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The Dangers of Keeping Exotic “Pets”

Exotic animals — lions, tigers, wolves, bears, reptiles, non-human primates — belong in their natural habitat and not in the hands of private individuals as “pets.” By their very nature, these animals are wild and potentially dangerous and, as such, do not adjust well to a captive environment.

Because the majority of states do not keep accurate records of exotic animals entering their state, it is impossible to determine exactly how many exotic animals are privately held as pets. The number is estimated to be quite high. Certainly 6,000 to 7,000 tigers are held by private individuals.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have all expressed opposition to the possession of certain exotic animals by individuals.

Exotic animals do not make good companions. They require special care, housing, diet, and maintenance that the average person cannot provide. When in the hands of private individuals the animals suffer due to poor care. They also pose safety and health risks to their possessors and any person coming into contact with them.

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,” or even painful mutilations, such as declawing and tooth removal.

If and when the individual realizes he/she can no longer care for an exotic pet, he/she usually turns to zoos and other institutions such as sanctuaries to relieve him/her of the responsibility. However, all the zoos and accredited institutions could not possibly accommodate the number of unwanted exotic animals. Consequently, the majority of these animals are euthanized, abandoned, or doomed to live in deplorable conditions.

The Exotic Animal Pet Trade

Every year, a variety of sources provides millions of animals to the exotic pet trade. Animals are captured from their native habitat and transported to various countries to be sold as pets. Others are surplus animals from zoos or their offspring. Backyard breeders also supply exotic animals.

It is absurdly easy to obtain an exotic pet. More than 1000 Internet sites offer to sell, give care advice, and provide chat rooms where buyers and sellers can haggle over a price. 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.

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 physiological 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.

Public Safety Risk

Exotic animals are inherently dangerous to the individuals who possess them, to their neighbors, and to the community at large. Across the country, many incidents have been reported where exotic animals held in private hands attacked humans and other animals, and escaped from their enclosure and freely roamed the community. Children and adults have been mauled by tigers, bitten by monkeys, and asphyxiated by snakes.

By their very nature, exotic animals are dangerous. Although most exotic animals are territorial and require group interactions, an exotic pet typically is isolated and spends the majority of his/her day in a small enclosure unable to roam and express natural behaviors freely. These animals are time bombs waiting to explode.

Monkeys are the most common non-human primates held by private individuals. At the age of two, monkeys begin to exhibit unpredictable behavior. Males tend to become aggressive, and both males and females bite to defend themselves and to establish dominance. Reported have been many monkey bites that resulted in serious injury to the individual who possessed the animal, to a neighbor, or to a stranger on the street. According to the CDC, 52 people reported being bitten by macaque monkeys between 1990 to 1997. CDC reported, however, 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 have the potential to kill or seriously injure people and other animals as they grow. Even a seemingly friendly and loving animal can attack unsuspecting individuals. Many large cats have escaped from their cages and terrorized communities. Several of these incidents have resulted in either serious injury to the persons who came in contact with the animal, or the death of the animal, or both.

Reptiles, including all types of snakes and lizards, pose safety risks to humans as well. Many incidents have been reported of escapes, strangulations, and bites from pet reptiles across the country. Snakes are the most common “pet” reptiles — about 3% of U.S. households possess 7.3 million pet reptiles — and have the potential to inflict serious injury through a bite or constriction. According to the University of Florida, more than 7,000 venomous snake bites are reported annually in the United States (it is uncertain how many of these snakes are pets), 15 of which result in death. Moreover, there have been several reported incidences involving strangulation by snakes. For example, on August 28, 1999, in Centralia, IL, a 3-year-old boy was strangled to death by the family’s pet python. The parents were charged with child endangerment and unlawful possession of a dangerous animal.

Human Health Risk

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

Herpes B-virus: 80 to 90 percent of all macaque monkeys are infected with Herpes B-virus or Simian B, a virus that is harmless to monkeys but often fatal in humans. Monkeys shed the virus intermittently in saliva or genital secretions, which generally occurs when the monkey is ill, under stress, or during breeding season. At any given time, about 2% of infected macaque monkeys are shedding the virus. A person who is bitten, scratched, sneezed 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.

Reported cases of infection in humans are very rare; since the identification of the virus in 1932, there have only been 31 documented human infections by B virus, 21 of which were fatal. 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.” However, the frequency of Herpes B infection in humans has never been adequately studied and thus it is difficult to quantify how many people are actually infected with the virus. 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. Wounds may become infected, with the potential to reach the bone and cause permanent deformity. The frequency of bites remains a mystery. Although it is widely acknowledged that non-human primate bites are some of the worst animal bites, little research regarding them exists.

Monkeys have also been known to transmit the Ebola virus, monkey pox, and other deadly illnesses.

Salmonellosis: Probably 90% 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, thus 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. The CDC estimates that 93,000 salmonella cases caused by exposure to reptiles are reported each year in the United States.

Salmonella infection is caused when individuals eat after failing to wash their hands properly after handling a reptile or objects the reptile contaminated (this can be either indirect or direct contact with infected reptiles). Salmonella bacteria do not make the animal sick, but in people 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.

In March 1999, the CDC contacted every state health department to determine whether state regulations existed for sale of reptiles and distribution of information about contracting salmonella from reptiles. Forty-eight states responded — three (CA, CT, MI) had regulations requiring pet stores to provide information about salmonella to persons purchasing a turtle. Two states (KS, MD) require salmonella information to be provided to persons purchasing any reptile, and three states (AZ, MN, WY) prohibit reptiles in day care centers and long-term-care facilities.

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, and in 1994-1995, 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.

Laws Governing Private Possession of Exotic Animals

The sale and possession of exotic animals is regulated by a patchwork of federal, state and local laws that generally vary by community and by animal. Individuals possessing exotic animals must be in compliance with all federal laws as well as any state, city, and county laws.

Federal Laws: Three federal laws regulate exotic animals — the Endangered Species Act, the Public Health Service Act, and the Lacey Act. However, these laws primarily regulate the importation of exotic animals into the United States and not private possession.

Under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) it is illegal to possess, sell, or buy an endangered species regardless to whether it’s over the Internet or not. The ESA does not regulate private possession, it merely allows the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) to prosecute individuals who illegally possess endangered species. It should be noted that “generic” tigers (subspecies that have been interbred) are not considered endangered and, as such, can be legally bred and possessed.

The Public Health Services Act prohibits the importation of non-human primates and their offspring into the United States after October 1975 for any use other than scientific, educational or exhibition purposes.

The Lacey Act allows the U.S. government to prosecute persons in possession of an animal illegally obtained in a foreign country or another state. Again, this Act does not regulate private possession, it merely allows the USFWS to prosecute individuals who have illegally obtained exotic animals.

State Laws: The state governments possess the authority to regulate exotic animals privately held. 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); seven states (CT, FL, IL, MD, MI, NE, VA) have a partial ban (i.e. they prohibit possession of some exotic animals but not all); fourteen 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.).

Local Laws: Many cities and counties have adopted ordinances that are more stringent than the state law. Generally, the City or County Council have determined that possession of certain exotic species poses a serious threat to the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the community as a result of a recent attack in the area, an escape, or by the virtue of the animals’ physical attributes and natural behavior and, as such, adopts an ordinance regulating or banning private possession.

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.


What to Do

You can do several things to help stop private possession of exotic animals:

  • For the animals’ sake and for your health and safety, please do not buy exotic animals as “pets.”
  • If you observe an exotic animal being abused, living in deplorable conditions, etc., report it to the appropriate animal control agency.
  • Educate others. Write a Letter to the Editor. Share this fact sheet with friends and family.
  • Support legislation at all levels to prohibit private possession of exotic animals.
  • Find out how your state, city and county regulates private possession of exotic animals. For more information, see our website. If your state, city or county does not prohibit private possession, contact your state senator and representative or your city and county council members and urge them to introduce legislation banning possession of exotic animals.





What Government Agencies and Public Officials Are Saying

  • “The AVMA strongly opposes the keeping of wild carnivore species of animals [and reptiles and amphibians] as pets and believes that all commercial traffic of these animals for such purpose should be prohibited.” — The American Veterinary Medical Association
  • “Large wild and exotic cats such as lions, tigers, cougars, and leopards are dangerous animals ... Because of these animals’ potential to kill or severely injure both people and other animals, an untrained person should not keep them as pets. Doing so poses serious risks to family, friends, neighbors, and the general public. Even an animal that can be friendly and loving can be very dangerous.” — The United States Department of Agriculture
  • “Pet reptiles should be kept out of households where children aged less than 5 years or immunocompromised persons live. Families expecting a new child should remove the pet reptile from the home before the infant arrives.” — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • “Buying or giving exotic pets such as monkeys, hedgehogs, prairie dogs, reptiles, or other wildlife potentially can be dangerous to both humans and the animals themselves.” — Veterinarian Jane Mahlow, Director of the Texas Department of Health Zoonosis Control Division
  • “People buy these [large cats] when they’re kittens and don’t have the foresight to see in four years that kitten is going to be 500 pounds, and instead of two bottles it is going to need 30 to 50 pounds of meat a day. They try to make a pet out of something that will never be a pet.” — Terry Mattive of T & D Mountain Range Menagerie, a sanctuary for unwanted, abused and exploited jungle cats in Penn Creek, PA
  • “Macaques [monkeys] are aggressive and are known to carry diseases, including herpes B, which can be fatal to humans ... My opinion is primates make very poor pets.” — Dr. Michael Cranfield, veterinarian at the Baltimore Zoo and an expert on primates

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