USDA proposed rulemaking to strengthen regulations for handling wild, exotic animals

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service published a Federal Register notice on Jan. 9 about proposed rulemaking that aims to strengthen regulations on the public handling of wild and exotic animals for exhibition. The plan also would require training for personnel involved in the handling of these animals at these facilities and would establish standards addressing environmental enrichment for all regulated animals.

Humans caressing a cheetah
In 2021, 44.4% of The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s licensed exhibitors offered interactions between the public and animals as part of their business, an increase from 25% in 2019.

The changes being considered would aim to ensure the humane handling and treatment of exhibited animals as well as the health and well-being of all animals covered under the Animal Welfare Act, according to the department. The AWA sets basic standards for humane care and treatment for certain animal species that are used in exhibition or research. Furthermore, these proposed changes in the regulations look to classify animals into three categories of ability to cause injury or harm to the public as well as defining types of public contact and activities with exhibited animals.

Comments on the proposed changes must be received by March 10. Comments can be submitted online or by mail.

Currently, there are 1,970 active class C licenses for exhibitors. Roughly 70 to 145 new licenses have been approved each year since 2019. Under the current federal regulations, licensees who maintain wild or exotic animals must demonstrate adequate experience with and knowledge of the species they maintain.

APHIS ensures licensees meet these criteria and remain compliant with the regulations through on-site inspections of their facilities before licensure and at other times throughout the three-year license period. The regulations also require that all animals be handled as efficiently and carefully as possible in a manner that does not cause trauma, overheating, excessive cooling, behavioral stress, physical harm, or unnecessary discomfort.

“During public exhibition, any animal must be handled so there is minimal risk of harm to the animal and to the public, with sufficient distance and/or barriers between the animal and the general viewing public so as to assure the safety of animals and the public,” according to the regulations.

An area of particular concern is the handling of neonatal and juvenile animals as they are generally more vulnerable to this type of stress and trauma, said Dr. Lance Bassage, director of Animal Care’s national policy staff at APHIS.

In 2021, 44.4% (969 of 2,182) of APHIS’ licensed exhibitors offered interactions between the public and animals as part of their business, an increase from 25% (505 of 2,024) in 2019. Between 2019 and 2021, 119 handling noncompliances were reported on APHIS inspection reports, 12.6% percent of which led to human or animal injury or animal death. Species used in such interactions included large aquatic and terrestrial carnivores, megavertebrates, and nonhuman primates.

Most interactions involved full-contact interactions (32%) or protected-contact interactions (43.7%) between animals and the public.

“In light of the concerns regarding interactions between wild or exotic animals and the public, the lack of specificity regarding the requirement to demonstrate ‘adequate experience and knowledge’ in the species being maintained, and the lack of requirements for environmental enrichment of all regulated animals, APHIS is contemplating amendments to the regulations,” the notice stated.

Many states and foreign countries already have regulations covering training requirements for personnel who handle such animals, Dr. Bassage said.

“Generally speaking, these regulations specify a certain number of hours of training on the specific species they will be working with,” he said.

Dr. Bassage added that environmental enrichment includes toys and other structures or apparatuses that promote play, substrate in which to dig and burrow, space to exercise, conditions that promote hunting behavior for predatory species, or conditions that promote foraging behavior.

Dr. Robert Hilsenroth, executive director of the American Association for Zoo Veterinarians, said zoo veterinarians are very aware of welfare concerns for exotic animals and have been addressing them for years.

The key is to make sure the animals have as close to a life that they would have in the wild. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has three relevant policies for the well-being of wild and exotic animals: Animal Contact with the General Public (PDF), Presentation of Animals (PDF) and Ambassador Animals (PDF).

People who own or are considering owning wild animals, exotic pet species, and hybrids should educate themselves about the husbandry, welfare, and safety requirements of these animals and the risks that the animals may pose to humans, other animals, and ecosystems, according to the AVMA policy “Ownership and/or Possession and Appropriate Disposition of Wild and Exotic Pet Species or Their Hybrids.”