Lax laws enable the exotic pet trade’s success in the United States

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“Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my! Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my! Lions, and tigers and bears, oh my!” — Dorothy, the Tin Man and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz

In my last post, I urged you not to get an exotic pet. But even though it’s a really, really bad idea, there are still places where you can legally have one in the United States.

United States map showing where different laws pertaining to the ownership of "dangerous wild animals" are in effect. Courtesy HSUS
Map depicting where ownership of “dangerous wild animals” is allowed, partially banned and totally banned. Courtesy of the Humane Society of the United States.

As of January 2015, all but five states either partially or entirely banned “the keeping of wild dangerous animals as pets;” or required permits for some species. That means if you live in North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Wisconsin or Nevada, where there were no restrictions a year ago, there’s no telling what kinds of pets your neighbors might have.

That being stated, not all exotic pets are created equal. Some are more rare than others; and some pose greater risks to people. The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) defines “dangerous species” as:

  • big cats (including but not limited to lions and tigers)
  • bears
  • primates (including but not limited to chimpanzees and marmosets)
  • snakes/reptiles (including but not limited to large pythons and boa constrictors)

For Those Who Walk On The Wild Side, It Is All About Ego

But for some inexplicable reason, these are the animals that some people simply must have.

On its website, the HSUS cites statistics indicating that there are thousands of captive tigers in the U.S.A., but less than 500 are kept in officially sanctioned and regulated zoos. Americans also have approximately 15,000 primates, according to the organization. The HSUS does not provide statistics pertaining to the number of captive bears, large snakes or reptiles however.

Perhaps the people who “own” these animals think they are so special that they can tame wild animals. Perhaps they think that if the animals were born in captivity, they are “tame.”

Or perhaps it’s just about the human ego.

In any case, it’s a recipe for disaster.

According to an article on Born Free USA,  people who “own” exotic animals “often attempt to change the nature of the animal rather than the nature of the care provided.” To do so they resort to behavior unique to human beings: cruelty. As a result, their “pets” are subjected to “confinement in small barren enclosures, chaining, beating ‘into submission,’ or even painful mutilations, such as declawing and tooth removal.”

Once they finally figure out that keeping a wild animal isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, exotic pet owners often turn to zoos or sanctuaries for help. If that fails, the animals are usually ditched and left to fend for themselves, or euthanized by authorities.

And then there are the cases where instinct takes over or the animals fight back.

The HSUS alone says it has identified more than 1,700 dangerous incidents pitting exotic animals against people since 1990. These involved “big cats, bears, primates, elephants, large constrictor snakes, and other exotic animals that resulted in scores of deaths and hundreds of injuries.”

Nicole Paquette, HSUS vice president of wildlife protection, says the best way to reduce the risk of future tragedies is to ensure that stricter state and federal laws are in place. Specifically, the HSUS supports laws that prevent people from interacting with and acquiring “dangerous captive wildlife” or “dangerous wild animals.”

“Our position is that these are wild animals who can’t be domesticated and should not be in our homes or backyards,” Paquette said

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