October 23, 2009
Questions and Answers about Wild and Exotic Animals as Pets
What are the risks to public safety, animal welfare, and the environment?
2. Can any facilities safely keep dangerous wild animals in captivity?
3. What are the public health and safety concerns?
4. How does the exotic wild animal trade cause environmental damage?
5. What does the future hold for a wild or exotic animal in captivity?
6. Doesn't the Federal Animal Welfare Act protect wild and exotic animals owned as pets?
7. How much can it cost a government to have such a law?
8. Do any states have this kind of law?
No. Wild and exotic (non-native) animals are unsuitable for home rearing and handling. They have complex needs that are difficult to meet. Most individuals have neither the finances nor the experience to care for them properly. Countless wild animals suffer and die in the exotic pet trade from poor shipping methods and inadequate care. Many wild animals forced into a domestic situation cause injury to humans, especially children. Wild animals kept as pets also can spread life-threatening disease. Some exotic pets, if released into the environment, can cause irreversible and costly damage to our ecosystems. People often get these animals when they are small and then have few options when the animals grow too large or dangerous to handle. In the interests of public health and safety, animal welfare, and the environment, The Humane Society of the United States recommends against getting wild animals as pets.
Dangerous wild animals should only be kept in captivity by professionally run accredited zoological facilities and sanctuaries that have the resources and know how to meet the complex needs of the animals. Regarding individuals, licensed wildlife rehabilitators who demonstrate a thorough knowledge and ability to care for the animals humanely should keep them for the purpose of release back into the wild when appropriate.
Every year, privately owned wild animals seriously injure or kill humans. Children have been suffocated by snakes, killed by wolf-dog hybrids, and mauled by tigers. Individuals legitimately concerned about wild animals being kept in their neighborhoods regularly seek assistance in dealing with this problem.
Animals in traveling acts also present considerable danger to the public. A wrestling bear, though muzzled and declawed, managed to bite off fingers and break bones.
Wild and exotic animals also can carry a number of diseases and parasites that are transmissible to humans, including rabies, tuberculosis, hepatitis, tularemia, Salmonella, herpes B virus, and ringworm, to name a few.
Reptiles carry Salmonella, leading the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to recommend keeping reptiles out of homes with children under five and people with weakened immune systems, who are most susceptible. Because of the disease risk, selling small turtles is prohibited in the United States, but many are sold illegally. In 2007, a baby girl died from Salmonella from a pet turtle.
Wild animals often escape; others are abandoned outdoors by their owners. If they survive and become established in an environment where they do not belong, they compete with the resident animals for the limited resources of the area, in some cases displacing the native animals, much to the detriment of the ecosystem. The Burmese pythons invading the Everglades—at significant cost to taxpayers to try to mitigate the damage—are a direct result of the exotic pet trade. Red-eared slider turtles, native to only part of the United States, have become established across the country and around the globe. They are interbreeding with Florida's native yellow-bellied sliders, for example.
Exotic pets escaped or released into the wild animals also can bring diseases to which farm animals or native wildlife have no immunity, such as deadly Newcastle disease and brucellosis.
Some exotic animals in the pet trade are taken from the wild, which can be very detrimental to both the animals and the ecosystem.
Most owners cannot meet a wild animal's complex needs in captivity. Often their local veterinarian can neither properly diagnose nor effectively treat health problems. The animal's behavior is often radically altered in captivity as a result of inappropriate care. To attempt to make the animal safe, the owner might resort to such measures as pulling out a monkey's teeth or declawing a big cat, which would be violations of the Animal Welfare Act if done by a zoo. When at last the owners realize they cannot care for the animals, it may be impossible to find them a good home. Other individuals are no better equipped than the original owner to provide appropriate care; reputable zoos, for a variety of reasons, generally do not accept former pets, and facilities that will take them must be regarded with suspicion. The few responsible sanctuaries are often stretched to the breaking point, and local animal shelters are ill-equipped to handle exotic pets. Animals may be confined to cramped cages, passed from owner to owner, sold to roadside zoos, or used for breeding to continue the cycle of the exotic pet trade.
The federal Animal Welfare Act, even if fully enforced, only provides protection to animals kept by U.S. Department of Agriculture license holders, i.e., research facilities, dealers, breeders, exhibitors such as zoos, and operators of auctions. And the standards for animals in these facilities are minimal.
This law provides absolutely no protection for wild animals kept as pets. State and local laws that prohibit cruelty to animals may apply, but there is no way to inspect the conditions in which these animals are kept, and cruelty laws are only rarely used to protect wild animals in the pet trade, despite the awful conditions many of these animals experience.
Fortunately, more and more states are enacting laws that either forbid or regulate private ownership of dangerous wild animals. In addition, the federal Captive Wildlife Safety Act, passed in 2003, prohibits interstate commerce in lions, tigers, and other big cats as pets. Congress is considering similar legislation for primates.
A better question might be, "How much can it cost not to have one?" A government, state or local, does not have to incur much, if any, cost to enact and enforce this type of law. It can, however, incur great expense if it fails to control the private ownership of wild and exotic animals in some way. Even a single animal escaping can be expensive for a community depending on the resources needed to search for, recapture, and possibly care for an animal for a period of time. Removing animals once they become established can be prohibitive, as some Florida communities have found with Black spiny-tailed iguanas, and may be impossible.
States generally prohibit or regulate the private ownership of wild animals native to that state. In recent years, states have been enacting laws to protect nonnative species as well.
Just since 2004, states including Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, New York, Oregon, and Washington have banned certain wild animals as pets, following states such as California, Georgia, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Massachusetts, which already had such laws.
Typically, state laws list which animals are prohibited, but if the list is not comprehensive, it can create loopholes for other animals to become the next exotic pet du jour. A few states have also addressed the use of wild animals in circuses, traveling exhibits, or roadside menageries. Some localities have improved on state laws by listing the animals allowed as pets, clarifying that any other species are prohibited. In addition, some localities have prohibited the use of certain wild animals in traveling exhibits or the use of cruel implements to train and prod the animals to perform.