The Ohio Exotic Pet Ban: What Animals Are Now Illegal as Pets?

Melissa cares for a variety of exotic animals and has completed a certificate in veterinary assisting and a bachelor's degree in biology.

How the Ohio Zoo Massacre Contributed to the Ban

The Zanesville, Ohio, "Zoo Massacre," which ended with the deaths of 18 tigers, 17 lions, 6 black bears, 2 grizzly bears, 3 mountain lions, 2 wolves, and a baboon after they were allegedly set free by their suicidal owner, Terry Thompson, sent legislators into a frenzy to amend previous bills that were said to be far too lenient on what exotic pets could be legally owned in Ohio.

Prior to the incident, Governor Kasich's task force, which was composed of organizations like the HSUS and the American Zoological Association, originally were examining the state's lack of regulations when the Zanesville incident propelled the issue into the spotlight and largely contributed to the support of the finished bill.

The new Ohio Dangerous Wild Animal Act had widespread approval and was passed by the House Agriculture & Natural Resources Committee in a 87–9 vote (the previous S.B. 310 was approved by the committee and was sent to the Senate floor for a vote, passing in the Ohio Senate 30–1; it was later signed into law by Governor Kasich).

People Who Owned Banned Animals Before the Law Change

If you lived in the state of Ohio and possessed a "restricted species," you could acquire a permit for the animal(s) by 2014, but there was a catch:

  • You were required to meet strict new regulations including registration.
  • You were required to obtain expensive liability insurance coverage (a one million dollar insurance policy was required of those that possessed a restricted species for educational purposes) and facility standards were enforced.
  • The registered animal had to be microchipped.

Owners who could not meet these new standards had to find new homes for their pets or turn them into the state. No new animals could be purchased when the ban took effect on January 1, 2014. As of 2018, years after the ban was enforced, many owners were forced to give up their animals (some euthanized).

Animals That Are Banned as Pets (Excluding Zoos and Sanctuaries)

The following animals are banned as "pets" with the exception of zoos and sanctuaries:

  1. Hyenas
  2. Gray wolves, excluding hybrids
  3. Lions
  4. Tigers
  5. Jaguars
  6. Leopards, including clouded leopards, Sunda clouded leopards, and snow leopards
  7. All of the following, including hybrids with domestic cats unless otherwise specified: cheetahs; lynxes (including Canadian lynxes), Eurasian lynxes, and Iberian lynxes; cougars, also known as pumas or mountain lions; caracals; servals, excluding hybrids with domestic cats commonly known as Savannah cats.
  8. Bears
  9. Elephants
  10. Rhinoceros
  11. Hippopotamuses
  12. Cape buffaloes
  13. African wild dogs
  14. Komodo dragons
  15. Alligators
  16. Crocodiles
  17. Caimans, excluding dwarf caimans
  18. Gharials
  19. Nonhuman primates other than lemurs and the nonhuman primates specified in division (C)(20) of this section.
  20. All of the following nonhuman primates:
  • a) Golden lion, black-faced lion, golden-rumped lion, cotton-top, emperor, saddlebacked, black-mantled, and Geoffroy's tamarins
  • b) Southern and northern night monkeys
  • c) Dusky titi and masked titi monkeys
  • d) Muriquis
  • e) Goeldi's monkeys
  • f) White-faced, black-bearded, white-nose bearded, and monk sakis
  • g) Bald and black uakaris
  • h) Black-handed, white-bellied, brown-headed, and black spider monkeys
  • i) Common woolly monkeys
  • j) Red, black, and mantled howler monkeys.

My Opinion

While large carnivores should be regulated with common-sense legislation, an outright ban is unfair. Many people have the money, space, and experience to successfully own larger carnivores. Medium-sized carnivores such as lynxes, servals, and caracals pose no more threat in society than similarly-sized domestic dogs (and in many cases, less).

Primates and Nonhuman Primate Bans

Many of the monkeys on the list are smaller species, so it is confusing why they are specifically banned while even lemurs are not. Also, the code in section 20 is confusing because it appears that primates that are not named on the list are unregulated.

Ohio strangely bans many primates, including small ones, but allows a few species such as marmosets and lemurs with the requirement that the owner registers them.

Species That Are Not Represented in the Pet Trade

Many of the above species are typically not owned as pets or are non-existent in the pet trade (rhinoceros, hippos, cape buffaloes, Komodo dragons). Elephants tend to be owned privately for exhibition purposes. Dwarf caimans are smaller crocodilians that are in the reptile trade and I believe pose no threat to public safety. Other large crocodilians present more danger to the owner, but with a little research and experience, even this risk is not high.

Restricted Snakes and Snakes That Are Permitted

Section L addresses "restricted snakes" which means any of the following (legal only with a permit over the length of 12 feet after 2014).

1. The following constricting snakes are twelve feet or longer:

a) Green anacondas
b) Yellow anacondas
c) Reticulated pythons
d) Indian pythons
e) Burmese pythons
f) North African rock pythons
g) South African rock pythons
h) Amethystine pythons

2. Species of the following families:

a) Atractaspididae
b) Elapidae
c) Viperidae
d) Boomslang snakes
e) Twig snakes

My Opinion

The threat of "constricting snakes" is largely exaggerated. States that ban certain reptiles almost always name the largest members of the python family as prohibited. Fatalities from these species, however, are rare with negligent handling often being a factor.

Burmese Pythons: A Popular Pet Reptile

Is This Bill Fair?

The strong support of this bill by legislators and the public is the result of the actions of a single individual. In addition to any animals currently listed, additional animals can be added based on a decision made by the Director of ODA which only needs to be approved by the General Assembly.

The list includes many highly advanced "pets" that should never be kept by a typical person (however, the few exceptions to this rule should be granted the opportunity to state their situation and privately own a "restricted species" without being a zoo or so-called sanctuary).

However, the list includes a few species that likely do not pose any kind of threat to "public safety" such as smaller cats and nonhuman primates. Cases of these animals spreading viruses and disease to the public in pet-owning situations in recent history are non-existent.

Also not given any consideration is the fact that domesticated animals could easily cause similar or worse damage than these unfairly stigmatized animals. It is obvious that in time, more non-threatening species will make their way on to this list due to ignorance, and these bans will spread to other states that haven't enforced them already. The ban could inevitably affect smaller businesses such as those that present animals for educational purposes and will force many owners to give up their animals.

Such inflexible bans on the rights of the population should be considered as a last option, and this ordinance is far from necessary. Animal ownership is not being taken seriously as pertinent to the livelihoods of pet keepers by Ohio's legislators. Clearly this law, having been empowered by a single incident caused by one allegedly irresponsible or mentally ill individual is not a valid reason to end lifestyles, businesses, and freedom of choice.


  • Sub. S.B. 310
  • Possession of Wild Animals and Snakes
  • Ohio Naturalist Considers Large Snake Restrictions "Rubbish" [Interview]

blank on July 04, 2020:

the reason you cannot have some snakes is because they will damage the ecosystem like in florida with burmese pythons or hawaii with cane toads

Church on May 22, 2020:

Am I allowed to have capuchin monkey they’re really cate and I want one ,but don’t know if it’s legal

Roz on May 07, 2020:

Am I able to own a Czechoslovakian Wolfdog? Is it considered one of the hybrids? I really want one but I'm not sure....

:) on May 07, 2020:

I didn’t see armadillo lizards on there soooooooooooooo

Taylor Swift on May 06, 2020:

And you can have otters

Jaz on January 23, 2020:

No the Department of Agriculture follows laws just like the public has to. The laws are voted on. They don’t “ do what they want”. That’s not how it works.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 22, 2020:

Jazzlynn Cotton: You're not being 'effected' by being forced to ask if the code written right on Ohio Laws and Rules website: "935.041 Registration of certain marmosets, monkeys, capuchins and lemurs." is true or not, anyone who wants a primate should call anyway! The laws change all the time and sometimes the DOA does whatever they want anyway!

Jazzlynn Cotton on January 16, 2020:

You stated in your article- Ohio strangely bans many primates, including small ones, but allows a few species such as marmosets and lemurs with the requirement that the owner registers them.

This is FALSE. Capuchins, lemurs, squirrel monkeys and marmosets do not have to be registered in the state of Ohio. Call and verify with the Department of Agriculture Wildlife Division. You should probably verify laws with the regulating authority before writing about it and effecting all of us with misinformation. How irresponsible!

Darkstar on January 03, 2020:

I wouldn't recommend buying any exotic animals except maybe domestic mixes like the Savannah Cat. These animals belong in the wild, and its better not to mess with their lives, and to just let them be in the wild. Bringing them into society puts them into captivity, and puts others in danger, even if the animal(s) don't intend to harm anyone. They don't want to be bothered so lets not bother them.

Jason Wise on January 01, 2020:

Are Gila monsters (Heloderma suspectum) a banned or permitted species in Ohio?please let me know.

Spenser Hill on December 24, 2019:

I want to know can I own a Kinkajous in Ohio

Nippletwist on December 21, 2019:

Is it legal to own a panther in Ohio? Cuz I've been doing research on the legality of it

Linsey on October 21, 2019:

Can I own a Hognose snake in Ohio? I know they are venomous but they’re venom is like the venom from a bee, so not extremely dangerous.

Jaiden on September 07, 2019:

Is it legal to have a pet raccoon in Ohio

Pranav on June 17, 2019:

Don’t own exotic pets, lots come from irresponsible breeders and some have been taken from the wild. I fully support this law and I hope more animals like big cat hybrids and apes are completely banned and stop buying exotic animals. Just get a dog or car from a sanctuary rather than allow a baby tiger to torn from its mum. Also never participate in cub petting or canned hunting.

Kendall on March 06, 2019:

I’m am looking at owning a capichin monkey are they legal in Ohio?

Macayla on November 26, 2018:

Can I own a Pygmy marmoset monkey?

Anonymous on November 15, 2018:

Can I have a pet leech?

Markh0530 on November 01, 2018:

Why would anyone want to own a snake over 12 feet. It could kill an adult with no problem. I love snakes but i would not want one that big.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on October 04, 2018:

ReptileDrew: most of them are legal.

ReptileDrew on September 17, 2018:

I love animals that are studied in herpatology. Are there any lizards, tortises, frogs, toads, or turtles that are illegal in Ohio??? I live in Ashtabula County.

Allison on September 04, 2018:

can i have a capuchin monkey in ohio?

ally smith on August 21, 2018:

can i have a green monkey in ohio

Zayy Zayy on July 31, 2018:

Can I Own A Capuchin Monkey In Ohio??

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 19, 2017:

Primater, I think lemurs are legal. Don't quote me on that.

primater on December 19, 2016:

so what primates can you own? Its a little confusing and confusing on how to own them? Just registration? No permit? certain tamerins illegal ? Can you own a capuchin but not a tamerin or only tamerins listed?

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 02, 2016:

Neerdy cee- yes

Amanda Baker on November 18, 2016:

I don't know why these people don't think this through. What do they think happens to the tigers, bears, and exotics when they get banned? Especially if there are no sanctuaries or zoos that can take them. They will more than likely get put down.

neerdy cee on November 18, 2016:

can u own a wallaby in ohio

Gary on May 25, 2016:

To the idiots that think this law is OK only because YOU don't "think" people should own them have no right to say anything when some government entity wants to ban something you like for no other reason then the ones doing the banning are uninformed idiots. You know ferrets are banned in California. All because ONE idiot in charge personally doesn't like them. We stand together and demand lawmakers use there brains on ALL laws or we lose everything one by one.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 10, 2016:


gene on January 08, 2016:

What about a black bear ? I guess I cant own one as a pet in ohio correct

timothy on November 04, 2015:

Life Liberty and the pursuit of happiness If I can afford and want a Tiger who is to say I cant

Nick on September 08, 2015:

So as far as having a pygmy marmoset??

AthanasiaJoker on August 17, 2015:

Why just kill all those animals rather than tranquilizing them and sending them to zoos and/or animal preserves? Tigers are endangered and they just kill them?? I mean wth man???

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 16, 2015:

I've never heard of sharks being illegal anywhere.

Tyler on August 15, 2015:

I didn't see anything about sharks (correct me if I'm wrong though)

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 29, 2015:

As long as there's no ban on venomous reptiles.

AaronB on June 27, 2015:

I just spent the last hour searching through Ohio DNR for regulations and came across this rule on their page. Im moving there in a couple of weeks for work and eventually hope to get a gila monster. It seems as though they never listed it as "dangerous". So it should be possible for me to get one, right? Though with my luck someone will let them know that they missed Heloderma and it will show up magically on the list.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 15, 2015:

You're happy about a law that dashes your future dreams? How foolish is that?

danesha on June 14, 2015:

I just want to own a fox one day. But I know I can't take care of it now so im waiting. But most people don't wait and realized how serious it is to have the funds and proper things to take care of any animal. Irresponsible people buy animals because they think they are cute and are thinking of the now and not the future. I have a dog hamster and mouse and im going to buy two birds and another mouse because I can afford to take care of them. Irresponsible owners don't think about whether they be able to feed the animal when they have to or buy a proper house for them. That why I am happy about this law. I know everyone not a bad owner but I feel bad for the animals that get stuck with one and then are abandoned.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 27, 2015:

Chadeh, Ohio is obviously not Florida. No tropical snakes can survive their winters.

Chadeh on May 26, 2015:

I can see why snakes are on the list. Here in S. Florida snakes of all kinds especially Boa's (any kind) are being killed by the thousands. These snakes are killing the natural environment and disrupting the other species balances

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 08, 2015:

You can't rationalize insanity.

lookalilcloser on May 08, 2015:

Tell me this, why would a person with as much experience with exotics as Terry Thompson had release the animals he loved and was fighting to keep ? I lived 15-20min from where the incident took place. I've been told that Mr Thompson was being targeted by animal rights activists and a lot of people believe that when Mr Thompson begin making his rounds to care for his animals that day he found that they had been released and the shock of finding his animals loose was the final event that drove him to commit suicide. Personally I wouldn't be surprised if the good ole boy cops out there decided to open the cages for some target practice . You see if Mr Thompson was the one who released those animals then why didn't he release all of them and why did he focused on the largest and most dangerous ?

Victoria on February 15, 2015:

Amber, according to ODA (Ohio Department of Agriculture), tamarins (of any kind) are not legal in Ohio. Only marmosets, squirrel monkeys, capuchin and lemurs (although I don't get the last bit they told me, as lemurs supposedly can only be purchased in the state they were born in and or require a USDA license). That is what I was told in 2013 and have not seen any changes to anything thus far, so I'd think that's how it still stands (currently). You may still want to contact ODA or Ohio DWA. The others I don't believe require a USDA license, at this time.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 23, 2015:

Yes I've seen that, what a shame.

ZookeeperByNature on January 23, 2015:

And so now stories like this are happening:

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 20, 2015:

If you are in Ohio they might be legal, but you have to check.

Amber on January 17, 2015:

I am in the beginning stages of research of owning a cotton top marmoset monkey, not planning to purchase for 2 years. As of right now do you know what the rules and/or restrictions are on owning this type of primate?

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 11, 2015:

Colin, animals don't have rights. If I can raise an animal and kill it for food, surely I can raise and pamper an animal as a pet. Why does the species matter? If you are a vegan, great, but most of us aren't. And people shouldn't be able to sit there targeting exotic pet owners for literally no reason other than their discomfort and prejudice towards seeing something unusual. I don't think many states ban exotics because of animal welfare, just due to their ignorance about what 'danger' it presents.

Colin on January 11, 2015:

Whether the animal is a threat to someone shouldn't be the only defining characteristic. Even though public safety is important, we never see the welfare and safety of the animals taken into consideration. Most of the animals breed, sold and traded in the exotic pet trade are either poached from their wild habitats, or breed in cages and taken from their parents soon after birth. And few of thee animals ever really end up in good homes. I feel that when making laws, we should look out for the rights of the animals, more than the safety of the people, for even though people aren't that often injured or killed by exotic animals, they almost always pay the ultimate price for our contempt and greed.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 10, 2015:

Great "argument" you have there War Eagle.

War Eagle on January 10, 2015:

It is just as cruel and inhumane to keep any wild animal as a pet,as it is to kill one for fun or trophy.

Harrison on October 15, 2014:

Hi! I'm from Harrison County in Ohio, one county away from Muskingum county where Zanesville resides. This entire situation was a nightmare. The government and citizens handled this horribly. It was basically a manicure of those animals. None had attacked any humans yet they found it necessary to to hunt them down with live rounds like they were going out hunting to feed they're family's instead of using traq. Darts so they could be transferred to an appropriate animal care facility. And I do agree with Melissa some animals listed should not be listed. But as for the larger more dangerous animals they should be kept in a zoo or facility with open space or be returned to the wild. But not by any means be subjected to a full scale manhunt.

TopCat on August 30, 2014:

OK, I respect your wishes & will no longer post nor follow this article after this last & final post. I truly did not mean to target you & only you personally, and I do find this article very interesting. I will leave you with an sincere apology. I have a "tendency" to bring my job home with me instead of leaving it at work where it should be left, (and, you are not the only one that has pointed this out to me)... My job is to poke holes in the prosecutors case & to create reasonable doubt. I guess that I was using this approach in my comments & for that I am sincerely sorry.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 29, 2014:

I think you are a troll. You CLEARLY directed your comments at me.

"Who composed this article? Better yet, who let this article be released with such non-sense ideations? "

The word 'bolded' can ONLY refer to the act of bolding, especially in this context. I'm no longer accepting your comments on this article.

TopCat on August 29, 2014:

OK, lets back up for one second....A) I am not "stubbornly suggesting" that YOU personally claimed any animal on the list as being dangerous. I do not think that YOU personally had anything to do with the revised list of animals that are being deemed dangerous. I see on your info page that you have asked others to keep an open mind & that is what I am attempting to do...Keeping an open mind on both sides of the fence here. B) As to interpreting the sentence that you posted, "I have bolded animals that obviously pose little or no danger to the public, and/or are popularly kept"... I am a little confused as to how you are using the term "bolded"... To me, bolded means fearless & daring; courageous etc...So, I do not know how to answer that question. C) I do not comprehend as to why you keep stating that I am not reading or listening. Please explain to me what issues you are having with anything that I have posted. I said that I am on YOUR side with this matter. I just do not agree with the list of animals & NO I do not think that you had ANYTHING to do with the revised list, so I am not attacking you personally. You are only reporting what the new rules & regulations are. D) I think that I am very good at my job & if you ever find yourself in a situation, I would be more than happy to offer you advise. E) Who is ranting? If you are referring to myself as "ranting" then you are the one wasting YOUR time writing articles if you cannot take the good with the bad. And, I do not have to defend myself from anti-exotic pet sentiments. I follow the rules that are set in place & if the rules change, then I guess I must adhere to them & also make changes. Of course I do not want to see new & almost impossible rules & regulations put into place that would cause Exotic owners to lose their animals, or new rules that would make it almost impossible for those who are responsible Exotic animal owners to not have the choice to obtain future Exotic pets. And, once again-I am on YOUR side with this matter. I do not wish to fight with you about petty comments that either of us do not like. I was under the impression that you wrote this article in defense of those who own Exotic & so others could state what or how they are feeling about new rules & regulations.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 28, 2014:

So you're going to sit there and stubbornly suggest that I claimed any of the animals on the list are dangerous? And completely ignore my request to interpret the sentence I posted? If you cannot LISTEN, I don't understand how you'd make a good attorney or properly defend yourself from anti-exotic pet sentiment. You're wasting your time ranting at the wrong person.

TopCat on August 28, 2014:

Maybe you are 100% correct Melissa, perhaps I should ask for a total refund from the colleges that I have attended. I would seriously give your kind "New York" suggestion a thought if I did not love my job & if I thought even for one second that I was not a good Criminal Defense Attorney. If you did not notice, I am on YOUR side with this issue. I just do not agree that ALL of the animals listed should be labeled as "WILD & DANGEROUS"...And, yes to your question. I have owned & currently own EXOTIC cats that obviously pose little or no danger to my family nor the general public, (all have been small exotic cats with the exception to one Florida Panther to which we got at 2 weeks of age & she passed away of natural causes at the age of 19 years) ..And, yes, each & every Exotic cat that I have owned over the past 25 years were & are properly (not popularly) kept. I welcome Wildlife inspections, they help me-help keep my animals healthy and safe, its only when one becomes complacent with ANY type of animal when stupid accidents happen.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 27, 2014:

Maybe you should. What does this say? "I have bolded animals that obviously pose little or no danger to the public, and/or are popularly kept"

TopCat on August 27, 2014:

I am pretty sure that I actually read before I write anything & I certainly hope that I can read & understand English Melissa, if not then I had better ask for a refund for all the money I spent attending college for 8 years. Yes, I seen your name at the top, however; I just assumed that the writer was a professional & would not be calling others comments ignorant, dumb, etc...My bad for not connecting your choice of words & language to being the writer.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on August 27, 2014:

TopCat, do you actually read before you write?

TopCat on August 27, 2014:

I must be reading a different article than most of you Humans are reading, OR I am reading it all wrong. "Non-Human Primates??" So, this means I CAN own a Human Primate or slave, correct? Who composed this article? Better yet, who let this article be released with such non-sense ideations? Of course its just pure common sense that one should not own an adult tiger or lion in their back yard & there SHOULD be rules & regulations to weed out those who think that it is OK to put an adult lion or tiger in their back yard, but as far as calling Caracals & Serval cats a wild & dangerous animal, well that is just pure bullshxx. I have had a Class II Wildlife permit for 25 years & have owned both; Caracals & Servals , and at the present time I own a 7 year old Serval Cat & by NO means is she "WILD" nor "DANGEROUS". She came from 12++ generations of being bred & born in Human care & there is NO way that my "EXOTIC" ~not~ "WILD" but my EXOTIC Serval Cat Pet could survive ONE day in the wild. People are getting the terms "WILD & EXOTIC" mixed up, its like comparing apples to oranges. WILD animals were born in the WILD & I for one would never take ANY animal out of the wild, not even a bird, ant, etc..If they were born in the wild, then that's where they need to stay-IN THE WILD. Now, EXOTIC Pets such as my Serval Cat were NOT born in the wild nor have they ever been in the wild, meaning they could NOT survive without human care. My Serval is from 12++ generations of being bred & born in human care. You can all it domestic or what ever you want, but by NO means does she pose ANY type of danger to anyone & here in Florida we have very strict rules & laws to follow & I for one agree with the rules & regulations as not all Humans care for their animals as they should, hell some Humans don't even know how to care for their own children. Exotic pets such as my Serval Cat are the same thing as at one point in time ALL horses were WILD animals, but us Humans bred & kept them as pets, or like ALL birds at one time were WILD animals, but us Humans bred & kept them as pets & the list goes on & on. Yes, I agree there needs to be rules & regulations for everyone who owns ANY type of pet, just walk into your local animal shelter & see how responsible some Humans are, but to go as far as saying EXOTIC pets such as Caracals & Servals are WILD & DANGEROUS is over the top.

rico1331 on June 07, 2014:

First hello all,i do not own any large exotics.The reason being i do not have the land or knowledge for the best possible care.I do own exotics with four,six,and eight legs.Also a few with no legs being up 8ft in length.I also have the sense to give the best possible care for what i do own,PERIOD! Do the research as you would for anything else,or someone will say they did for you.

jason on April 28, 2014:

Terry Tompdin did not commit suicide. He was murdered. It was all a set up so mr . Kasich could get this bill passed.

Monica on March 20, 2014:

You cannot have an open forum for a discussion and get pissed..I would be a problem if your animal became a problem. MOVE TO A PLACE WHERE YOU CAN HAVE WILD, DANGEROUS, VICIOUS ANIMALS.....

you are a weirdo I hope somebody trap and cage your ass.... you are an animal too... and not even a good one you know an annoying animal maybe and insect best describe you... A gnat,mosquito or a bee something you can flatten with a newspaper. If you have a problem with the law go to school get a degree and try to get a job in that field but your complaining it's doing nothing.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on March 19, 2014:

Monica, do some research. Find out how many members of the public have been severely harmed or killed by 'exotic' pets. I don't care if you need to FEEL safe and secure from a non-threat like my pets. That doesn't give you the right to infringe on my life with your ignorance.

Monica on March 19, 2014:

I totally agree with the ban. I think it's cruel, irresponsible and plain foolish to own a monkey, a large cat or a venomous snake or insect. No one really understand how these animals think and it's usually some unsuspected victim that is mauled. I believe that all Gods creation have a right to life but what do you do to an animal that attacks and kills. What do you say to a mother whose child had been mauled to death what comfort can you provide them. you're obligation as a human being is to humans first. People should have the right to feel safe and secure. Wild animals are just that wild. I know that incidents can occur with any animal but I am convinced that you can free yourself of a dog but if a cougar is attacking you what can you do. If people want to own these animals move somewhere these animals are at like Africa, Australia hell move to Colorado or California where mountain lions roam free and walk around find and catch one now it's probably is going to end with your demise and then what. people must find other things to do with their time. Invest in your community, organize youth programs, feed the homeless, house homeless vets. Midst people would rather invite a wild animal in their home before giving a dollar to person in need and that is ass backwards please pardon my language. I have 4 children and it terrifies me to think that can be on their way home and be attacked by some wild animal (not pet) that some person who thought that it would make a great pet.

Starling on February 22, 2014:

Oh..... Thank you though

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 22, 2014:

That part doesn't really matter.

Starling on February 22, 2014:

Also I didn't think that wolves would be considered exotic I mean they come from the U.S.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 22, 2014:

I'm not sure Starling, I'll look into it.

Starling on February 22, 2014:

I think I have this right but if someone has a half-breed wolf like a husky/wolf than you don't need a license to own them???

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on February 19, 2014:

I think that's the case Bryan.

Bryan K on February 19, 2014:

Correct me if I'm wrong, but the way that this is worded, is it saying the non-human primates in section 20 are NOT banned? That's the way it looks to me, makes sense too, if that list were the ones being banned, you would think they would have included great apes and baboons in there

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on January 27, 2014:

You're probably right Karen, but I have not much knowledge about them and didn't want to get blasted by someone, heh.

Karen on January 27, 2014:

I noticed that you didn't bold either the yellow or green anaconda. I've owned a yellow anaconda for 11 years. She's maybe 9' long and is not dangerous to anyone. Male green anacondas only get 8 or 9' long and don't pose any kind of a danger either.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 16, 2013:

Thank you, please if you can tell me on what criteria people can own these animals. Let me know if there is anything else wrong.

SMShah on December 16, 2013:

I think you've completely misread the law in regards to the non-human primates. The way it is written makes those listed in division C(20) legal to own.

"The following animals are banned as 'pets' with the exception of zoos and sanctuaries:"

"(19) Nonhuman primates other than lemurs and the nonhuman

primates specified in division (C)(20) of this section"

The 'other than' specifies that those listed are indeed legal to own provided you follow any species specific certifications and registration.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on December 08, 2013:

Samanthajackson73-- No, I'm not saying they are not dangerous. I am saying that the argument for public safety fails if they clearly are not causing more death or injury than any other average, large-sized pet. Your comparison of driving rules proves my point. Cars are not illegal, they are regulated. Why not ban irresponsible pet owning behavior and NOT pets? That would be the equivalent of banning the car. Yes, removing cars from existence guarantees no car-related deaths, but it's stupid.

Samanthajackson73 on December 07, 2013:

I'm a little confused by how you can say some of the bolded animals on the list are not dangerous (which per a prior comment you made is apparently defined as never having killed a human in the U.S.). I am from Ohio, but have lived in South Florida for nearly 13 years and I can tell you that alligators and pythons have in fact killed people in the U.S. Several in fact. Some were pets, some were wild. And I get what you're saying about how "responsible" pet owners should not be forced to follow regulations due to the irresponsibility of other pet owners. Now that I think about it, I may even have to agree with your premise as I see its applicability to so many other areas where we are over-regulated. For example, I am a perfectly safe driver and have never gotten into an accident, but I really HATE having to follow all those rules of the road. So let's do away with all of them. Why punish drivers who are perfectly capable of driving 90 miles an hour in town, weaving in and out of traffic using no turn signals, without hurting anyone just because of the few people who aren't capable of driving safely at any speed?

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on November 14, 2013:

Kailyn, thanks, I don't think a human can always guarantee an animal' behavior, but they should be able to control their pets. You've had exotics that are capable of killing?

Kailyn on November 14, 2013:

You know, the problem isn't the animals themselves. It's the people. There are no bad dogs, just bad owners. And the same goes for exotics. I've had plenty of exotic pets and not one has killed a human, because I'm not stupid I how I handle and care for them. The ban shouldn't be on the animals, it should be on the people. They should be legal and people should have to prove in some way that they know what they're doing and won't do anything dumb.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on September 15, 2013:

That's nice that YOU think that JD, but I should be allowed to not be dictated by it.

JD on September 15, 2013:

I definitely agree that wild exotic animals should NOT be owned. They deserve to try to live out their lives the way god intended. Unfortunately, because people are selfish we continuously move into their land. No wild animal should be locked up in a cage to remain confined their whole lives. I can definitely see the desire in wanting to own one of these beautiful, wild, exotic animals but in the long haul these animals deserve to run and be free.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on September 10, 2013:

Different strokes for different folks.

Joshua on September 10, 2013:

I honestly have no desire to own any of the animals on this list. I do own exotic pets but who in their right mind would want to have a tiger, bear, or (seriously?) a rhino? There's no logic to it.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on September 01, 2013:

Hi NYC, what an extremely basic comment. Not everyone does things to serve a 'positive' purpose. I would say at least 99% of our human activities qualify as such. This is probably true about all pets, not just 'wild' ones. You sound somewhat ignorant for someone who has worked with zoos, it's disappointing. Zoos often receive the same criticism. No one is trying to "domesticate" wild animals, and your lack of specifying which 'wild animals' is concerning.

NYC on September 01, 2013:

Left NYC for Ohio specifically to help with the prevention of owning wild animals. This mentality is irresponsible, self serving, and inappropriate. It serves no positive purpose. As someone who has extensive knowledge and experience working in zoos and sanctuaries I can confidently state that no one should ever think that attempting to domesticate a wild animal for the purpose of being a pet is a wise idea. It hurts the animal and it hurts society as a whole. It is a fully selfish act with dire consequences to all.

MMA FIGHTER ALPHA MALE on August 30, 2013:

Oh, don't worry about Crystal, she's just mad because she can't get any of this.

Crystal on June 13, 2013:

-_- like I said UNLESS you have a properly sized yard, and the knowledge to take care of them. I'm only trying to see, any average Joe shouldn't be able to buy them, because A lot of them shove them in small pens. If having to have a license can filter out the bad owners then it's good. Of course I don't know how hard it is to get a license. I just wish people who have no clue and no space were smart enough to know they aren't helping these beautiful creatures. If I was a little head strong about my opinions it's because watching Lambert suffer and die made me depressed for the last few days. I never said ALL pets were unhappy either, this was in reference to the dude and the people like the dude that owned Lambert. I've never once said ALL exotics are kept improperly, or ALL exotics are depressed and have bad lives. I said MOST, or A LOT. Heck, if I had the room, and knowledge/know how I would love one of these critters to. Sorry if you don't understand my Canadian dialect.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 12, 2013:

You don't like big cats in backyards? How about the front yard? The side yard? What you're saying makes zero sense. No one is suggesting to put big cats in improperly sized spaces. Many people actually do own spacious land. Do you yell at people for having fish just because you saw someone else with one in a small bowl? Direct your criticism to the actual problem. These bans are ruining EVERYONE not just the bad owners. There are no licenses...unless you run a circus, zoo, sanctuary, ect. that is a business. Heaven forbid anyone would keep an animal for non-financial gain. Pot-bellied pigs are not only farm animals. Stop being so narrow-minded.

Crystal on June 12, 2013:

-_- It's just plain selfish to put a big cat in your back yard. Unless your back yard is on properly sized acreage, and unless you know what you are doing. Having to have a license to own these animals is a good thing... it filters out the shit hole homes that think they are capable of keeping them. It isn't legal ANYWHERE in Canada to own these animals in your back yard. Hell I can't even have a pot bellied pig within city limits, and that is a good thing. Farm animals belong on a farm. Big cats belong in big spaces.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on June 11, 2013:

I'm pretty sure you don't know how many people have what Crystal. That is all speculation. Also, so is your stern belief that all 'pet' exotics are unhappy. There will always be people who can't care for animals getting animals, that is just a fact of life. You can't, or shouldn't run around banning everything from everyone trying to erase bad things from existence.

crystal on June 11, 2013:

Seriously? This is a good thing! So many people have big cats locked up in small pens. What kind of life is that for an animal that naturally would run and hunt in a wide territory? Lots of these animals weren't properly kept, and lots were set free by irresponsible owners. Sanctuaries and rescues are too full to take the poor animals that need a place to live and have none. This is just as bad a problem, as having to euthanize all the dogs and cats that don't have homes. If we can't even responsibly take care of regular domestic pets, then we sure as hell can't properly care for these exotic creatures. Maybe a few of you can, but it's not good enough, when many CANNOT. It's selfish to THINK "Oh, I just have such a strong loving connection to my lion that paces it's small pen, it's happy... cause it makes me happy, so it has to be happy and healthy" Get real!!!

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 29, 2013:

Cuttlerfish, I think zoos can be poorly run and private owners can be very good, and vice versa. The nature of their accreditation status has nothing to do with it. Many places that are well-respected now started out as 'private'. Many groups want it eliminated because they want no captivity, period. It is a wonderful way to destroy potential opportunities for animal caretakers. The zoos are the next target.

Philip Speed from Skegness UK on May 29, 2013:

Much rather see these animals in the wild, they are always the ones that suffer in the long run. Correctly run Zoos have a place but I would not allow private owners myself. Thanks.

Melissa A Smith (author) from New York on May 22, 2013:

Hi independentminded, big snakes aren't really so dangerous as long as you know what you're doing. I do not advocate zero laws against owning large cats but I am against completely banning them.

independentminded on May 22, 2013:

Owning a dog, an (ordinary) cat or an exotic bird is one thing, but owning huge snakes and wild animals, such as lions, tigers, can be extremely dangerous and is really tempting fate. I can't blame a state for putting up laws against owning such pets.

#1 Illegal Pets to Own In the United States: Zebras

A zebra is an illegal pet in Nevada and many other states. It is impossible to domesticate a zebra. Their kick can hurt or kill a human, and they use it often. It can be hard to earn the trust of a zebra, even one that was born in a domesticated environment and had the best care possible. Most owners report that they spent many months sitting with a bucket of grain in front of them before they could even pet their animal. Many are very hard to keep in fenced areas, as they are always looking for a way to escape. When they do, they will often run themselves to death before letting a human coax them back where they belong.

Make sure that you check the illegal animal laws in your location before you get a pet. The one that you are wanting may be against the law in your location. There are often good reasons behind the laws as some illegal animals do not make good pets.

Wild Obsession

The perilous attraction of owning exotic pets.

All across the nation, in Americans’ backyards and garages and living rooms, in their beds and basements and bathrooms, wild animals kept as pets live side by side with their human owners. It’s believed that more exotic animals live in American homes than are cared for in American zoos. The exotic-pet business is a lucrative industry, one that’s drawn criticism from animal welfare advocates and wildlife conservationists alike. These people say it’s not only dangerous to bring captive-bred wildlife into the suburbs, but it’s cruel and it ought to be criminal too. Yet the issue is far from black or white.

At least not to Leslie-Ann Rush, a horse trainer who lives on a seven-acre farm outside Orlando, Florida, a place where the wind makes a rustling sound when it whips through the palms. Rush, 57, who has a kind face and hair the color of corn, breeds and trains gypsy horses she houses in a barn behind her small petting zoo, a wire enclosure where three male kangaroos, four lemurs, a muntjac deer (originally from Asia), a potbellied pig, a raccoon-like kinkajou called Kiwi, and a dog named Dozer all live—the lemurs leaping freely, the kangaroos sleeping on their sides, the petite pig rooting in the ground, the Asian deer balancing its rack of antlers on its delicate head.

Rush weaves in and around her exotic pets with ease and cheerfulness and Cheerios, doling them out to the lemurs. They thrust their humanlike hands into the open boxes and draw out fistfuls of O’s, which they eat almost politely, one by one, dining daintily while the drool gathers in the corners of their mouths.

Rush has a ring-tailed lemur, Liam two ruffed lemurs, Lolli and Poppi and a common brown lemur named Charlie. While many lemurs are threatened, the ruffed lemurs are considered critically endangered in the wild. Rush believes that by caring for these captive-bred creatures she is doing her part to help keep lemurs alive on Earth, and she cares for her animals with a profound commitment that consumes her days and even her nights. As darkness falls, she moves from the small enclosure into her home and takes her favorite lemur with her he shares her bed, coiled up on a pillow by her head.

Because kangaroos are active typically at dawn and dusk, the animals look lazy in the daylight, dun-colored beasts lying on their sides in cylinders of sun, their thick tails trailing in the dry dirt. But come evening they hop up on their hind legs and press their faces against the large glass window, looking in on Rush in her home: Let me come in, they seem to say. Rush does not let them in, although she did when they were babies. “I have all of these amazing animals of different species, from different continents, and the thing is, they play together,” she says, and she sweeps her hand through the air, gesturing to her multicolored menagerie sunning, sleeping, snacking. She has filmed and posted videos of them playing on YouTube, the lemurs leaping over the kangaroos, which hop and twirl and chase the primates around the yard.

Despite occasional reports of wild kangaroos attacking humans in Australia, Rush’s pets display not a hint of aggression. This may have something to do with the fact that kangaroos are naturally somnolent during daytime hours, and it may also have something to do with the fact that Rush’s kangaroos are no longer truly wild: They were bred in captivity two of them have been neutered they are used to human contact. Rush raised each kangaroo in diapers, bottle-fed it, and, touching the sleek suede fur continually, accustomed each animal to human hands.

The $35 that Rush charges to visit what she calls her Exotic Animal Experience helps defray the costs involved in keeping her pets. Some exotic-animal owners spend thousands a year on fresh meat, for carnivores that dine daily on raw steak, for primates—omnivores with complex dietary needs—for snakes, which eat rat after rat after rat. In Rush’s case her kangaroos consume huge quantities of grain, while the lemurs eat mounds of fruits and vegetables.

Rush herself lives a lean life, much of her own money poured into feeding her herd. And then there’s her time. She puts abundant hours into caring for her exotics. “They’re 24/7,” she says, and then goes on to add, “but they’re my family. They need me. I can’t explain to you what that feels like. I wake up every morning and come out here, and all my animals come rushing up to greet me. I feel loved, and that feels great.

“My family,” she repeats, and a shadow sweeps across her face. “All my life,” she says, “people have let me down. My animals never have.”

Privately owning exotic animals is currently permitted in a handful of states with essentially no restrictions: You must have a license to own a dog, but you are free to purchase a lion or baboon and keep it as a pet. Even in the states where exotic-pet ownership is banned, “people break the law,” says Adam Roberts of Born Free USA, who keeps a running database of deaths and injuries attributed to exotic-pet ownership: In Texas a four-year-old mauled by a mountain lion his aunt kept as a pet, in Connecticut a 55-year-old woman’s face permanently disfigured by her friend’s lifelong pet chimpanzee, in Ohio an 80-year-old man attacked by a 200-pound kangaroo, in Nebraska a 34-year-old man strangled to death by his pet snake. And that list does not capture the number of people who become sick from coming into contact with zoonotic diseases.

The term exotic pet has no firm definition it can refer to any wildlife kept in human households—or simply to a pet that’s more unusual than the standard dog or cat. Lack of oversight and regulation makes it difficult to pin down just how many exotics are out there. “The short answer is, too many,” says Patty Finch of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries. It’s estimated that the number of captive tigers alone is at least 5,000—most kept not by accredited zoos but by private owners. And while many owners tend to their exotic pets with great care and at no small expense, some keep their pets in cramped cages and poor conditions.

Commercially importing endangered species into the United States has been restricted since the early 1970s. Many of the large exotic animals that end up in backyard menageries—lions and tigers, monkeys and bears—are bred in captivity. Today on the Internet you can find zebras and camels and cougars and capuchins for sale, their adorable faces staring out from your screen the monkeys with their intelligent eyes the big cats with their tawny coats. And though such animals are no longer completely wild, neither are they domesticated—they exist in a netherworld that prompts intriguing questions and dilemmas.

From his experience in providing sanctuary for exotic animals in need of new homes, often desperately, Roberts says that exotic-pet owners tend to fall into multiple overlapping categories. Some people treat their animals, especially primates, as surrogate children, dressing them up in baby clothes, diapering them, and training them to use the toilet. Some own exotics as symbols of status and power, the exotic animal the next step up from a Doberman or pitbull. There are impulse buyers who simply could not resist purchasing a cute baby exotic. Still others are collectors, like Brandon Terry, who lives in Wake County, North Carolina, in a one-bedroom apartment with 15 snakes, three of them venomous. And then there are wild animal lovers who may start out as volunteers at a wildlife sanctuary and end up adopting a rescued animal in need of a home.

Denise Flores of Ohio explains how she acquired her first tiger. “I went to a wild animal park one day, and someone put a baby tiger in my lap. My heart melted it just melted. I was hooked,” says Flores, who ended up caring for eight rescued big cats, including two white tigers so beautiful they looked like fluid ivory.

Some people seek wild animals as pets as a way to reconnect with the natural world. They believe their exotics set them apart, the relationship made all the more intense by the unintended social isolation that is often the result of having an unpredictable beast as a companion. “Yes, of course my exotics make me feel unique,” Rush says. Though anyone can own a cat or dog, exotic-pet owners take pleasure in possessing an animal that has, for hundreds of thousands of years, refused the saddle of domestication: They take the uncivilized into society and in doing so assert their power.

“I wanted something different, something unusual,” says Michelle Berk, formerly of Palisades, Florida, who bought her kinkajou, Winnie, on craigslist. “She was there for me to make my own. We didn’t get a dog because there’s nothing cool or outstanding about owning a dog. A kinkajou—now that seems untouchable. And who doesn’t want the untouchable? They say don’t touch it, so you want to touch it.”

Tim Harrison understands the allure of owning exotic pets. Thirty-two years ago he worked as a public safety officer in the city of Oakwood, Ohio, and kept a menagerie in his house. He had snakes wrapped around lamp poles. He had rhesus monkeys leaping from counter to couch. He had lions sunning themselves on his gravel driveway. He had capuchins and bears and wolves, which were his favorites.

After a hard day of chasing criminals or a boring day of ticketing cars, Harrison would change out of his uniform and drive home to his animals. He always went to the wolves first. His body aching, his mind numbed, he’d let the canines come to him, weaving around his legs. He’d drop down on his knees and then lie flat on his back, the wolves clambering over him. “I would just lie there and let them lick me,” Harrison says, “and it was one of the best feelings in the world.”

Now the animals are gone. Harrison will never again own anything wild or exotic. He believes ownership of all potentially dangerous exotic animals should be banned and is working to make that happen. He underwent a profound transformation, his entire outlook shattered and put back together again in a new way.

What happened is this: After decades of being an exotic-pet owner, Harrison went to Africa. He drove over the open plains and grasslands, and he can remember, all these years later, the giraffes’ long lope, the lions’ hypnotic canter, the elephants sucking water up their trunks and spraying themselves so their hides glistened. Harrison gazed upon these wild animals, and he says it was as if his eyes had been blistered shut and were suddenly opened as he witnessed these mammals moving in such profound harmony with their environment that you could hear it: a rhythm, a pulse, a roar. This, Harrison suddenly realized, was how wild animals are supposed to live. They are not supposed to live in Dayton or any other suburb or city they are creatures in and of the land, and to give them anything less suddenly seemed wrong.

Harrison says he understood then that he didn’t really own wild animals. What he had back in Dayton was a mixed-up menagerie of inbreeding and crossbreeding that resulted in animals that had almost nothing to do with the creatures before him now. He felt that he’d been no better than a warden and that he needed to change his ways. When he returned to Ohio, one by one he gave up his beloved wolves and primates and cats and handed them over to sanctuaries where they’d at least have safety and space. It hurt him to do this. He knew his wolves so well he could howl a hello, and a goodbye.

Today Harrison is retired from the police force. He puts as many hours as he can into Outreach for Animals, an organization he helped found to rescue exotic pets and place them in one of the sanctuaries he trusts. Many of the so-called wildlife sanctuaries in this country are actually using their animals to make a profit, commercially breeding them or allowing public contact. The few that operate solely for the benefit of the animals are already overloaded, says Vernon Weir of the American Sanctuary Association, an accrediting organization. “I have trouble finding space for wolf-dog mixes, potbellied pigs, some species of monkeys—many retired from use in research—and all the big cats and bears,” Weir says. “A good sanctuary will take in only what they can afford to care for.”

Harrison’s agency fields hundreds of calls a month from law enforcement officials dealing with an escaped animal or owners overwhelmed by the cost and responsibility of an animal’s care. He has been on more than a hundred big cat rescues in the past year and over his lifetime has rescued close to a thousand exotic felines. He was there when a man in Pike County, Ohio, named Terry Brumfield finally agreed to give up his beloved but ill-kept lions. He is currently working with a man who owns a bear that bit off his finger. The owner can’t yet bring himself to let the bear go.

“I meet people where they’re at,” says Harrison. “If an owner isn’t ready to give their exotic up, I help them care for the animal in the best way possible. I help them build a better enclosure or get the best kind of feed. I don’t judge. My hope is that, with the right kind of support, the person will eventually see that owning this animal is a dangerous drain and will voluntarily choose to give it up.”

Harrison feels empathy for wild animal owners, whose affection he so well understands. He loved his animals. He believed, as most owners do, that his animals loved him. He believed that having a thriving menagerie made him special. “But I was deluded,” he says. “I used to believe there was no animal I could not tame, no animal I was unable to train, and that any animal living under my roof was receiving the best of care.” The delusion, rooted in a deep desire to commune with wild animals, has lingered long after the beasts were gone. Every time he participates in a rescue he has to stop himself from taking the animal home. “I try to keep my contact with the animals I rescue to a minimum,” Harrison explains, “because my addiction can come back at a moment’s notice.”

The state of Ohio has become ground zero for the debate over exotic-animal ownership, and here’s why: In October 2011, outside the city of Zanesville, in Muskingum County, a man named Terry Thompson let 50 of his wild animals, including lions and tigers, out of their cages and enclosures before killing himself. The local sheriff’s department had little choice but to shoot most of the animals, which were dodging cars, loping across backyards, and posing a threat to public safety. Prior to the Zanesville incident, Ohio was one of a handful of states that required no license or permit to keep an exotic or wild animal as a pet.

The Zanesville tragedy woke Ohio up. In response to the outcry over the sight of exotic carcasses lined up near Thompson’s property, the governor of Ohio signed an executive order cracking down on unlicensed animal auctions. The state now requires owners of “dangerous exotic animals” to have a permit, to microchip their pets, to establish a relationship with a veterinarian, and to buy insurance.

“I couldn’t afford the insurance,” Flores says, and so she sent her big cats to live in accredited sanctuaries, which is exactly what state officials hoped would happen. “These are beautiful animals, yes, but let me tell you,” says Flores, “I had the common sense to know to never get in the cage with them. I’d pet them through the bars, if that. That was all.”

Sheriff Matthew Lutz was the one who gave the order to shoot the animals after Thompson released them from their cages. The incident continues to haunt him. He has joined forces with animal rights activists who have lobbied for years, to no effect so far, for a federal law that would prohibit the private possession and breeding of large cats except by zoos and other registered facilities.

Like Rush, many exotic-pet owners and private breeders say they are motivated by a desire to preserve and protect threatened species. “Climate change and human population growth could wipe out a species in record time, so having a backup population is a good idea,” says Lynn Culver, a private breeder of felines and executive director of the Feline Conservation Federation who believes that “those who do it right should have the right to do it.”

But advocacy groups like Born Free USA and the World Wildlife Fund say that captive breeding of endangered species by private owners—whether for commercial, conservation, or educational reasons—serves only to perpetuate a thriving market for exotic animals. That, in turn, results in a greater risk to animals still living in their natural habitat. Conservation efforts should focus on protecting animals in the wild, they assert, not on preserving what are often inbred animals in private zoos.

If a federal law ever passes, violators could face a fine and time in jail, as well as have their animal confiscated. That prospect enrages some exotic-animal owners, who argue that the number of incidents involving injuries from exotic pets pales in comparison to the number of people who visit the emergency room for dog bites each year.

“Placing bans on wild animal ownership will only increase the population of illegal exotics out there,” says Zuzana Kukol, who co-founded REXANO (Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership) to oppose bans on the private ownership or use of animals. “Bans do not work. We’ve seen this with alcohol and prostitution.”

Kukol and co-founder Scott Shoemaker live on ten acres of land an hour’s drive from Death Valley, in the state of Nevada. They own two bobcats, two African lions, two cougars, four tigers, one serval, and one ocelot. They point out that wild animal ownership has existed throughout history and in all cultures—“by monarchs, kings, monks, nomads, and peasants”—and insist that most owners today treat their animals well and keep them from harming people. When it comes to risk and its management, she is very clear: “I’d rather die by a lion than by some stupid drunk driver.”

Local people, including farmers, give the couple their ailing cows and horses, which Shoemaker kills with a simple gunshot to the head, then butchers into small pieces and feeds to the menagerie, including Kukol’s favorite pet, a male African lion named Bam Bam. She has always gravitated more toward animals than people. “Ever since I was a little girl, I wanted to surround myself with animals,” she says. “I never wanted children.”

It’s true that even in states where wild animal ownership is explicitly banned, existing laws are not well enforced. The market for exotics is so alive and thriving that to call it underground is a bit misleading. “The worst offenders are the tiger petting zoos that churn out 200 cubs a year so people can have their picture taken with them,” says Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue, an accredited sanctuary.

At the raucous auctions held in muddy fields or paved parking lots, auctioneers hold out adorable tiger cubs with scrumptious soft scruffs or display tiny chimps in baseball hats and T-shirts that say, “I (heart) you.” But people don’t realize that all too soon that adorable tiger will outgrow its role as family pet and end up confined in a chain link enclosure.

It’s backyard breeders that Tim Harrison believes are to blame for most wild animal abuse. He’s been to auctions where cages are stacked one on top of the other, cramped with cougars and other big cats, mostly cubs the tents awhirl with people whose pockets bulge with cash snakes and primates being sold for thousands of dollars. The parking lots are filled with everything from shining Cadillacs to rusted trucks, the public pouring in to see and touch.

The breeders stand to make hundreds of thousands of dollars during an auction. They coach their auctioneers—the middlemen—to tell prospective buyers that their animals, usually babies, are harmless, and they are correct. “The problem comes,” says Harrison, “when the animal reaches sexual maturity and its natural predator instinct kicks in.”

Remember Michelle Berk and her kinkajou? Like so many other wild animal stories, Winnie’s came to a sad end. For years Berk kept the kinkajou in peace, but when the animal went into her first heat, her behavior changed. She tried to eat her own tail as Berk and her family tried to protect themselves while stopping the kinkajou from tearing herself to pieces. After that Berk turned Winnie over to a sanctuary. “It’s like we lost a child. She’ll always be our baby. Now she has gone to a place where she’ll finally get to be a kinkajou,” says Berk, who seems at peace with the decision. “I’ve learned that Winnie never really needed us. She didn’t need to be our pet. She didn’t need to be locked up. We got her because we needed her.”

So yes, the infant animals are docile, but docile is different from domesticated. Of all the large land mammals that populate the planet, just over a dozen have been successfully domesticated. No matter how tamed or accustomed to humans an undomesticated animal becomes, its wild nature is still intact.

When making the case against exotic-pet ownership, animal rights advocates tend to highlight the dangers these formerly wild creatures pose to humans wild animal owners underscore the inherent rights of humans to own exotics. Back and forth the argument goes, but what can get lost is what’s best for the animals. If only it were possible to look at the issue from the animal’s point of view.

Yet perhaps we need only look more closely, with our own human eyes, at even a model example of responsible wild animal ownership. Here we are, back at the ranch owned by Leslie-Ann Rush, the marsupials still snoozing in the sun, the pig still rooting in the earth, the fruit trees heavy with papayas.

In all ways Rush has done a fantastic job. The enclosure where she keeps her animals is clean. Despite the financial pressures, they are well fed and content. She is 100 percent committed and, on top of that, has managed to carve out for herself a life that suits her, a sustaining interdependent community of breathing beings, and this is no small thing.

Like most exotic owners I spoke with, Rush does not believe her animals pose a danger to herself or anyone else. “I don’t have predators,” she says. “I’m not that kind of wild animal owner.” But perhaps danger to humans is not really the point.

A rabbit runs through the yard, a newcomer, or simply suddenly visible. The potbellied pig sniffs and snorts. One kangaroo lifts a lazy eyelid and then lowers it and starts to slumber again. Only the youngest kangaroo is awake, and now, suddenly, he perks up. His ears fork forward and his eyes take on a sheen.

Hauling himself up on his hind legs, he sniffs the pig’s mottled hide as it trots by, then starts to hop behind the animal, lowering his pointed nose to get a whiff of the pig’s rear. The pig turns around and snarls. The kangaroo, the youngest one, which hasn’t been neutered, doesn’t seem to understand the meaning of the snarl—why would he, since he’s been raised to comprehend not animal but human language—and continues to pursue the pig, which picks up speed. The kangaroo is now in hot pursuit, trying to mount the pig.

“Look!” Rush says. “They’re playing!” But the animals do not seem to be playing. The pig’s snarl grows more threatening. There is, all of a sudden, in what was a peaceful enclosure, a series of misunderstandings. Although it seems evident to me that the kangaroo is trying to mate with the pig, Rush later tells me it was grooming. Whatever is happening, the pig is having no part of it and trots away as fast as his little legs will go. Of course, a kangaroo cannot successfully mate with a Vietnamese potbellied pig. Yet here, in this wired enclosure, the natural order has been altered.

Adam Roberts of Born Free USA says his organization’s mission is to keep wildlife in the wild, where it belongs. When humans choose to keep what are supposed to be wild animals as pets, we turn them into something outside of wild, something for which nature has no place. In the famous children’s book Where the Wild Things Are, a boy sails on a boat to an island where he dances with beasts born from his own imagination. In the end what we learn from exotic-pet ownership is that when you take the wild out of the wild, you eradicate its true nature and replace it with fantasy—the fantasy being ours, we humans, the animals at once the most and the least tamed of all.

Watch the video: Matters Of Opinion VOL 39 Dangerous Exotic Animals as Pets

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