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Is it a Crime to Own an Exotic Pet?

By Christopher Coble, Esq. | Last updated on

Thinking of getting a pet? Are cats and dogs too normal for you?

While many of us love kitties and puppies, some people want something a little bit more exotic, such as a gorilla, Chinese alligator, ploughshare tortoise, or hyacinth macaw. With the illegal animal smuggling industry worth an estimated $20 billion, second only to the illicit drug business, many people are getting their hands on exotic animals that they have no right to possess.

Is owning an exotic animal a crime?

Don't Even Think About It

You may think getting a pet baby tiger is cool, but it's not. Exotic animals were never meant to be kept as pets, and thousands are killed to fuel the passing fancy of the exotic pet industry. There are federal and state laws that make it illegal to own certain exotic animals.

Federal Law

There is no federal law that prohibits keeping any and all exotic animals as pets. However, there are specific statutes that do prohibit possession of certain animals.

Endangered Species Act

The Endangered Species Act prohibits the possession, selling, delivering, carrying, transporting, importing, exporting, or shipping of any endangered species of fish or wildlife. The minimum penalty for keeping an endangered species as a pet is a $3,500 fine for the first violation, and a $13,000 fine for the third violation.

Captive Wildlife Safety Act

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act prohibits interstate commerce of live big cats, such as lions, tigers, leopards, snow leopards, clouded leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and cougars. Since these animals don't naturally live in your backyard, you've likely participated in interstate commerce if you're keeping one as a pet. Violation of this law is punishable by up to five years in prison and a maximum fine of $500,000.

State Laws

Most states do have their own laws prohibiting possession of certain animals:


The Maryland Criminal code prohibits the possession of certain animals such as foxes, alligators, lemurs, monkeys, big cats. Possession of prohibited animals is a misdemeanor punishable by up to a $1,000 fine for individuals and a $10,000 for organizations.


Massachusetts bans owning exotic animals as pets to "protect wild animals from unnecessary or undesirable interference and from improper treatment." Certain people can get a license to own, bread, and sell certain exotic animals for very limited reasons. However, a licensed will not be issued for the purpose of keeping an exotic animal as pets.

The fascination with owning something rare and exotic is damaging not just to the animals kept as pets, but also the wild population. If you ever get the urge to own a pet, just go to your local shelter and adopt a dog or a cat. Don't try to be cool.

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