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The Tiger in the Backyard

Imagine you’ve been chained to a tree in a backyard for months, without food or water or any hope of rescue. Imagine you’re at half your ideal body weight, the victim of devastating malnutrition, anemia, calcium deficiency, and stress fractures. Imagine you’ve been beaten with a stick so viciously that you bleed. All for the amusement and profit of others.

Now imagine the public outcry when your plight is discovered. In a civilized society, humans are not caged and tortured, deprived of necessary food and sustenance. We are not torn from our families and homes and forced to perform demeaning tricks for gaping onlookers. Yet this is the sad reality for thousands of captive wild animals in the United States.

Where the Wild Things Are

Many people might be surprised to learn that wild animals are being kept in horrendous situations throughout the country. Perhaps a neighbor breeds tigers and cougars for use in circuses or as “pets.” Maybe a co-worker travels to shopping malls on the weekends, charging customers for having their photo taken with his captive baboon. Across the nation, lions, tigers, wolves, bears, elephants, alligators, non-human primates, and other wild animals are possessed by private individuals, displayed in roadside zoos and menageries, and used in traveling shows and circuses.

Wild animals may be kept captive in private homes as someone’s “pet.” Their very nature makes these animals incapable of being domesticated or tamed. They are inherently dangerous. The average person cannot provide the special care, housing, diet, and maintenance they require. As a result, wild animal “owners” often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided. Tactics used include confining the animals in small, barren enclosures; chaining; beating them “into submission”; or painfully removing their claws or teeth.

Thousands of exploitative wildlife attractions exist throughout the United States, ranging from backyard menageries to so-called “sanctuaries” to drive-through parks, most of which display various species of captive wildlife for a fee. Disguised as conservation, educational, or rescue facilities, roadside and menagerie zoos are among the worst abusers of captive wildlife. Inspectors have discovered animals kept in cramped, dirty cages, surrounded by trash. Facility managers frequently fail to provide animals with suitable social groupings, appropriate climate, or adequate veterinary care. With little opportunity for mental stimulation or physical exercise, these animals often become despondent, developing abnormal and self-destructive behaviors that include pacing, rocking, swaying, bar biting, pulling out hair and feathers, and biting themselves.

Performing animals such as elephants, lions, tigers, bears, camels, and llamas endure years of physical and psychological suffering in traveling acts — all for the “entertainment” of audiences who remain ignorant of the animals’ natural behavior. Animals used in the circus and performing acts travel thousands of miles each year, often without water, in railroad cars or trucks that lack air-conditioning or heat. Elephants may be forced to stand in their own waste, chained to a post for hours at a time, while being transported from one performance to another. As in roadside zoos, these performing animals do not receive the proper care, nutrition, nor environmental enrichment required for their well-being.

Captive wild animals may also be carted to venues such as shopping malls and elementary schools for public display. Under the guise of public education, they are forced to amuse groups of people, while their “owners” earn a profit by selling photos and charging presentation fees. Not surprisingly, the countless hours of travel and the poking and prodding of curious children increases the likelihood of animal attacks.

A Legal Crazy Quilt

The life of a captive wild animal is one of great suffering. Unfortunately, our laws provide them very little protection. The sale, possession, and use of captive wild animals are regulated by a patchwork of federal, state, and local rules that vary by community and by species of animal.

Very few federal laws address captive wild animals. Those that do exist primarily regulate the importation of wild animals and minimal care and treatment standards; they do not restrict or prohibit display or private possession in the United States.

  • Endangered Species Act (ESA): Under the ESA, it is unlawful to import or export, take, possess, sell, deliver, carry, transport, or ship any listed species in the U.S., or violate any of the Act’s implementing regulations. A legal loophole, however, allows a person to personally possess a listed species if that person obtains a captive-bred wildlife permit.
  • Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES): Under CITES, the trade in live or dead wildlife and their parts is restricted or even prohibited for species listed in CITES’s three appendices, based on the species’ level of endangerment. The United States adopted this treaty in 1975, with the ESA as its enabling legislation. CITES is the first and only such treaty that attempts to regulate wildlife trade and almost every nation is a signatory.
  • The Lacey Act: The Lacey Act makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase fish, reptiles, mammals, birds, or plants that were taken, possessed, transported, or sold in violation of a federal law or treaty, state law, or tribal law. In essence, the Lacey Act allows the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to prosecute persons in possession of an animal illegally obtained in a foreign country or another state. Congress is currently considering H.R. 5226, which would amend the Lacey Act to prohibit the interstate transport and shipment large cats and bears for use as “pets,” although it would not actually ban all private possession of these animals.
  • Animal Welfare Act (AWA): The AWA requires that minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public. The AWA regulates the possession of warm-blooded animals, but does not protect reptiles, birds, rats, and mice used for research purposes, nor farm animals used for food, fiber, or other agricultural purposes. Individuals who operate facilities in non-exempted categories must provide their animals with adequate care and treatment in the areas of housing, handling, sanitation, nutrition, water, veterinary care, and protection from extreme weather and temperatures. Although Federal requirements establish minimum acceptable standards, they are far from adequate or comprehensive.

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, display, or general exhibition of such animals. Laws vary in the type of regulation imposed; some states require licenses, others have statutory prohibitions, while others remain essentially unregulated. In addition, laws differ in what specific animals they cover.

  • Private Possession: Thirty-four states have some form of law governing private possession of wild animals. Specifically, thirteen states prohibit the private possession of large cats, wolves, bears, dangerous reptiles, and most non-human primates. Seven states have partial prohibitions on captive wild animals, protecting some of the species listed above while allowing possession of others. Fourteen states require the “owner” of a captive wild animal to obtain a license or permit from the relevant state agency to privately possess the animal. The remaining states have no license or permit requirements, but may regulate some aspect thereof, such as requiring an entry permit or a veterinary certificate.
  • 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 most 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.
  • Traveling Shows and Circuses: To date, no state has passed legislation prohibiting animal circuses from performing within its borders. Eleven states do regulate some uses of captive wild animals in traveling shows, such as photo opportunities or public contact with certain animals. One state, Georgia, prohibits elephant rides.

Many cities and counties have adopted ordinances more restrictive than state law. Typically, a local body will enact regulations in response to public safety concerns or community-based advocacy. Numerous local laws ban or restrict the private possession of exotic animals as “pets.” In addition, 21 cities in the U.S. currently prohibit animal circuses.

Making a Difference

API conducts ongoing campaigns to help protect captive wild animals on all fronts. We work diligently on the legislative level to pass laws prohibiting or severely restricting the sale, possession, and use of captive wild animals. We actively write and introduce legislation in states that do not currently have any prohibitions on the private possession of captive wild animals as “pets.” During the 2002 legislative session, API worked on such legislation in Ohio, South Carolina, and the state of Washington.

We are also crafting protective ordinances with several local entities. In 2002, Cleveland, OH passed API’s model legislation on the use of captive wild animals as “pets.” In addition, API actively assists grassroots groups wishing to introduce legislation banning or restricting the display and exhibition of captive wild animals. If you are interested in advocacy in these areas, please contact us; we will be glad to help you on your community’s campaign.

API features extensive information relating to captive wild animals on our website. There you'll find a summary of state laws relating to private possession, roadside zoos, public display, auction, and breeding of captive wild animals. Incident reports, fact sheets, and model legislation are also available.

On a national level, 21 groups met in May 2002 to discuss issues facing captive wild animals in the United States. Participants included API and other animal rights and animal welfare organizations, the American Zoological and Aquarium Association and its member zoos, humane societies, and sanctuaries. A result of this initial meeting was the formation of the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition whose sole purpose is “to research and analyze the issues of supply and demand for captive wild animals and to develop, implement, and coordinate multiple strategies to significantly reduce the trade, use, and possession of captive wild animals as pets.” In the upcoming year, the Coalition will actively research issues related to wild animals in captivity and will assist in legislative reform efforts. API is looking forward to being a part of this important national effort.

What You Can Do

While several laws do exist to protect captive wild animals, abuse continues. The question remains: What more can advocates do to help?

Numerous states and cities are changing policy. The 2000, 2002, and 2002 legislative sessions saw an increase in introduced legislation relating to captive wild animals. Community awareness of the issue is at an unprecedented high. But more work needs to be done. We need stronger laws that prohibit the exploitation and abuse of animals in circuses, roadside zoos, and private homes.

Here's what you can do to help protect captive wildlife in your city or state:

  1. Find out what laws your city, county, and state have relating to the possession and use of captive wild animals. Do this by contacting your city or county clerk and the state agency regulating captive wild animals. You can also refer to our website, which features a summary of relevant state legislation.
  2. Become familiar with which entities display captive wild animals in your city and state.
  3. If you observe a captive wild animal running loose; injuring someone; damaging property; being abused; living in deplorable conditions; or being kept in violation of city, county, and/or state law, report it to the appropriate animal control agency and the police or sheriff's department.
  4. If your city or state does not have a law relating to captive wild animals and you hear about a captive wild animal running loose, injuring someone, damaging property, being abused, or living in deplorable conditions, contact your local council member or state legislator. Describe the incident and encourage them to introduce a bill that will prohibit the possession and display of captive wild animals. You can contact API for assistance; we have sample letters to public officials and sample bill language available.
  5. If your city, county, or state does have a law prohibiting or restricting the possession or display of captive wild animals, determine whether it is actually being enforced. Too often, regulations designed to protect captive wild animals are flouted. Contact API for assistance in this area.
  6. Support legislation at all levels that protects captive wild animals. As a constituent, your opinion matters to elected officials. Find out more about legislative advocacy on our website!

Helping the Wild at Heart

Imagine yourself in a wide-open field, seeking food, water, and a place to rest. Imagine having the freedom to roam as your nature and instinct guide. Imagine living in a complex family and community structure, free from human interference and exploitation. This is the life wild animals need, but that captivity denies them. Through national and regional efforts, caring people can help wild animals get back to where they belong — in the wild!

Some Recent Victories for Captive Wild Animals


  • The state of Michigan passed a law prohibiting the private possession of large cats, bears, and wolf-hybrids.
  • Chesterfield, MI; St. Paul Park, MN; Rochester, NY; Battle Ground, WA; and Spokane WA all banned private possession of certain captive wild animals.
  • Corona, CA and Pompano Beach, FL banned animal acts in traveling shows and circuses.


  • The state of Indiana amended its law regulating certain captive wild animals as “pets,” thereby providing more protection for these animals.
  • The state of Texas passed a law regulating certain captive wild animals as “pets,” which ultimately had the effect of many counties prohibiting the possession altogether.
  • Boulder, CO; South Whitehall Township, PA; Fannin County, TX; and Port Townsend, WA all banned private possession of certain captive wild animals.
  • Pasadena, CA; Boulder, CO; Braintree, MA; Orange County, NC; and Port Townsend, WA all banned animal acts in traveling shows and circuses.


  • In Ohio, Austintown and Cleveland both banned private possession of certain captive wild animals.
  • Encinitas, CA; Rohnert Park, CA; Provincetown, MA; Richmond, MO; and Greenburg, NY all banned animal acts in traveling shows and circuses.

Some 2002 Incidents Involving Captive Wild Animals

09/05/02, Escondido, CA: A 200-pound west Caucasian tur, a rare and endangered goat, gored a zookeeper at the San Diego Wild Animal Park while the woman cleaned the tur’s pen. A puncture wound under her ribs required surgery. (Associated Press)

07/26/02, Sandy, UT: Junior, a 6-foot-long African rock python, bit the fingers of his 16-year-old possessor. Police had to use two pairs of scissors to pry the snake off the girl’s hand. The girl suffered extensive puncture wounds. (The Salt Lake Tribune)

07/01/02, West Concord, MN: Cindy Lou, a captive black bear, lunged at 7-year-old girl, biting her right leg and taking her to ground. The girl was in an enclosed pen while her grandfather fed several of his “pet” bears. (Associated Press)

06/24/02, Montgomery County, TX: A “pet” macaque monkey bit a 9-year old boy and the monkey’s possessor, and scratched a firefighter who tried to help. (Las Vegas Review-Journal)

06/19/02, Menomonie, WI: Tory and Mary, two elephants performing with the Shrine Circus, bolted out of circus tent during the show, scattering crowds. Mary hiked two miles through town and was recaptured at University of Wisconsin-Stout campus when trucks blocked her route. A child was injured, and the elephants damaged a door at a park and caused $600 in damage to a city truck. Shriners had contracted with George Carden Circus for the event. (Associated Press)

05/12/02, Tampa, FL: A 350-pound African lion ripped the arm off a 21-year-old Busch Gardens zookeeper while she was giving her family a private tour. (Tampa Tribune)

05/10/02, Sacramento, CA: A tiger refused to return to its cage following a performance of Circus Gatti, prompting the evacuation of spectators from an arena. Both Sacramento police and SWAT teams were called and dispatched to scene. The tiger was eventually tranquilized and returned to its cage. (Police report)

04/28/02, Easley, SC: An 8-year-old boy was bitten on the leg by his father’s “pet” tiger. (Post & Courier)

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