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The Status of Captive Wild Animals in the U.S.: An Overview of the Problem and the Laws

By Nicole Paquette
Source: Animal Law Institute Conference - Dallas, TX

II. Fascination with Captive Wild Animal Possession

Fascination with captive wild animals is not a new phenomenon, it dates back centuries. As far as you can go in history, people have possessed wild animals as pets and exhibited them for entertainment purposes. For example, the circus is presumed to have started in ancient Rome in 329 BC, when building began on the Circus Maximus situated in the long narrow valley between the Palatine and Aventine hills, which prided itself on killing animals as blood sport. Over the course of the next hundreds of years, large cats, bears, elephants, hippopotami, and the largest exotic species that could be found were all slaughtered for the sake of entertainment, being cheered on by large audiences at Circus Maximus.1

After the fall of the Roman Empire, people longed for the Roman circus, which prompted some to begin traveling from town to town with bears, monkeys and other exotic animals.2 Thus began the trend for captive wild animals to be used to entertain the masses and be privately held as people’s pets.

Possession and display of captive wild animals has long been a symbol of prosperity in a growing and developing society.3 Individuals having enough money could attend the Roman blood sports or could afford to pay for the capture and upkeep of a wild animal as a pet. But only the wealthiest could collect enough animals to have a menagerie where the general public could come pay a fee to view the animals. Thus, from early on the trend was established where only the socially elite owned wild and exotic animals. Yet, as time passed, captive wild animals became easier to obtain and were bred so rampantly that the general public was eventually able to afford them. Indeed, these days, captive wild animals are merely viewed as “alternative” pets to the traditional companion animals kept in homes, such as dogs and cats.

Clearly, the attitudes of humans toward wild animals are at odds with one another. On the one hand people profess to adore them, they donate money for conservation efforts in the wild, and work to protect them by passing new stronger laws, but on the other hand wild animals are exploited for profit, used to entertain the masses, and coddled around in human clothing. There is a clear inconsistency about how we view animals and how easily we overlook their needs. Wild animals belong in the wild. They are not ours to breed, commercialize, or treat like children.

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