes); and amphibians (all poisonous species).

However, the state does not regulate private possession of species not listed above, such as monkeys and small non-domesticated cats (ocelots, servals, etc.).

Citation: TENN. CODE ANN §70-4-401, §70-4-403, and §70-4-404.

Need car insurance in the Volunteer State? Check out our Tennessee car insurance guide.

10 – Virginia

Summary of the state law:

No person may possess non-native exotic animals that are classed as predatory or undesirable as a pet. Non-native exotic animals include, but are not limited to bears, wolves, coyotes, weasels, badgers, hyenas, all species of non-domesticated cats, alligators, and crocodiles.

People may possess these animals if they are a licensed exhibitor, i.e. commercial, educational, or scientific uses. However, there are no state requirements for a person possessing non-human primates.

You might expect Virginia, one of the nation’s fastest-growing states, to have little room left for wildlife and outdoor adventure.

This refuge is a 112,000-acre seasonally flooded wetland forest located in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, full of wildlife and just plain beautiful vistas.

Citation: 4 VAC 15-30-10; 15-30-40.

11 – West Virginia

Summary of the state law: A person may not possess most dangerous non-native wild animals. Dangerous wild animals include gray wolves, big cats and hybrids, bears, elephants, rhinoceroses, many primates, and others.

Exotic animals owned before June 1, 2015, can be kept, as long as the owner obtains a permit. Accredited exhibitors, nonprofit organizations, animal control authorities, wildlife rehabilitators, veterinary clinics, sanctuaries, researchers, and educational institutions are exempt from these rules.

Citation: W. VA. CODE §19-34-1 to §19-34-9; W. VA. CODE R. §61-30-1.

12 – Wyoming

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for people to possess big or trophy game animals. Big game is defined as an antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, moose or mountain goat. Trophy game is defined as a black bear, grizzly bear or mountain lion.

Citation: WYO. STAT. §23-1-101 and §23-1-103; WYO. REG. Chapter 10, §5.

What 14 states have some form of exotic animal licensing or permitting?

1 – Arizona

Summary of the state law: No primate may be owned as a pet unless it was lawfully possessed before the effective date of the regulations. People possessing restricted wildlife must obtain a wildlife holding license to lawfully possess the animal. The department issues wildlife holding permits for:

  • Advancement of science
  • Fostering an animal unable to return to the wild
  • Wildlife previously possessed under a different special license,
  • Promotion of public health or welfare
  • Providing education through an organization
  • Photography for a commercial purpose
  • Wildlife management

Restricted live wildlife includes, but is not limited to the following species: all species of Carnivora (canines, felines, excluding domestic); alligators, crocodiles, cobras, vipers, etc.

Citation: ARIZ. COMP. ADMIN R. & REGS. R12-4-405, R12-4-406; R12-4-407; R12-4-425; R12-4-426.

Given the average purchase cost and state permitting fee, you could buy a tiger cub in Arizona for around $2,000 plus the requisite Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) form.

2 – Delaware

Summary of the state law: People must obtain a permit before they can possess a live wild mammal or hybrid of a wild animal. It is illegal to possess, sell, or exhibit any poisonous snake not native to or generally found in Delaware.

Citation: DEL. CODE ANN tit. 3, §7201, §7202, and §7203.

Learn more: Car insurance in Delaware.

3 – Idaho

Summary of the state law: Private possession of any “deleterious exotic animal” is forbidden, unless the owner receives a permit from the Idaho Department of Agriculture. “Deleterious exotic animal” is defined as any live animal or a hybrid that is not native to the state of Idaho and is determined by the department to be dangerous to the environment, livestock, agriculture, or wildlife of the state.

This list includes big cats, all non-native Canidae species, and all non-human primates.

Citation: IDAHO ADMIN CODE §02.04.27.

4 – Indiana

Summary of the state law: People who possess certain wild animals must obtain a permit for each animal they possess.

A wild animal possession permit is required for Class I animals (eastern cottontail rabbit, gray squirrel, fox squirrel, Southern flying squirrel), Class II animals (beaver, coyote, gray fox, red fox, mink, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, skunk, weasel), and Class III animals: wolves (purebred), bears, wild cats (excluding feral cats), venomous reptiles and crocodilians (at least five feet long).

Citation: IND. CODE ANN. §14-22-26-1-§14-22-26-6.

In Indiana, one could buy and permit a lion cub for as little as $2,010.

5 – Maine

Summary of the state law: A person may possess a wild animal after obtaining a permit.

Maine is home to many beautiful wildlife refuges you can visit, such as the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

According to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, the coastal New England state of Maine has 11 great wildlife refuges for you and your family to visit. You’ll be surprised to learn how many exotic species can thrive in the chilly North Atlantic climate of this beautiful state.

Citation: ME. REV. STAT. ANN. tit. 12 § 7235-A.

6 – Mississippi

Summary of the state law: It is unlawful for a person to import or possess any wild animal classified inherently dangerous by law or regulation unless that person holds a permit or is exempted from holding a permit.

Inherently dangerous animals include but are not limited to the following animals: orangutans, chimpanzees, gorillas, macaques, mandrills, baboons, wolves, bears, hyenas, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, elephants, etc. However, there are no state requirements for private possession of small non-domesticated felines such as ocelots, servals, etc.

Citation: MISS. CODE ANN. §49-8-5 and §49-8-7.

7 – Missouri

Summary of the state law: A person may not keep a lion, tiger, leopard, ocelot, jaguar, cheetah, margay, mountain lion, Canada lynx, bobcat, jaguarundi, hyena, wolf, coyote, or any deadly dangerous or poisonous reptile unless they have registered the animal with the local law enforcement authority in the county in which the animal is kept.

As of January. 1, 2012, pursuant to the Large Carnivore Act (§578.602), no person shall own or possess, breed, transfer ownership or possession of, receive a transfer of ownership of possession of, or transport a large carnivore without a permit.

“Large carnivore” is defined as tiger, lion, jaguar, leopard, snow leopard, clouded leopard, and cheetah, including a hybrid cross with such cat, but excluding any unlisted nonnative cat, or any common domestic or house cat; or a bear of a species that is nonnative to this state and held in captivity.

Any person possessing, breeding, or transporting a large carnivore on or after Jan. 1, 2012, shall apply for and obtain a permit from the division. Circuses, the University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine, and zoos are exempt.

Citation: MO. REV. STAT. §578.023; §578.600-624.

Given the permitting costs in Missouri and average purchase price, one could buy a camel in the Show Me State for as little as $550.

8 – Montana

Summary of the state law: A person may not operate a wild animal menagerie without obtaining a permit. A wild animal menagerie means any place where one or more bears or large cats, including cougars, lions, tigers, jaguars, leopards, pumas, cheetahs, ocelots, and hybrids of those large cats are kept in captivity for use other than a public exhibition.

All other exotic animals entering the state, such as reptiles, monkeys, etc., must be accompanied by a one-time entry permit and an official health certificate.

Citation: MONT. CODE ANN. 87-4-801, 87-4-803, and 87-4-804; MONT. ADMIN. R. §32.3.202.

9 – North Dakota

Summary of the state law: Category three, four, or five of nontraditional livestock may be possessed in the state after obtaining an import permit, a nontraditional livestock license, and a certificate from a veterinarian. Category four is those species considered inherently dangerous, including bears, wolves, wolf hybrids, primates, all non-domesticated cats except Canadian lynx, and bobcats.

Citation: N.D. ADMIN. CODE §48-12-01-02 and §48-12-01-03.

10 – Oklahoma

Summary of the state law: No person may possess or raise wildlife for commercial purposes without first obtaining a permit. Regardless of whether the possession is actually for commercial purposes, people owning these animals as pets must obtain this particular permit.

Citation: OKLA. STAT. Tit. 29, §4-107.

In Oklahoma, you could buy and permit an elephant for just over $10,000.

11 – Pennsylvania

Summary of the state law: No person may keep exotic wildlife without first receiving a permit from the wildlife commission. Exotic wildlife includes, but is not limited to all bears, coyotes, lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, cougars, wolves, and any crossbreed of these animals that have similar characteristics in appearance or features.

Citation: 34 PA. CONS. STAT. ANN. §2961 and §2963 58 Pa. Code §137.1.

Need home insurance in Pennsylvania? Check out our Pennsylvania home insurance guide.

12 – Rhode Island

Summary of the state law: No person may possess, without first obtaining a permit from the department, animals of the following orders, families, and genera: Primates, Carnivores, Amphibia, Reptilia, Canidae, and Insecta.

People obtaining a permit must demonstrate they have adequate facilities, and adequate knowledge of animal health and husbandry to ensure public safety and health.

Tiny Rhode Island still has room for some wildlife adventures, as you can see in the video below.

The Sachuest Point National Wildlife Refuge in Middletown, Rhode Island is the perfect place to spend a quiet weekend morning, taking in all the sounds of protected wildlife while also enjoying a lovely stroll by yourself or with some loved ones.

Citation: R.I. GEN. LAWS §4-18-3; 1994 R.I. PUB. LAWS 12 020 030.

13 – South Dakota

Summary of the state law: A permit is required to possess any non-domestic mammal, or any hybrids of the following orders: Carnivora (Felidae, non-domestic; Canidae, non-domestic; Ursidae, bears; Mustelidae; and Hyaenidae); Artiodactyla (hoofed animals); and Perissodactyla (Tapiridae and Rhinocerotidae).

In addition, all animals (including those listed above and non-human primates and reptiles) must be examined by a veterinarian and be free of any contagious, infectious, epidemic, or communicable disease. No person may possess non-domestic pigs or raccoon dogs.

Citation: S.D. ADMIN. R. 12:68:18:03 and 12:68:18:03.01; and S.D. CODIFIED LAWS ANN. 40-14-2.

14 – Texas

Summary of the state law: No person may possess a dangerous wild animal without obtaining a license (certificate of registration).

Dangerous wild animals are defined as lions, tigers, ocelots, cougars, leopards, cheetahs, jaguars, bobcats, lynxes, servals, caracals, hyenas, bears, coyotes, jackals, baboons, chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, or any hybrids of the animals listed. However, there are no requirements for a person possessing all other animals not listed above, such as monkeys, wolves, etc.

Citation: TEX. HEALTH & SAFETY CODE ANN. § 822.101-116; TEX. LOC. GOV’T CODE ANN. § 240.002(a) and § 240.0025.

Given the average animal purchase price and permit cost in Texas, you could own a leopard here for as little as $3,020.

Which four states have no exotic animal bans?

The pressure is mounting for state and local governments as well as the federal government to act legislatively to protect exotic animals both on the level of animal welfare and public safety. But there are still four states with no exotic pet statutory or regulatory scheme in place, which can be seen in the graphic below.

states with no exotic pets statutory or regulatory scheme

1 – Alabama

Summary of the state law: No person, firm, corporation, partnership, or association may possess, sell, offer for sale, import, or cause to be brought or imported into the state the following fish or animals:

  • Fish from the genus Clarias
  • Fish from the genus Serrasalmus
  • Black carp
  • Any species of mongoose
  • Any member of the family Cervidae (deer, elk, moose, caribou)
  • Any species of coyote, fox, raccoon, skunk, wild rodents, or wild turkey

However, there are no requirements for a person possessing exotic animals, such as lions, tigers, monkeys, etc.

Citation: ALA. ADMIN CODE r. 220-2-.26.

2 – Nevada

Summary of the state law: Specific animals are prohibited from private ownership except if the animal was in possession before February 28, 1994. Examples of such animals are the following: alligators, crocodiles, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, etc. However, other exotic animals may be possessed without a permit or license.

Examples of these exotic animals are monkeys and other primates, marsupials, elephants, felines, wolves, etc.

Citation: NEV. ADMIN. CODE ch. 503, §110; ch. 503, §140; ch. 504, §488.

Learn more: Car insurance in Nevada.

3 – North Carolina

Summary of the state law: A county or city may by ordinance regulate, restrict, or prohibit the possession of dangerous animals. In addition, an entry permit from the state veterinarian is required before importing into the state a skunk, fox, raccoon, ringtail, bobcat, North and South American felines, coyote marten, and brushtail possum.

Citation: N.C. SESS. LAWS §153A-131 and §160A-187; N.C. ADMIN. CODE tit. 2, r. 52B.0212.

4 – Wisconsin

Summary of the state law: To import a wild animal into the state, a person must have an import permit and certificate of veterinary inspection. Certain rodents may not be imported unless the person receives authorization from the Department of Natural Resources.

A license is required to breed, sell, purchase, and possess certain native wild animal species, and any non-native harmful wild animals, defined as cougars, members of the family Ursidae, wild swine, and feral swine.

Citation: WIS. STAT.. ANN. 169.01, 169.04, 169.08, 169.10, 169.11; WIS. AADMIN. CODE ATCP 10.07, 10.84.

But even in these states without exotic pet legislation in place, there are liabilities to owning, breeding, or selling animals deemed exotic. Let’s take a look at these liabilities a little more closely.

Liabilities of Owning Exotic Pets

What are the liabilities of owning exotic pets? Not surprisingly, the biggest drawback of owning an exotic animal is if that animal attacks someone. Owners of animals deemed exotic are more likely than not to be held to a higher standard of liability financial and otherwise in the case of an attack than those with domesticated animals and their attacks, such as dog bites or cat scratches.

In most states with licensing schemes for exotic animals, common sense is at the center of liability for exotic pet ownership.

Many major insurance companies such as Progressive Insurance and Nationwide Insurance now offer specific pet policies.

In the case of exotic animal attacks, exotic pet owners may face not only the standard forms of liability in their legal jurisdiction but may even face punitive damages if it can be shown that the animal owner acted irresponsibly in their handling of the wild animal so that an attack was almost inevitable.

According to the experts at Legal Match:

“Owners of wild animals are usually held strictly liable for injury … because wild animals are unpredictable and cannot be tamed. To hold an owner liable for injury by an exotic or wild animal, the injured person will have to show that the exotic or wild animal was under the person’s control or that the person introduced the animal to the area.”

Because legal liabilities are so high for exotic animal owners, insurance is a valuable tool to protect against financial ruin. As we’ll explore in the next section, look to the type of homeowners insurance you have to see if your pet, exotic or not, is covered.

Exotic Pet Insurance

What insurance is available for exotic pets? Like all pets, if exotic animals are covered by one’s insurance policy, they will be covered under a comprehensive homeowners insurance policy. It’s important to check your individual policy to see exactly what is covered. If it isn’t immediately clear, speak to your insurance agent.

There is even insurance specifically for domestic pets, but you should know: Not even these policies always cover exotic animals.

Homeowners insurance covers the actual structure of your physical house and your personal belongings. More comprehensive homeowners insurance policies provide money for living expenses in the case of an emergency and liability insurance. It’s important to check your homeowners’ policy to see if your liability component covers pets, domestic or exotic.

Insurance for pets such as service animals is more common and less expensive than insurance for exotic animals, which requires you to have higher liability coverage given the risks involved.

Of course, the more insurance you carry, the more you’ll pay in premiums. Typically, the minimum amount of homeowners liability is $100,000. If you want this policy to include your exotic pets, most insurers recommend upping your liability coverage to at least $300,000. 

If your insurance policy does not cover your exotic pet, or your premiums are too costly, then it’s good to keep in mind that there is free veterinary care for low-income families available in several areas across the United States.

According to our research, damage claims caused by pets are already one of the most common homeowners liability insurance claims.

Organizations Working on Exotic Pet Ownership Issues

Many media groups are beginning to launch extensive investigations into the exotic animal trade. Netflix’s docu-series Tiger King, for example, has been extremely popular and offers an in-depth look at people on both sides of the exotic pet debate.

So, what organizations are working to advocate both against and for the exotic animal trade?

Let’s take a deeper look at a few of the top organizations on both sides of this debate, organizations on the front lines of legislative and public policy action.

Organizations Working to End Ownership of Exotic Pets

What organizations are working to end exotic pet ownership? The Humane Society of the United States has launched a comprehensive Stopping the Wildlife Trade Campaign. They report that not only is the global exotic animal trade a $10 billion a year business, but also that of the 5,000 to 7,000 tigers currently living in the United States, only 400 can be found in accredited zoos.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums has a similar campaign: the Wildlife Trafficking Alliance. The organization explains that:

“The Wildlife Trafficking Alliance (WTA) is a coalition of more than 70 leading companies, non-profit organizations, and AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums working together to reduce the purchase and sale of illegal wildlife and wildlife products.”

Public zoos and aquariums and environmentally-focused companies coming together represent an essential partnership to keep exotic pet ownership in the sphere of public debate. Together, they can bring a national voice to an issue affecting every state across the country.

Perhaps the most infamous NGO working to end exotic pet ownership in the United States is People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, commonly known as PETA. For those concerned about the exotic animal trade, PETA pleads:

“Never buy exotic animals from dealers or pet shops. Animal shelters and rescue groups are filled with dogs and cats who need good homes. Support legislation that would make owning exotic animals illegal in your community and prohibit the interstate sale of exotic animals.”

These organizations provide a variety of ways to take action from volunteering to donating to protesting for those passionate about fighting the exotic animal trade both within the United States and abroad. But what about organizations advocating that exotic pet ownership might be a good thing?

Organizations Working to Protect Exotic Pet Ownership

What organizations are working to protect exotic pet ownership? Organizations advocating for the owners, breeders, and sellers of exotic animals usually argue along the lines of animal conservation. If these animals are endangered, they argue, it makes sense to breed more of them into existence.

One of these organizations, for instance, the National Animal Interest Alliance (NAIA), argues that:

“While zoos and preserves are in the forefront of species conservation, space and funds for these animals is limited. Therefore, conservation may depend on private citizens… NAIA supports the responsible ownership of exotics, including the private breeding, sale, and ownership of these animals under regulations that protect their welfare and provide for public safety.”

Most pro-exotic animal owner organizations are species-based lobbying groups, such as the United States Association of Reptile Keepers (USARK).

As the public debate surrounding exotic pet ownership continues to expand, we expect more of these species-based lobbying groups to crop up, especially for big cat breeds, who represent the most contentious part of this debate.

Experts Weigh in: Problems with Exotic Pet Ownership

What are the problems with exotic pet ownership? We asked a variety of animal welfare, public policy, law, safety, and insurance experts or advocates, as well as veterinarians, vet techs, and insurance agents, to weigh in on the pressing issue of exotic pet ownership, sales, and breeding.

Below you can find some of their insightful thoughts on this topic that brings out the passion in many people.

Advice from Experts Around the Country

“I see many exotic species such as monkeys, lemurs, and larger cats such as servals.

There is not one law that covers all exotic animals that is the same across the U.S. Each city and state has its own laws. For instance, Texas does allow people to own pet monkeys, where Louisiana does not allow people to own pet monkeys. Each species of animal has multiple rules and regulations that the owner must follow.

Most of the time, people will get these as cute little pets. Many people do not realize that these are wild animals that we are bringing into our homes. The majority of their natural, wild habits and behaviors cannot be stopped.

Monkeys are known to be aggressive as they get older and even bite and hurt their owners. Sometimes their aggression can cause a lot of problems with neighbors and other family and friends coming over to visit.

If these animals are very aggressive they can bite other people who are in your house and cause a lot of unwanted legal trouble for you. Wild cats are usually very hard to handle in the vet office and have to be sedated before we can do any sort of exam on them.

Most exotic animals do not make good or even safe pets. 

While I enjoy being able to practice medicine on many of these exotic species, they are not the main pet that I recommended for people to have in their homes. These pets are better to stay in zoos or in the wild. Sadly all too often, people do not do their research before purchasing these species.

Another big problem is that these types of exotic animals have a very different diet than they need to continuously adhere to in order for them to be healthy, and there is no commercially made food for these animals to eat. In most cases, owners would have to cook special meals for these animals in order for them to be their pets.

If someone wants a different species of animal, I usually try to direct them to hamsters, rats, snakes, and lizards. These animals are much more docile, easier, and safer to have as pets.”

sara ochoa veterinary consultant doglabSara Ochoa is an exotic veterinarian and a veterinary consultant for DogLab.
For the past five years, she has been treating cats, dogs, and exotic animals in Texas.

“Owning an exotic animal creates very significant exposure to a personal injury lawsuit. In California, people who own, keep, or control wild animals are responsible for the harm that these animals, no matter how carefully they guard or restrain their animals.

This means that an owner is held liable for their exotic animal, regardless of how much care they took to prevent injuries. Because a wild animal is presumed to be vicious, the owner of such an animal must compensate anyone who is injured by the animal.

The California courts have specifically found that this strict liability can be imposed on keepers of lions and tigers, bears, elephants, wolves, and monkeys.

For example, if a monkey at a zoo escapes its cage and injures a zoo visitor, then the monkey’s owner can be held liable. This is the case because monkeys are considered an exotic animal, and the law recognizes that exotic animal owners must be held accountable for their animal’s actions.

And to make matters worse, most insurance policies specifically exclude insurance against exotic animals or wild animals. Under these policies, insurance companies have no obligation to defend a business from a lawsuit arising out of a wild animal injury. This leaves the exotic owner to bear (no pun intended) all financial responsibility.

However, there are particular insurance policies that cover exotic animal liability. Such policies provide defense and indemnity in claims made against an exotic owner when the animal causes injury. Any exotic animal owner should consider obtaining applicable insurance to limit their liability, particularly considering the possible damages that an exotic animal can cause.”

Anderson Franco, Esq., is a Personal Injury attorney in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has represented clients on Personal Injury and Catastrophic Accident cases since 2014.Anderson Franco, Esq., is a personal injury attorney in the San Francisco Bay area.
He has represented clients on personal injury and catastrophic accident cases since 2014.

“I am a Criminologist at Southwestern Oklahoma State University and have been investigating the origins, impact, and continuation of California’s prohibition of ferrets. I own four ferrets and have raised ferrets for a decade.

I presented some of my research about California’s ferret ban at the American Society of Criminology’s 2019 conference in San Francisco, California. My presentation, Crossing the Line: California’s War on Ferrets, was well attended and hopefully the published peer-reviewed version of my manuscript will be available in the near future.

As I note in some of my answers below, owning a ferret in California is punishable with jail time, even though ferret products are sold at pet stores throughout the state of California.

Similarly, there are necessary exceptions in California’s laws to allow research institutions to own ferrets for scientific purposes. In many states, you can own a ferret but cannot legally smoke cannabis. In California, you can legally smoke cannabis but could go to jail if you own a ferret.”

What are the Laws in Place or in Proposed Legislation About the Ownership and/or Sale of Exotic Pets?

“Ferret ownership is subject to a wide variety of state and local laws. There is no uniformity between state laws. The most notable laws about ferret ownership are outright bans in California and New York City.

California’s ferret ban is unique because they label the domestic ferret as wild animals. Much of the evidence cited to justify their ban is not backed by scientific research and the feared results of legalizing ferrets in California have not been observed in other states.

I have traveled across the country for graduate school and different jobs, and have had to be very careful about checking what the laws are in the cities and states where I would be living. Likewise, I have not even attempted or considered getting a job in California.”

What are the personal liabilities of owning an exotic pet?

“In regards to ferrets, the biggest liability would be bites. Ferrets have thick skin and they bite other ferrets when they play with each other. This sometimes leads to playful ferrets nipping a human when they want to play.

Nipping, essentially, amounts to them putting their teeth on you. My ferrets have never broken my skin. I am more fearful of being scratched by a ferret because their claws can be extremely sharp much like the claws of a cat.

With all that said, ferrets that engage in nipping are not actually dangerous. In fact, that is behavior showing that they want to play. Also, younger ferrets tend to nip more often than older ferrets. It is a behavior that a ferret can easily be trained not to do.

Another liability for a ferret owner and anyone that comes near them is that ferrets can transmit the influenza virus.

Ferrets’ respiratory pathology is very similar to humans’ respiratory systems. Thus, they are susceptible to the flu and even certain varieties of the coronavirus (COVID-19). However, it is not yet known how susceptible ferrets are to COVID-19  or if they can transmit it to humans (or vice-versa). 

Because of this susceptibility, ferrets are commonly used in laboratory research to develop vaccines and other medical treatments such as Tamiflu.

Similarly, ferrets are currently being used across the world to test potential COVID-19 vaccines.”

Can you share a specific story about an exotic pet owner or breeder and any legal or liability problems they’ve faced?

“Patrick Wright of California had his ferret euthanized and was sentenced to jail. The events that led to his arrest started when his ferret allegedly bit a little girl. He is not the only person to have ever been sentenced to jail for owning a ferret. Brent Utley is another individual who lost his ferret and was sentenced to jail.

Brent Utley wrote an emotional letter to Jeanne Carley, a member of the Californians for Ferret Legalization (CFL),  before going to jail in 1995. In the letter he tells the story about how he was traveling from Arizona to his mother’s home in California. He explained that he was ticketed, and they confiscated his ferrets at a Food and Agriculture Inspection Station on the Arizona/California border. 

The final line of his note is the most moving part of the letter when he wrote, ‘If you want to know how I feel let someone shoot your family dog or cat or horse, then you’ll know.'”

What are the public dangers of exotic pet ownership? Are there any benefits?

“Ferrets can easily get into things that could cause them danger and can easily get lost in and out of a house. Pet owners must take great care to ‘ferret-proof’ the living area where they house their ferrets. For instance, I set aside one bedroom which is the de facto ‘ferret room.’

The biggest issue with owning ferrets is dispelling all of the myths about ferrets that exist. The general public tends to assume ferrets are mean, ferocious, smelly, and dirty. There is no proof that ferrets are any more likely than a dog or cat to bite a human. In fact, scientific research suggests that dogs and cats bite much more often than ferrets. 

Essentially, ferrets are like any other pet. If they are treated well and raised in a good environment, then they will be friendly and loving towards humans. There is a reason for the devoted following of ferrets among individuals in the United States. Evidence of this passionate following can be seen by the plethora of ferret clubs and shelters that exist across the nation.”

What type of insurance is required or recommended for exotic animal owners?

“I do not recommend any specific insurance for ferret owners. Liability insurance is too costly, and you will not have any problems if you are cautious about who handles your ferrets.

As far as health, only one company seems to insure ferrets for vet care, but the most common ailments ferrets are treated for are not covered by that insurance. I am cautious about who handles or comes around my ferrets for the safety of those individuals and for the safety of my ferrets.”

What are some of the best organizations providing information about exotic pet ownership, either pro- or con-?

“The American Ferret Association and the Greater Chicago Ferret Association. To my knowledge, the Greater Chicago Ferret Association is the only standalone brick-and-mortar ferret shelter in the United States. The majority of ferret shelters are run out of individuals’ homes or on private property.”

daniel ryan kavish assistant professor of sociology and criminal justice at Southwestern Oklahoma State UniversityDaniel Ryan Kavish, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of sociology & criminal justice.
He works in the Department of Social Sciences at Southwestern Oklahoma State University.

What can we conclude about exotic pet ownership?

Exotic pet ownership is a pressing public health and safety as well as personal liberty issue that has gained a lot of widespread coverage with the release of Netflix’s docu-series Tiger King. And we’re not surprised. Many of us haven’t been able to stop watching the show and are already calling for a second follow-up season to be filmed.

In this study of exotic animal ownership, we took a long look at the legalities and liabilities of owning an exotic animal. First, we defined exotic animals, then we looked at state-by-state laws in place, considered the liabilities of owning such pets, explored organizations working both for and against exotic pet ownership, and finally, turned to some expert advice on this timely topic.

No matter which side of the exotic pet ownership debate you fall on, it’s important to be an informed citizen and to know about the legal ramifications and personal liabilities of owning, breeding, or selling such animals.

In the coming years, we only expect this debate to gain more traction. In the United States alone, 5,000 – 7,000 tigers live on private property, while only 400 live in accredited zoos. Until this trend reverses or disappears altogether, folks on both sides of the debate will continue to advocate their position, both in courts and in the court of public opinion.

In the table below, we’re providing a brief summary of the laws and penalties for breaking those state laws regarding exotic animal ownership, breeding, and sales where applicable.

Laws, Penalties, & Costs: Exotic Pet Ownership by State
AlabamaNo bann/an/a
AlaskaFull banFine up to $5,000 fine
Prison up to one year
ArizonaPermitting systemClass 2 misdemeanorNo cost, but Certificate of Veterinary Inspection (CVI) required
ArkansasPartial banClass A misdemeanorn/a
CaliforniaFull banFine not exceeding $500n/a
ColoradoFull banFine up to $10,000 per animaln/a
ConnecticutPartial banFine up to $1,000
Class C misdemeanor
DelawarePermitting systemFine up to $500
Prision up to 30 days
Or both
$25 for three years
FloridaPartial banFine up to $5,000 per animaln/a
GeorgiaFull banFine up to $5,000
Prision up to 12 months
Or both
HawaiiFull banFine up to $250
Prision up to 12 months
Or both (1st violation)
IdahoPermitting systemFine up to $5,000 per animal$50 for two years
IllinoisFull banClass 3 or 4 felonyn/a
IndianaPermitting systemFine up to $10,000 per animal$10
IowaFull banFine between $200 and $2,000 per animaln/a
KansasPartial banFine up to $1,000 per animaln/a
KentuckyFull banFine up to $250
Prision up to 30 days
Or both (1st violation)
LouisianaPartial banClass 2 misdemeanorn/a
MainePermitting systemFine up to $500
Class E felony
MarylandFull banFine up to $500 per animal (1st violation)n/a
MassachusettsFull banFine up to $1,000
Prison up to a year
Or both
MichiganPartial banFine up to $100 (1st violation)n/a
MinnesotaPartial banFine up to $3,000
Prison up to 12 months
Or both
MississippiPermitting systemFine up to $100
Prison up to 100 days
Or both
$75+ depending on species
MissouriPermitting systemClass C misdemeanor$50
MontanaPermitting systemFine up to $1,000
Prison up to 12 months
Or both
NebraskaPartial banFine up to $1,000
Class 2 misdemeanor
NevadaNo bann/an/a
New HampshireFull banFine up to $10,000n/a
New JerseyFull banFine up to $5,000n/a
New MexicoFull banFine up to $1,000
Prison up to 12 months
Or both
New YorkFull banFine up to $2,500n/a
North CarolinaNo bann/an/a
North DakotaPermitting systemClass C felony$40 for three years
OhioFull banFirst degree misdemeanor (1st offense)
Then fifth degree felony
OklahomaPermitting systemFine up to $2,000
Prison up to 12 months
Or both
OregonFull banFine up to $500n/a
PennsylvaniaPermitting systemFine up to $5,000$50+ depending on species
Rhode IslandPermitting systemFine of at least $100$5
South CarolinaFull banClass A misdemeanorn/a
South DakotaPermitting systemFine
Up to 12 months in prison
TennesseePartial banFine up to $2,500n/a
TexasPermitting systemClass B misdemeanor$20
UtahFull banAt least Class B misdemeanorn/a
VermontFull banFine up to $500n/a
VirginiaPartial banClass 1 misdemeanorn/a
WashingtonFull banFine up to $2,000 per animaln/a
West VirginiaPartial banFine up to $2,000n/a
WisconsinNo bann/an/a
WyomingPartial banFine up to $10,000n/a
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In the LAWS column of the table above, “full ban” represents states with a comprehensive exotic animal ban, “partial ban” represents states with a partial exotic animal pan, “permitting system” represents states with a permitting or licensing scheme in place to allow for exotic animals, and “no ban” represents the four states without exotic animal laws in place.

What happens if you get caught with an illegal pet? As you can see, states such as Colorado, Indiana, New Hampshire, and Wyoming have especially high fines for exotic pet ownership or trading.

So which states are exotic pet-friendly?

For this comprehensive look into the legalities and liabilities of owning an animal deemed exotic, we focused on data provided by the Animal Legal & Historical Center at Michigan State University, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, and the NGO Born Free USA. These are three leaders providing comprehensive data and legal information regarding exotic animals and public health in the United States.

We believe that understanding the state-by-state legislation surrounding exotic animal ownership, breeding, and sales is important to understand how local, state, and federal legislation, either current or future, determine what is allowed.

As more states enact comprehensive bans on exotic animal ownership, we also believe we can see trends towards animal protection and away from the right to personally own such animals.

For our additional questions about exotic animals in the United States, we turned to three experts, including a veterinarian, an attorney, and a criminology professor who researches the exotic animal trade.

One noted that ferrets can aid with finding a coronavirus cure, which would be helpful for many societies as even behaviors like mobility have been reduced significantly because of traffic changes from coronavirus. Overall, these folks helped us understand both the personal and cultural effects of exotic animal ownership, sales, and breeding.

Frequently Asked Questions: Exotic Pets

Now that we’ve covered each state and its laws surrounding exotic pets, let’s get to your frequently asked questions. They include:

  • Is it cruel to keep exotic pets?
  • What is the easiest exotic pet to own?
  • What happens if you get caught by an exotic animal?

Many of the questions surround the singular issue, “Why is owning an exotic pet bad?” Scroll down for the answers to those questions and more.

1 – Is it cruel to keep exotic pets?

Exotic pets typically require special care, including housing, diet, and maintenance that most people can’t provide. While it may not be inherently cruel to keep an exotic pet, understanding the responsibility in caring for one should be the first step in the acquisition process.

2 – Is it legal to own an exotic animal?

In 20 states, there is an outright ban on owning an exotic animal. In four states, there are partial restrictions. In 14 states, there are partial licenses to own an exotic animal and in four states there are no bans whatsoever in owning an exotic animal.

3 – What is the easiest exotic pet to own?

The easiest exotic pets to own are often those that require the least care compared to normal pets or are the least dangerous. Certain types of birds, lizards, and other small animals may be the easiest exotic pets to own from the standpoint of taking care of them.

4 – Why are exotic pets illegal?

Exotic pets are illegal in part because some of them are dangerous and could harm the owner or people within that municipality if they were to escape. They might also be a danger to other species in the area, as they could be an introduction to the animal ecosystem, creating damage to local populations of animals.

5 – Is it cruel to keep lizards as pets?

According to some research, three out of four lizards die within a year due to the pain and hunger of being kept in a captive environment. Like all exotic pets, they must be well cared for to survive.

6 – What is the cheapest exotic pet?

The cheapest exotic pet varies from state to state but iguanas and lizards are typically the cheapest and come with a lesser cost of caring for them, unlike larger exotic pets like tigers.

7 – What happens if you get caught with an exotic animal?

It depends on the rules within your state. If you live in one of the 20 states with a complete ban on owning an exotic animal, you could face legal repercussions. But if you live in one of the states where there is no ban, you might escape punishment.

8 – What pets are illegal in the US?

Certain exotic pets are illegal in the US. They include but are not limited to: tigers, leopards, camels, elephants, certain types of lizards and iguanas, ferrets, certain types of birds, and many more.

Methodology: Analyzing States’ Exotic Pet Ownership

For this piece, our researchers dived deep into the state legislature documents for every state to determine their stances on exotic animals from a strictly legal definition.

From there, our experts divided the article into which states had complete bans, which states had partial bans, which states had partial licenses, and which had no ban at all.

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Exotic Pet Ownership Laws by State
Exotic Pet Ownership Laws by State