Laws take aim at wildlife pets

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On June 2, Minnesota became the latest state to prohibit residents from possessing dangerous wild animals as pets. It's the most recent success in a push by lawmakers and a variety of organizations for more comprehensive legislation regulating the wildlife trade and private ownership of captive wildlife pets.

This past July, the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment and Public Works held a hearing on the issue. During the hearing, officials from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Wildlife Federation, and Wildlife Conservation Society called for more restrictions on the importation of wildlife.

Other organizations, such as the Captive Wild Animal Protection Coalition, and some states are working to prohibit private ownership of captive wildlife. The coalition is made up of a diverse group of organizations that oppose private ownership of exotic pets. It includes the International Fund for Animal Welfare, American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Humane Society of the United States, Detroit Zoological Institute, Oakland Zoo, and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.

"There's a patchwork of laws," said Chris Cutter, a spokesman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, which monitors state and federal regulations on captive wildlife.

There are no federal laws prohibiting private ownership of exotic pets. Through the Animal Welfare Act, the Department of Agriculture regulates animal wholesalers and retailers, transportation companies, and animal exhibitors, but the law doesn't specifically apply to animals kept strictly as pets. The Animal Welfare Act covers most mammals, but not rats and mice, and not birds or reptiles.

The Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service regulates species covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, and the U.S. Endangered Species Act. The Lacey Act, which is administered by the Department of the Interior, the Department of Commerce, and the USDA, prohibits trade and transport of wildlife in violation of state, federal, tribal, or international laws. The Lacey Act also has provisions to restrict the importation or transportation of wildlife deemed "injurious" or potentially injurious to humans, agriculture, horticulture, forestry, wildlife, or wildlife resources. Some of the species listed as "injurious" are any species of flying fox, any species of mongoose or meerkat, any raccoon dog, and brown tree snakes.

In January, President Bush signed into law the Captive Wildlife Safety Act. The act amends the Lacey Act to ban interstate commerce of big cats, but doesn't restrict ownership of these animals.

"Exotic pets fall between the cracks," said Dr. Kim Haddad, the manager of the coalition.

At the state level, there are now 13 states—Alaska, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, Virginia, and Wyoming—that prohibit keeping dangerous wildlife as pets. Seven states have a partial ban that covers select species. Fourteen states require owners of captive wildlife to obtain licenses or permits, and 16 have no laws restricting the possession of captive wildlife.

According to the coalition, Arkansas, New York, Oregon, and Washington state are currently considering legislation to prohibit the private ownership or possession of dangerous wildlife.

Some municipalities also regulate or prohibit keeping wildlife as pets.

Many groups, including the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, believe new legislation should focus on preventing exotic wildlife from entering the country.

"Once they are here, the trade is lucrative enough that, if one state prohibits (keeping captive wildlife as pets), it will go underground," said Dr. Jim Kazmierczak, the Wisconsin state public health veterinarian.