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Get The Facts:

The Dangers of Possessing Exotic Animals

Source: Animal Issues, Volume 31, Number 2, Summer 2000

  • In June 1999, a 10-year-old girl dies after being brutally attacked by one of her stepfather’s “pet” tigers. The young girl is in the tiger’s cage helping her stepfather groom the animal when the tiger attacks.1
  • In December 1998, a healthy 5 month-old girl suddenly dies at home after contracting salmonella from the family’s pet iguana. The girl has no direct contact with the iguana yet contracts salmonella.2
  • In February 2000, a woman is viciously attacked by her “pet” macaque monkey. The monkey leaps from his open cage onto the woman’s head, and makes gashes 6 inches deep and other cuts to her head, arms, and legs. The woman spends over a week in the hospital and must undergo more than 12 weeks of physical therapy. The monkey has bitten the woman on two other occasions and previously attacked the family dog.3

Any of these incidents could have been avoided — the health and safety of the individuals involved protected — if the person or family did not possess the captive-bred exotic animal. Yet the frequency of these events occurs more often than one can imagine. Nor is it just the possessor and his/her family at risk. Neighbors, the community at large, friends, and the animals themselves ... are all at risk when an exotic animal is privately held.

Wild and Inherently Dangerous

The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA),4 the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA),5 and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)6 have all opposed private possession of certain exotic animals. But across the nation, lions, tigers, wolves, bears, reptiles, and non-human primates are possessed by private individuals as “pets.” By their very nature, these animals are wild and inherently dangerous. They do not adjust well to a captive environment.

Because the majority of states do not keep accurate records of exotic animals entering their state or have no mechanism to determine the number, it is impossible to determine how many exotic animals are privately held. However, it is estimated that there are 6,000 to 7,000 tigers held by private individuals.

The sale and possession of exotic animals is regulated by a patchwork of state, local, and federal laws that generally vary by community and by animal.

The state governments have the authority to regulate private possession of exotic animals. Laws vary from state to state on the type of regulation imposed and the specific animals regulated. Thirteen states (AK, CA, CO, GA, HI, MA, NH, NJ, NM, TN, UT, VT, WY) ban private possession of exotic animals (i.e. they prohibit possession of at least large cats, wolves, bears, non-human primates, and dangerous reptiles); 7 states (CT, FL, IL, MD, MI, NE, VA) have a partial ban (i.e. they prohibit possession of some exotic animals but not all); 14 states (AZ, DE, IN, ME, MS, MT, NY, ND, OK, OR, PA, RI, SD, TX) require a license or permit to possess exotic animals; and while the remaining states neither prohibit nor require a license, they may require some information from the possessor (veterinarian certificate, certification that animal was legally acquired, etc.). [These stats revised 11/26/03]

Many cities and counties have adopted ordinances more restrictive than the state law. Typically, the City or County Council acts as a result of a recent attack in the area, an escape, or by the virtue of the animal’s physical attributes and natural behavior.

Some people often sidestep existing laws or bans by becoming licensed breeders or exhibitors under the USDA and/or by having their property rezoned. In addition, individuals often move out of city limits or to a new state once a restriction or ban is imposed.

There are no federal laws regulating private possession of exotic animals. However, the Endangered Species Act, the Public Health Services Act, and the Lacey Act regulate the importation of exotic animals into the United States and across state lines.

Boo-Boo and Ferguson

When in the hands of private individuals, the animals themselves suffer. These animals do not adjust well to a captive environment, for they require special care, housing, diet and maintenance that the average person cannot provide. Individuals possessing exotic animals often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided. Such tactics include confinement in small barren enclosures, chaining, beating “into submission,” and even painful mutilations, such as declawing and tooth removal.

When possessors realize they can no longer care for an exotic “pet,” they often turn to zoos and other institutions such as sanctuaries to take over the responsibility. However, all the zoos and accredited institutions could not possibly accommodate the number of unwanted exotic “pets.” As a result, the majority of these animals are either euthanized, abandoned, or doomed to live in deplorable conditions.

Many tragic stories relate how exotic “pets” live out their lives. For instance, Boo-Boo, a black bear from a breeding facility in Ohio, was sold for $60 to a man who bought the bear for his 4-year-old daughter. The family had no prior experience with an exotic animal and did not know how to deal with the bear’s natural instincts. In response to Boo-Boo’s behavior, the family put a collar on the bear and chained him to a tree. Boo-Boo became very aggressive and the family stopped all contact with the bear except at feeding time. Fortunately, Boo-Boo was rescued. His collar had to be surgically removed because it was embedded into his neck and he is now living out his remaining years in peace.7

Ferguson, a sick macaque monkey, was abandoned in a driveway near the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) Sanctuary in Galt, CA. Ferguson was chained inside a filthy cat carrier and exhibits odd behavioral problems that suggests he was abused.8

Mauled, Bitten, Asphyxiated

Many incidents across the country have been reported where exotic animals privately held have attacked humans and other animals, and escaped from their enclosures and freely roamed the community. Adults and children have been mauled by tigers, bitten by monkeys, and asphyxiated by snakes.

Monkeys are the most common non-human primates privately held. After the age of two, monkeys tend to exhibit unpredictable behavior. Males become aggressive, and both males and females bite to defend themselves and to establish dominance.9 Many reports of monkey bites indicate serious injury to the individual involved, whether the possessor, a neighbor, or a stranger on the street.

According to the CDC, 52 people reported being bitten by macaque monkeys between 1990 to 1997.10 Although this number may seem low, the CDC reports that “owners of pet macaques are often reluctant to report bite injuries from their pets, even to their medical care providers” for fear that their animal will be confiscated and possibly killed.

Non-domesticated felines, such as lions, tigers, leopards, and cougars, are commonly held as “pets.” These exotic animals are cute and cuddly when they are young but as they mature have the potential to seriously injure or kill people and other animals. Adult exotic felines weigh anywhere from 300 to 500 pounds depending on the species, and are incapable of being “domesticated.” Even an animal that appears to be friendly and loving can attack unsuspecting individuals. For example, on March 15, 2000, a 3-year-old boy’s right arm was severed just above the elbow by his uncle’s “pet” tiger. The boy stuck his arm through one of the gaps in the tiger’s chain-link cage. Neighbors reported that this tiger is a “really nice and passive animal.”11

Reptiles, including all types of snakes and lizards, also pose safety risks to humans, with many reported incidents of escapes, strangulations, and bites from pet reptiles. Snakes are the most common “pet” reptiles and have the potential to inflict serious injury through a bite or constriction. According to the University of Florida, over 7,000 venomous snake bites are reported annually in the United States, 15 of which result in death (it is uncertain how many of these snakes are pets).12 Several reported incidents involve strangulation by snakes. For example, on August 29, 1999, in Centralia, IL, a 3-year-old-boy was strangled to death by the family’s pet African rock python after the snake escaped from its unlocked cage. The “pet” snake coiled around the boy, gripping his head with its fangs and asphyxiating him. The parents of the boy have been charged with child endangerment and unlawful possession of a dangerous animal.13

With so many exotic animals in private hands, these incidents are not rare. By their very nature, exotic animals are dangerous creatures. Given the life these animals are forced to endure, it is no surprise that they exhibit their natural instincts to the detriment of the community. These animals are time bombs waiting to explode.

Exotic Animals, Exotic Diseases

Many exotic animals are carriers of zoonotic diseases, such as Herpes B, Monkey Pox, and Salmonellosis, all of which are communicable to humans.

Eighty to 90% of all macaque monkeys are infected with Herpes B-virus or Simian B, a virus that is harmless to monkeys but fatal to 70% of humans who contract it. Monkeys shed the virus intermittently in saliva or genital secretions, which generally occurs when the monkey is ill, under stress, or during breeding season.14 At any given time, about 2% of infected macaque monkeys are shedding the virus. A person who is bitten, scratched, sneezed on or spit on while shedding occurs runs the risk of contracting the disease. Monkeys rarely show any signs or symptoms of shedding, making it nearly impossible to know when one is at risk.

Humans infected with the Herpes B virus typically exhibit symptoms of fatigue, flu-like manifestations which progress to headaches, vomiting, double vision, sensory loss, convulsions, and difficulty breathing. Death can come as early as four weeks after exposure, and those who
survive experience pain, paralysis, and neurological damage.

Since 1992, 19 people died in 24 well-documented cases of human infection of the virus. According to the CDC, the reason for “such an apparently low rate of transmission may include infrequent B virus shedding by macaques, cross-reactive immunity against B virus stimulated by herpes simplex virus infection, and undetected asymptomatic infection.”15 The frequency of Herpes B infection in humans has never been adequately studied and so it is difficult to quantify the amount of people actually infected with the virus. The CDC asserts that the increase in macaque monkeys in the pet trade may constitute an emerging infectious disease threat in the United States.16 Thus, persons who possess or work with infected monkeys are presumed to be in constant peril of potentially contracting the virus.

Bites from non-human primates can cause severe lacerations and infected wounds, which can potentially infect the bone and result in permanent deformity. The frequency of bites remains a mystery. Although it is well acknowledged that non-human primate bites are some of the worst animal bites, little research exists. In addition, monkeys have been known to transmit the Ebola virus, Monkey Pox, and other deadly illnesses.

Reptiles and Salmonella

About 7.3 million “pet” reptiles are possessed by approximately 3% of U.S. households. Ninety percent of all reptiles carry and shed salmonella in their feces. Iguanas, snakes, lizards, and turtles are common carriers of the bacterium. Reptiles that carry salmonella do not show any symptoms; there is no simple way to tell which reptiles play host to the microbe and which do not, because even those that have it do not constantly shed the bacterium.

Salmonellosis associated with exotic pets has been described as one of the most important public health diseases affecting more people and animals than any other single disease.17 The CDC estimates that 93,000 salmonella cases caused by exposure to reptiles are reported each year in the United States.18

In Arizona, a 3-week-old boy was admitted to the emergency room with fever, vomiting, and diarrhea that had persisted for 15 days. The infant was hospitalized for 10 days and treated with intravenous fluids and amoxicillin. The cause of the illness was Salmonella poisoning which he contracted from the family’s pet iguana. One month later the infant was visiting relatives where the iguana had been relocated; two days after the visit the infant was again rushed to the emergency room with fever and diarrhea and diagnosed with salmonella poisoning.19

Individuals become infected by ingesting salmonella after handling a reptile or objects the reptile contaminated, and then failing to wash their hands properly (this can be either indirect or direct contact with infected reptiles). Salmonella bacteria do not make the animal sick, but in people, they can cause serious cases of severe diarrhea (with or without blood), headache, malaise, nausea, fever, vomiting, abdominal cramps, and even death — especially in young children, the elderly, and those with immune-compromised systems. In addition, salmonella infection can result in sepsis and meningitis (particularly in children) as well as invade the intestinal mucosa and enter the bloodstream, causing septicemia and death.

During 1996-1998, 16 different state health departments reported to the CDC salmonella infections in persons who had direct or indirect contact with pet reptiles,20 and in 1994 to 1995, 13 different state health departments reported salmonella infections. The CDC recommends that children, people with compromised immune systems, and the elderly should avoid all contact with reptiles and not possess them as pets.

The Right to Live Free

Lions, tigers, bears, reptiles, and non-human primates, as well as every other exotic animal should have the right to live a life free from human intervention and not as someone’s “pet.” Exotic animals belong in their natural habitat. These animals do not deserve to be held in a captive environment, spending every day confined to a small enclosure, unable to exhibit their natural instincts.

We must work with state and local governments to ensure the safety of these animals, and in the process, protect the communities from the safety and health risks these animals pose when in the hands of private individuals. We owe at least that much to ourselves and to the animals.

Where These Animals Come from

Every year, millions of animals enter the exotic pet trade from a variety of sources. These animals are either captured from their native habitat and transported to various countries to be sold as pets, are surplus animals from accredited zoos or their offspring, or come from backyard breeders.

It is easy to obtain an exotic “pet.” There are more than 1000 internet sites which offer to sell, give care advice, and provide chat rooms where buyers and sellers can haggle over a price. In addition, helping to facilitate the exotic pet trade is the Animal Finders’ Guide, which carries ads from dealers, private parties, breeders, ranchers, and zoos offering large cats, monkeys, and other exotic animals for sale. Also, there are numerous ads in periodicals advertising the sale of an exotic animal to private hands.

The sellers of these animals however, make no mention of the state or local laws regulating private possession of exotics, or of the dangers, difficulties, physical and psychological needs of the animals they peddle. The suffering of the animals in the hands of unqualified and hapless buyers appears to be of no concern in the lucrative exotic pet trade.

Max, Denny, and Pfeiffer

Max, Denny and Pfeiffer, all lions, have survived the exotic pet trade. Pfeiffer and Denny were born in Michigan while Max was rescued from an exotic animal auction in Indiana. These three animals were purchased for as little as $500 a piece by inexperienced individuals who did not know the first thing about proper care and treatment for large cats.

All three lions walk with an odd gait because their paws were declawed in a crude and inhumane manner by their possessor. The animals also suffer from malformed joints caused by nutritional deficiencies.

Max, Denny, and Pfeiffer all left the Detroit Zoo in December 1997 and currently reside at PAWS sanctuary in Galt, CA. Thankfully Max, Denny, and Pfeiffer were rescued and will live out their remaining years in peace.


  1. Associated Press. “Pet Tiger Mauls 10-Year-Old Girl.” June 7, 1999.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis — Selected States, 1996-1998.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, November 12, 1999, Volume 48, Number 44: 1009-1013 and “Errata: Vol. 48, No. 44.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, November 19, 1999. Volume 48, Number 45: 1051.
  3. Anne Bowhay. “Monkey put down following attack; Lansing pet has to be tested for disease.” Daily Southtown (Illinois), February 23, 2000.
  4. American Veterinary Medical Association. “Exotic Animals and Wildlife.” at www.avma.org/care4pets/ppetexot.htm.
  5. United States Department of Agriculture, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service. Position Statement: Large Wild and Exotic Cats Make Dangerous Pets. Miscellaneous Publication No. 1560, February 2000; and at www.aphis.usda.gov/ac/position.html.
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).”Errata: Vol. 48, No. 44.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, November 19, 1999. Volume 48, Number 45: 1051.
  7. Pat Derby and Betsy Swart. Surplus Animals: The Cycle of Hell. A study of Captive Wildlife in the United States. Galt, CA: The Performing Animal Welfare Society, n.d.
  8. Cynthia Hubert. “PAWS Gets Sick Monkey.” The Sacramento Bee, December 8, 1998.
  9. Stephanie R. Ostrowski, Mira J. Leslie, Terri Parrott, Susan Abelt, and Patrick E. Piercy. “B-virus from Pet Macaque Monkeys: An Emerging Threat in the United States?” Emerging Infectious Diseases, Volume 4, Number 1, January-March, 1998: 117-121.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Jerry Urban and Peggy O’Hare. “Tiger tears off arm of 3-year-old boy.” Houston Chronicle, March 15, 2000.
  12. Palm Beach Herpetological Society/University of Florida. Venomous Snake Bite. n.d. at http://www.cdc.gov.
  13. Pete Brush. “Parents Charged After Python Kills Boy.” APBNews.com, September 1, 1999 at
  14. Ostrowski.
  15. Centers for Disease Control, B Virus Working Group. “Guidelines for Prevention of Herpesvirus Simiae (B Virus) Infection in Monkey Handlers.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, October 23, 1987, Volume 36, Number 41: 680-682, 687-689.
  16. Ostrowski.
  17. David L. Woodward, Rask Khakhria, and Wendy M. Johnson. “Human Salmonellosis Associated with Exotic Pets.” Journal of Clinical Microbiology, November 1997, Volume 35, Number 11: 2786-2790.
  18. Susan Okie. “Reptiles and Children Don’t Mix; Agency Says Youngsters Risk Salmonella Infection from Snakes, Turtles and Lizards.” The Washington Post, November 16, 1999
  19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Reptile-Associated Salmonellosis — Selected States, 1996-1998.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, November 12, 1999, Volume 48, Number 44: 1009-1013.
  20. Ibid.

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