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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

VI. State Laws

State legislation has been the most popular tool for helping captive wild animals in the United States. In fact, state governments have taken the lead in regulating the sale, possession, and use of captive wild animals in the United States. The majority of states have laws regulating the private possession, or general exhibition of such animals. Laws vary in the type of regulation imposed; some states require licenses, others have statutory prohibitions, still others remain essentially unregulated. In addition, laws differ in what specific animals they cover.

A. Private Possession

State governments have taken the lead in regulating the private possession of captive wild and exotic animals in the United States. The laws vary from state to state on the type of regulation imposed, which is either a prohibition, a license, or no regulation at all. In addition they vary on the specific animals regulated. In general, Thirty-four (34) states have some form of law governing the issue and sixteen (16) states have nothing.21 Please see Appendix 1.

1. States with a Prohibition:

Thirteen (13) states prohibit the private possession of at least large cats; wolves; bears; dangerous reptiles, such as alligators and crocodiles; and most non-human primates:

  • Alaska
  • California
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Hawaii
  • Massachusetts
  • New Hampshire
  • New Jersey
  • New Mexico
  • Tennessee
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Wyoming

2. States with a Partial Prohibition:

Seven (7) states have partial prohibitions on the private possession of wild and exotic animals (i.e., prohibits possession of some of the species listed above and allows possession of others):

  • Connecticut
  • Florida
  • Illinois
  • Maryland
  • Michigan
  • Nebraska
  • Virginia

3. States with a Regulation:

Fourteen (14) states require the possessor of the wild and exotic animal to obtain a license or permit from the relevant state agency to privately possess the animal:

  • Arizona
  • Delaware
  • Indiana
  • Maine
  • Mississippi
  • Montana
  • New York
  • North Dakota
  • Oklahoma
  • Oregon
  • Pennsylvania
  • Rhode Island
  • South Dakota
  • Texas

4. No State Law:

Sixteen (16) states have no license or permit requirements, but may regulate some aspect thereof (i.e., may require a one-time entry permit or veterinary certificate):

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Iowa
  • Idaho
  • Kansas
  • Kentucky
  • Louisiana
  • Minnesota
  • Missouri
  • Nevada
  • North Carolina
  • Ohio
  • South Carolina
  • Washington
  • West Virginia
  • Wisconsin

B. Roadside Zoos and Menageries

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted regulations pertaining to roadside zoos and menageries. These rules differ from state to state, but the majority of them establish a licensing system and require licensees to comply with specific care, treatment, and housing standards when exhibiting an animal. Many of these state laws exempt accredited zoos and circuses.

The laws governing animals in roadside zoos and menageries are not as concise and easily analyzed as those for private possession and traveling shows and circuses. The inherent difficulty lies in the broad range of animals covered and the type of regulations imposed on individuals. For example, in Florida a person operating a roadside menagerie or displaying any wildlife, specifically birds, mammals, and reptiles, whether indigenous to Florida or not, must obtain a license from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and comply with specific caging requirements. However, no permit is required if you are a traveling zoo or circus.22 Whereas in Indiana, a person operating a zoo, carnival or menagerie is exempt from state permitting requirements as long as they have a license under the federal Animal Welfare Act.23

C. Traveling Shows and Circuses

To date, no state has passed legislation prohibiting animal circuses or specific species from performing within its borders. There have been several legislative attempts in recent years to prohibit specific animals, such as lions, tigers, elephants, and bears, from performing within a state.

Eleven (11) states do regulate some uses of captive wild animals in traveling shows, such as photo opportunities, public contact with certain animals, or prior notification before displaying in a town. For example, Delaware prohibits direct contact with mammals or reptiles (excluding elephants), including photo opportunities. And some unique provisions are found in South Carolina, which bans the public display of dolphins and whales.

There is a trend in introducing legislation that would prohibit the display of certain species that are commonly utilized in circuses and traveling shows. However, the circus industry has consistently opposed legislation and regulations to improve the conditions of captive wildlife. In California, for example, it opposed legislation to limit the time an elephant may be confined in chains in a 24-hour period and opposed a bill that would require circuses to disclose to local animal control circus trainers and handlers credentials, a recapture plan, and the name(s) of all animals exhibited and any known history of each animal relating to incidents where the animal has escaped, injured or killed any person. But, it is only a matter of time before one state passes such a law and it is the hope that other states would follow suit.

Table 1: Legislative Attempts to Prohibit Display of Animals in Circuses

Year State Proposed Legislation Status
2000 Rhode Island Sought to prohibit elephants, lions, tigers, and bears from being displayed. Passed the House and failed in Senate
2001 Florida Sought to prohibit elephant rides. Failed
2001 Maine Sought to prohibit elephant displays and rides. Passed the House and failed in Senate.
2001 Maryland Sought to prohibit the use of electric prods or shocking devices, chains used to restrain or tie-down devices, whips, bull hooks or similar device as part of a traveling show and to prohibit elephant rides. Failed
2001 Massachusetts Sought to prohibit elephant displays and rides. Failed
2001 Rhode Island Sought to prohibit elephants, lions, tigers, and bears from being displayed. Failed
2002 California Sought to prohibit public display of exotic animals, elephant rides, and to require information about circus to be sent to local animal control. Failed
2002 Rhode Island Sought to prohibit elephants, lions, tigers, and bears from being displayed. Failed
2003 Maine Seeks to prohibit elephant displays and rides. Pending
2003 Massachusetts Seeks to prohibit wild cats, bears, elephants, and non-human primates from being displayed in circuses and traveling shows. Pending
2003 New Jersey Two bills: (1) Seeks to prohibit elephant displays; and (2) Seeks to prohibit elephants, lions, tigers, and bears from being displayed. Pending
2003 Rhode Island Seeks to prohibit elephants, lions, tigers, and bears from being displayed. Pending
2003 Tennessee Seeks to prohibit elephants from performing in circuses. Pending

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