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Wild Animals as Pets

Recent Cases in Massachusetts

The Lincoln African serval case:

In January 2022, an injured African serval—an animal not allowed to be kept as a pet in Massachusetts—was found roaming loose and in distress in a Lincoln resident’s backyard. African servals are wild animals that are not legally allowed to be kept as pets in Massachusetts, but with a permit, can be kept by zoos and for educational purposes. Fortunately, the MSPCA was able to capture the serval. He had no ID tags and was not microchipped, making it nearly impossible to identify who had been keeping him. His rescuers named him “Bruno,” and he was estimated to be about one year old. The MSPCA relocated Bruno to The Wildcat Sanctuary, an accredited non-profit sanctuary in Minnesota that has experience in caring for servals. He will live there for the remainder of his life, which may exceed 20 years. When Bruno was rescued, it was discovered that not only was he very thin, but he had also suffered a serious injury to his right hind leg, which was broken in two places. Because of the injury—thought to have been suffered several months earlier—and the pain he was suffering, veterinarians had to amputate the limb.

The Westfield River alligator case:

In December 2021, a young alligator in danger of starvation and perishing in the cold New England winter was rescued from the Westfield River near West Springfield. The animal had been periodically seen in the river since about August but had eluded capture. Officials suspect that the reptile had been illegally kept as a pet and then dumped and left to fend for himself after he grew larger and more aggressive. The alligator was turned over to the Massachusetts Environmental Police. He was thin from not having eaten, and it was thought he had tried to keep warm by crawling up a drainage pipe. The alligator was turned over to a properly licensed  non-profit organization.

As the above two cases illustrate, the practice of keeping of wild and exotic animals as pets can be problematic.

What are wild and exotic animals?

A wild or exotic animal can be understood to mean any animal that is not one of seven domesticated species: dogs, cats, horses, pigs, cows, sheep, or goats. More specifically, a “wild” animal is a non-domesticated animal that is native to the United States (such as racoons and skunks), while an “exotic” animal is a non-domesticated animal that is from a different continent (ranging from hedgehogs to tigers). Domesticated species like cats and dogs have been closely associated with human beings for thousands of years and have adapted to live alongside humans. Over many generations, they have undergone significant physical and behavioral changes—such as a reduction in fear and aggression—that now make them suitable to share their lives with us as companion animals. However, because wild and exotic animals have not undergone these changes, they often still possess all of their wild qualities and many do not make suitable pets.

Although there is no there is no official census of wild and exotic animal pets in the U.S., it is estimated that millions of these animals live in captivity. In fact, according to National Geographic, there are now more tigers living in captivity in the U.S. than roam free in their wild native habitats (where they are endangered and have a total population of less than 4,000). While some of these animals are kept in zoos, aquariums, amusement parks, and circuses, others are possessed by private individuals on farms and ranches, in urban and suburban backyards, in homes, apartments, and business, and in basements and garages. Notwithstanding the popularity of dogs, cats, and horses, about half of the pets kept in this country are believed to be of species lacking a long history of domestication, such as reptiles and small mammals. These wild and exotic animals are acquired in various ways. Some are captured and taken from their native habitats. Others are bred in captivity (sometimes in animal mills and by backyard breeders). Some are “surplus” animals from roadside attractions, zoos, and game ranches. These animals are sold legally and illegally by dealers, at auctions and pet stores, and online.

Is having wild and exotic animals as pets a problem?

Keeping wild and exotic animals as pets can present problems, not only for the animals kept as pets, but also for people, public heath, other animals, and the ecosystem. Many wild and exotic animals are illegal to own in Massachusetts. For those that are legal, it is important for people to make informed decisions and understand and provide proper care.

Keeping a wild or exotic animal as a pet can be detrimental to the animal.
Wild and exotic animals have complex physical, psychological, social, and behavioral needs that are vastly different from those of domesticated companion animals. They may require specific housing, diets, enrichment, and specialized and expensive care that most individuals are not knowledgeable about and/or cannot provide. Many are highly social and need to be with members of their own species but are denied that contact. Consequently, wild and exotic animals may live their entire lives in captivity without even their most basic needs being met, all the while suffering from stress, frustration, and boredom. Many of these animals develop health, psychological, and behavior problems as a result. Complicating things, when baby wild and exotic animals mature, they often become large and/or aggressive, and people keeping them discover that they are unable to provide for the special needs of these animals.

When people realize they cannot properly care for wild and exotic animals or recognize that these animals are not suitable for captivity, they may attempt to “rehome” the animal with a zoo or sanctuary. However, as the USDA explains in its position statement against ownership of big cats, “[p]lacement of these unwanted animals is difficult because most zoos are unwilling to take them and few sanctuary facilities exist.,” and in the case of big cats, many “end up being killed for their pelts and meat.” Other overwhelmed owners sometimes choose to release these animals into the wild, mistakenly believing that they will be able to fend for themselves. However, these animals are often released outside their native habitats, where their chances of survival are slim. Or they may be abandoned without first having learned from their natural parents the skills necessary to forage and hunt and evade predators. As a result, these former pets often cannot survive long on their own. Complicating matters, when acquired as pets, these animals are often stripped of their natural survival and defense systems. For example, skunks may have their scent glands removed, and wild or big cats and bears may be declawed and defanged. And because they have been habituated to people, wild and exotic animals see people as a source of food, which can cause conflicts.

Keeping wild or exotic animals as pets can threaten the survival of that animal’s species.
Some animals sold as pets (or their parents or other ancestors) were originally taken from the wild. Demand for wild and exotic pets fuels the illegal capture and trade of millions of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish each year. Not only do many of these animals suffer and die during capture and transport, but their removal from their native habitats can contribute to a decrease in wild populations of these species. For example, the exotic animal pet trade has decimated natural populations of radiated tortoises in Madagascar, and has led to the endangered status of African gray parrots.

Keeping wild or exotic animals as pets can jeopardize human safety and health.
Because they have not lost their wild qualities, wild and exotic pets can present serious dangers to the safety and health of people. Numerous attacks resulting in injuries and deaths to people have been recorded.  One study identified 235 injurious incidents and 36 human fatalities resulting from attacks by wild and exotic pets in the U.S. from 2000-2012. The animals involved in injury incidents included not only species commonly considered by the public to be dangerous—such as tigers, bears, and mountain lions—but also primates, deer, and even a racoon, skunk, and squirrel. Animals involved in fatal attacks included venomous snakes (8 deaths), constricting snakes (5), wolf-hybrids (6), deer (5), tigers (4), bears (3), and—with one death each—an elk, wildebeest, camel, liger, and lion. In all likelihood, this report underestimates the number of injuries that can be attributed to wild and exotic animals as many are likely not reported to health officials (especially if the animal is unlawfully kept) or reported in the media.

Wild and exotic pets may also present a danger to the public when they escape from their handlers or enclosures (or are intentionally set free). In 2021, a pigtailed macaque escaped its home in Reno, Nevada. The monkey, who had also escaped at least one time before, injured four people, including at least two children, before being captured. In October 2011, a disturbed man who kept a large collection of exotic animals on his property in Zanesville, Ohio, released more than 50 of the animals from their enclosures and then took his own life. Citing concern for public safety, responding law enforcement officers shot and killed 49 of the animals—18 tigers, 17 lions, eight bears, three mountain lions, two wolves, and a baboon.

Zoonotic diseases are those that can be transmitted from animals to people. Many pathogens found in wild and exotic animals can be transmitted to and cause illness or death in humans, including but not limited to rabies, distemper, herpes viruses, salmonella, polio, tuberculosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, and bubonic plague. According to an article published in the Journal of Pediatric Health Care, “[e]xotic pets may pose the greatest health risk to infants and very young children (i.e., those younger than 5 years) because they are more susceptible to infection as a result of suboptimal hygiene practices and naïve immune systems and because their small size and natural curiosity predispose them to injury from attacks, bites, and scratches …” Salmonella infections typically result in diarrhea, vomiting, fever, and abdominal cramping, and in some cases, can prove fatal. Young children, elderly adults, and persons with compromised immune systems may especially vulnerable. After a wave of salmonella infections, in 1975, in an effort to prevent salmonella infection in small children, the U.S. banned the sale of turtles with shells less than 4 inches long. Nevertheless, cases of salmonella and other zoonotic diseases passed from wild and exotic pets to humans continue.

Keeping wild or exotic animals as pets can endanger other animals and the environment.
Keeping wild and exotic animals not only threatens human welfare but can also endanger the health and survival of other animal species. Wild and exotic pets can spread disease to other species of animals, including not only native wildlife but also domesticated animals, including domesticated pets. In the 1970s, parrots smuggled from South America were connected to an outbreak of exotic Newcastle disease (END), which resulted in the deaths of 12 million birds in the U.S.  There is concern that because of a lack of systematic screening for disease in most of the exotic animals who are imported into the U.S., we may see future epidemics among native species of wildlife, with potentially devastating consequences for these endemic populations.

Wild and exotic animals who escape or are released into non-native environments can become invasive species which threaten the survival of native species by altering natural habitats, disrupting food chains, and decimating the populations of both native prey and predator species. The exotic pet trade is considered to be one of the primary contributors to the spread of invasive species. In Massachusetts, people are no longer permitted to have red-eared sliders as pets because so many were released into the wild that the red-eared slider has become an established invasive species in several areas of the state. The red-eared slider now competes with native turtles—including those that are listed as endangered, threatened, or species of special concern—for food, habitat, and other resources.

For all of these reasons, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) all express concern or oppose the private ownership of some or all wild and exotic animals and hybrids. According to a general policy statement issues by the AVMA, the organization “is concerned with animal welfare, husbandry, infectious diseases, public health and safety, and environmental impacts associated with ownership of wild and exotic pets and their hybrids. The AVMA is also concerned that circumstances may arise in which caregivers of such animals may no longer keep them…” The USDA outright opposes the private ownership of large wild and exotic cats such as lions, tigers, cougars, and leopards. And both the CDC and FDA have expressed grave concern about the risks ownership of wild and exotic animals present to individual and public health.

Massachusetts laws regulating the keeping of wild and exotic pets.
In Massachusetts, the sale and private ownership of wild and exotic animals is tightly controlled via state statutes and administrative regulations. These laws regulate which animals are prohibited from private possession, which may be sold or possessed only with a permit, which may be sold or possessed without a permit, and which may be taken from the wild.

In Massachusetts, the private possession of wild and exotic animals is prohibited, unless a person has been granted a license from the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife (MassWildlife) (M.G.L. c. 131, § 23 and 321 CMR 2.12): “Unless otherwise provided by law, it is unlawful for any person to possess, maintain, propagate or cultivate, sell or offer to sell any animal without having a valid license issued to them by the Director in one of five classes” (321 CMR 2.12(3)). (“Animal,” in turn, is defined as “any undomesticated bird, mammal, reptile or amphibian, that is not the product of hybridization with a domestic form and not otherwise contained in the exemption list found at 321 CMR 9.01” (321 CMR 2.12(3))). Permits to possess certain species of animals are issued by MassWildlife and are only granted for certain scientific, educational, commercial, or other specific reasons, and are not issued for keeping a wild animal as a pet. The regulations specifically state that “[a]pplications for a license … shall … be denied when … the application is for a license to possess, maintain, propagate or cultivate animals as pets …” (321 CMR 2.12(9)(a)). Limited exceptions are granted for population recovery breeding programs for endangered and threatened species, and for those who lawfully possessed their animals before the regulation was approved (321 CMR 2.12(10)(h) and (10)(i)).

Massachusetts requires a permit to possess any species that is listed in any rarity category of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species; any category of federal endangered species law; or the Massachusetts List of Endangered, Threatened, and Special Concern species. The latter is a list of species protected under the Massachusetts Endangered Species Act (M.G.L. c. 131A). As of February 6, 2022, there are 173 native species of animals that are either at risk, or may become at risk, of extinction and are therefore protected under this law. Some of these animals are also protected by the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

An animal unlawfully sold or possessed in violation of M.G.L. c. 131, § 23 or the relevant Code of Massachusetts Regulations “may be seized and shall be disposed of by the director of law enforcement for the best interests of the commonwealth” (M.G.L. c. 131, § 23). This may include euthanasia of the animal.

Notwithstanding the permit requirement, some wild animals may be sold and kept as a pet without a person first obtaining a license. Some species of wild animals are exempt from the licensing provisions of M.G.L. c. 131, § 23 and 321 CMR 9.01 (described above). M.G.L. c. 131, § 23 directs MassWildlife to establish a list of exempted species for which no permit is required, based on four criteria: first, the accidental release of the animal “will not result in an adverse effect on the ecology of the commonwealth”; second, the animal—whether in captivity or escaped—“poses no substantial danger to man, by either injury or disease”; third, “proper care of the animal is no more demanding in any major respect than proper care of common domestic animals”; and finally, trade in the animal “has no significant adverse effect on the wild population of such animal in any of its natural habitats” (M.G.L. c. 131, § 23). Animals meeting these four requirements that have been added to this exemption list may be imported, possessed, maintained, propagated, bought, sold, exchanged, or offered for sale without a license or permit from MassWildlife. However, other local, state, and federal licensing laws may still be applicable, and exempt animals must still be kept in a manner appropriate for their health and safety, including being secured from escape (321 CMR 9.01). Animals exempted from the licensing and permitting requirements of M.G.L. c. 131, § 23 and 321 CMR 9.01 include many species of aquarium trade fish, many species of amphibians and reptiles (including certain lizards, turtles, and non-venomous snakes), and certain birds and mammals. For example, included on the list of exempt species (which may be kept as pets) are certain boas and pythons, snapping turtles, toucans, hedgehogs, and chinchillas; however, absent from the exemption list (i.e., private ownership is not permitted) are species including bears, tigers, primates, venomous snakes, and piranhas). The list of species for which a permit is or is not required is very specific, and consultation of the relevant laws is necessary.

Also, some domestic animals may be sold and kept without requiring a permit. A person may possess, propagate, maintain, import, buy, sell, and dispose of some domestic animals without a MassWildlife permit or license (321 CMR 9.02). However, a person keeping these animals may still need to comply with other local and state laws (e.g., agriculture and zoning laws and Massachusetts Department of Food & Agriculture regulation of pets, livestock, and farmed animals). Here, again, the list of species which may be kept without a permit is specific, and reference to the applicable laws is necessary. Additionally, a separate Massachusetts law (M.G.L. c. 131, § 77; 321 CMR 2.07) specifically allows domestic ferrets to be sold and kept as pets, and no permit is required. However, at the time of purchase, ferrets must be surgically neutered or spayed and inoculated against rabies and distemper.

The sale and possession of wild canid and wild felid hybrids is generally prohibited. As explained in the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (321 CMR 9.02), in Massachusetts, some hybrids between wild mammals and domestic mammals are categorized as domestic animals. Importantly, however, wild canid and wild felid hybrids are not considered domestic animals, and additionally, are subject to the provisions of M.G.L. c. 131, § 77A. According to M.G.L. c. 131, § 77A, a person is prohibited from selling or possessing wolf-dog hybrids, coyote hybrids, coy dogs, or any other hybrids between domestic dogs a any wild canine species. Also prohibited is the sale or possession of most feline animals which are a hybrid between a domestic cat and a wild feline species.

In Massachusetts, the only animals that may be taken from the wild are certain species of reptiles and amphibians. While these animals may be kept as personal pets, they may not be sold, bartered, or exchanged.

For additional information:

Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife summary of Massachusetts laws relating to sale and possession of wild and exotic pets

The Wildcat Sanctuary’s website on hybrid cats

The International Wolf Center’s webpage on wolf hybrids

Animal Protection Institute’s 2007 “A Life Sentence: The Sad and Dangerous Realities of Exotic Animals in Private Hands in the U.S.” report on captive exotic animals

Matthew G. Liebman (2004). “Detailed Discussion of Exotic Pet Laws.” Michigan State University College of Law, Animal Legal and Historical Center


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