Should Exotic Animals Be Kept As Pets?

Wild Things

You’ve seen them on the street: 10-foot-long pythons wrapped around people, out for a Sunday stroll. You’ve seen the news reports on television: tiger escapes from yard; lion severely injures child. Animals once seen only in zoos and circuses are becoming so popular that people will go to any lengths and pay exorbitant sums of money to own them (see “Exotic Prices”). For increasing numbers of people, domestic cats and dogs no longer satisfy. Today it’s the Bengal tiger, the Capuchin monkey, the Burmese python. The more exotic, the better.

Dangerous Liaisons

With the thirst for exotics looms danger. Whether caught in the wild or bred in captivity, these animals, by their very nature, are wild and potentially hazardous to public health. Already, cases of herpes B and the deadly Ebola virus, contracted from monkeys, have been reported. Venomous snakes are harbored despite the scant availability of antivenin. And the mystery underlying the introduction of the West Nile virus in the Northeast remains unresolved. What other diseases may nonnative species transmit to us…humans and animals alike?

Similarly, the threat to public safety is high. Exotic “pets” are usually maintained in environments that have no semblance to the animals’ natural habitats. In fact, so far removed are they from their natural habitat and lifestyle that some develop stereotypic behaviors typically seen in highly stressed research animals and animals used in entertainment. Those that can manage to escape do, only to be captured or killed to safeguard the public. As our cities become ever more populated and our suburbs further subdivided, it’s astonishing to think that the unfettered keeping of exotic animals, for the most part, is perfectly legal.

Thankfully, this is changing. Increasing threats to public health and safety have led state lawmakers in New York, Texas and Washington State to consider legislation that would, in the future, prohibit people from harboring wild animals. Those presently keeping animals deemed wild would be allowed to keep them, provided they can meet strict standards: cages of sufficient strength and size to adequately and humanely contain the animal; proper, ongoing veterinary care; knowledge and provision of appropriate care of the animal; recapture plans should the animal escape; and sufficient liability insurance to cover the bodily injury or death of a person. In addition, keepers of wild animals can have no record of animal abuse, must be at least 21 years of age and must provide authorities with sufficient annual record-keeping. The wild animal cannot be transferred without approval, and if it can no longer be kept according to the standards, it must be transferred to a duly incorporated, recognized animal sanctuary.

Right for the Wrong Reason

As strict as the requirements are, some argue that no standard could ever rise to the level of the animal’s natural habitat. True; but given the captive environments in which many of these animals have been kept, could they ever be returned to the wild? Is their habitat even available?

There is debate about what would constitute the most humane future for these animals. People who harbor them argue that any regulation is unconstitutional, an invasion of their privacy and an infringement of their right to personal possession. At a time when more and more activities are regulated, is there any basis to exempt people who keep exotic animals? Perhaps more importantly, what of the animals, many of whom were deliberately taken from their native habitat and whose lives we have taken responsibility for? Policy- makers often defer to the traditional concept of animals as property and give more serious consideration to the interests of these “property owners.” Second to that is the compelling state interest to ensure public health and safety—so compelling that it can override individual rights when necessary. The best interest of the animal is considered last, if at all.

The ASPCA Government Affairs and Public Policy department and other animal protection lobbyists who are working to prohibit the keeping of wild animals as pets may succeed, but not based on the best interest of the animals. Hopefully, one day we will return to a time when these animals can only be seen in the kind of home nature intended for them. Perhaps then we’ll respect these animals for what they are, rather than for what human interests they can fulfill.

Lisa Weisberg, Esq., is senior vice president for ASPCA Government Affairs and Public Policy.


• Bengal tiger—a pair for $3,500*
• Boa constrictor—$75 to $100
• Capuchin monkey—$2,000
• Chimpanzee—$40,000 to $50,000
• Burmese python—$100 to $125
• Spider monkey—$4,000

*Prices are estimates. Adapted from The Legislative Gazette, April 30, 2001.

© 2001 ASPCA
ASPCA Animal Watch - Fall 2001

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