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The HSUS Names 5 Worst States for Exotic Pets

The Humane Society of the United States

In the wake of the mauling by a pet chimpanzee that left a Connecticut woman seriously disfigured and in critical condition, The Humane Society of the United States has named five states as the worst in the nation when it comes to policies on keeping dangerous wild animals as pets. The organization says that Missouri, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio and Oklahoma rank at the bottom when it comes to allowing dangerous wildlife as pets, thereby jeopardizing public health and safety and contributing to the inhumane treatment of these animals.

"The Connecticut tragedy is a wake-up call to every state in the nation that allows dangerous wild animals as pets," said Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of The Humane Society of the United States. "Unless policies are changed in these states, people will be injured and killed, and countless animals will be subjected to inhumane treatment." 

There are few restrictions on keeping dangerous non-native wild animals as pets in the five states named. Consequently, these states have been home to escapes and attacks or have become havens for exotic animal breeders, dealers and menageries. "The average pet owner cannot provide the sophisticated care exotic animals need in captivity," added Pacelle. "Ultimately, private animal care organizations are inundated with long-term care responsibilities after owners relinquish dangerous animals as pets."

Following are examples of how the states earned their place at the bottom of the list, including information from news reports.

Missouri: Although the state requires certain dangerous exotic animals, including primates, to be registered with local law enforcement, the rule does not appear to be enforced. Missouri is home to a large exotic animal auction in Macon and to a number of breeders and dealers.

  • 2009: Authorities removed more than 200 neglected dogs from an alleged puppy mill, along with the owner's underweight pet tiger. 
  • 2008: A tiger jumped out of an enclosure and mauled a volunteer at a Warrenton, Mo. exotic animal menagerie that previously had lost its U.S. Department of Agriculture license to operate as an exhibitor. The man's leg had to be amputated below the knee.
  • 2008: A 16-year-old reportedly entered a cage to take a photograph at a Branson West animal attraction and was severely injured by three tigers.
  • 2001: The mother of Travis, the chimpanzee involved in the Connecticut incident, escaped from a Festus, Mo. facility and was shot and killed. 

Nevada: Almost anything goes in Nevada when it comes to owning exotic animals (other than venomous snakes and crocodilians), and the consequences have sometimes been deadly.

  • 2009: A 3-year-old boy was bitten and squeezed to the point of unconsciousness by his parents' 18-foot pet reticulated python.
  • 2008: Animal services personnel responding to a call about a large dog on the roof of a home instead found two pet leopards who had gotten loose.
  • 2007: A 73-year-old woman was killed by wolf hybrids her son kept as pets.
  • 2006: A sick, malnourished mountain lion cub was abandoned at the Las Vegas Zoo in the middle of the night. The de-clawed animal had clearly been someone's pet.
  • 2003: Roy Horn was attacked by a tiger during a performance in Las Vegas. Wild animals are frequently put on display at the state's entertainment venues. 

North Carolina: North Carolina regulates native species, but has essentially no statewide restrictions on owning exotic pets. A bill currently under consideration would require registration for certain dangerous reptiles but would allow some public contact with venomous snakes, which is currently prohibited.

  • 2007: A woman brought her 15-month-old son to a park; as she was lowering him to the ground, a ball python wrapped around his leg and bit him. The snakes are not native to the United States and might have been an abandoned pet.
  •  2007: A woman working at a convenience store was bitten by a pet monkey a man brought with him into the store.
  • 2004: A woman was rushed to the hospital after being bitten by one of her father's four tigers.
  • 2004: A man was found selling venomous snakes at a flea market.
  • 2003: A 10-year-old boy was killed by a relative's tiger, but this tragic incident wasn't enough for lawmakers to prohibit exotic pets in the state.

Ohio: The state regulates native species, but has no statewide restrictions on owning exotic pets. Ohio is a center for breeding and selling wild and exotic animals. The Mt. Hope exotic animal auction advertises monkeys, lions, bears, kangaroos and more for sale. News reports say that 57 bear breeders are licensed by the state.

  • 2006: A man was killed by his pet python.
  • 2006: A 500-pound bear escaped from an animal breeder, entered a neighboring home and attacked a woman.
  • 2006: A fire killed a bear cub and two tiger cubs at the home of a man who eventually lost his USDA license for substandard conditions.
  • 2006: A man was bitten by a pet macaque he got that day.
  • 2004: A woman was killed by a venomous snake she kept as a pet.
  • 2003: A man was killed by a venomous snake he kept as a pet.

Oklahoma: Oklahoma has no statewide restrictions on owning exotic pets, and the state specifically exempts primates and many other exotic species from its import permit requirement. The state also is home to exotic animal facilities with dismal safety and animal welfare records.

  • 2009: A man reportedly moved from Florida to Oklahoma with 14 tigers and a bear; authorities said the bear was considered native wildlife and required a state permit, but a state permit was not needed for the tigers.
  • 2008: A volunteer at an exotic animal facility was attacked by a liger — a cross between a lion and a tiger — and died of the wounds.
  • 2003: A woman volunteering at an exotic animal park died after being attacked by a tiger, who severed her arm.
  • 1997: A leopard burst from a cage at another facility and killed a woman.

With little oversight of exotic animal ownership, states like West Virginia, Wisconsin and Alabama are not far behind in terms of regressive policies. Some states that previously had no restrictions on exotic pets have enacted prohibitions in recent years — such as Washington, Kentucky and Iowa — putting them now among the best in the nation. Some states that already prohibit certain wild animals such as big cats as pets need to add primates to the list, including Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Michigan and Virginia. Similarly, states such as Oregon with permit requirements should move to a prohibition and expand the list of covered animals.


The Humane Society of the United States is the nation's largest animal protection organization — backed by 11 million Americans, or one of every 28. For more than a half-century, The HSUS has been fighting for the protection of all animals through advocacy, education and hands-on programs. Celebrating animals and confronting cruelty — On the web at humanesociety.org.