Rethinking Exotic Pet Ownership


Imagine you’re a snake lover, and while online shopping you come across this advertisement, what is the first thing you think? Do you respond as a buyer?


After awhile on the same sight, you come across the sale of this eccentric species. Do your opinions change as a conservationist?


Personally, I don’t agree with the sale of big cats for private ownership. I would be willing to bet most of my conservation-concerned peers don’t either. However, the sale of a python doesn’t particularly baffle me. But I ask myself, what is the difference? Exotic trade animals aren’t limited to oversized mammals such as tigers and monkeys. Exotic animals include “normal” pets such as rabbits, birds, and snakes. Although as a result of careless private ownership, the Burmese python (shown for sale in image 1) is threatening native species in the Everglades [1].  This is only a single example of a conservation issue created by an animal that some would consider a standard pet. While most pet owners do not own 7-foot snakes, I don’t presume there are many people that would be outraged at by the knowledge of a friend having one – it is legal after all. There are only 21 states that have complete bans on exotic pets; The other 29 states have partial bans, license permitting, or no regulation at all for these animals [2]. The complete bans are variable by state, so each state has different standards on the animals they consider exotic. This indicates that there is no national or international agreement on what is considered an exotic animal.

The tiger in image 2 is advertised as a 3-year-old Bengal who has been with the family since he was a cub. A tiger, of any sub-species, is considered an adult at two years of age. According to Mazak [3], an adult male Bengal is roughly 8-10ft in length and weighs roughly 400-600lbs. While my point of view may differ from yours, the tiger in the picture definitely does not look like 400 pounds. My point is, the general online shopper would not know the difference between a 6-month and 3-year old tiger, and the difference could mean a drastic change in safety when handling an animal of this size. So do we limit the ownership of exotic species to size and safety? Or do we evaluate other areas of potential concern before making distinctions about private exotic ownership?

There is and may always be a debate on defining the behavior of animals. While some animals are more prone to domestication (i.e. dogs, cats, livestock), it appears that others are not. We can possibly attribute this to size, but what about each species’ instinctual behaviors? Instinctual behavior, also known as innate behavior, has been studied since the 1950’s and caused many fueled arguments. Konrad Lorenz, a famous ethologist well known for studying imprinting, wrote an elaborate paper on innate behavior. Simply put, he concluded innate behavior is spontaneous, reflexive, and spring-loaded [4]. This means that some behaviors do not occur predictably, and are reflexive to certain stimuli. Therefore, animals can react in multiple ways to the same stimuli, and the reaction can build (or wind on a spring), until the correct stimulus is presented and a behavior is emitted. This behavior can differ in intensity as indicated by the spring-loaded potential analogy. Relating this back to exotic pets, we can say that it is near impossible to predict the behavior of animals in homes. The effect of house-hold stimuli has not been studied on exotic species and there is little research on what makes an animal “snap” and become aggressive towards owners. Because animals can react differently to similar stimuli, what once made an animal affectionate could make an animal become dangerous. This un-predictable behavior causes the release of exotic pets into un-natural environments. This causes massive conservation concern as these “pets” predate on the native species that are un-adapted to the threat, become dangerous to nearby neighborhoods, and/or become nuisances to the surrounding area.  These contingencies focus on the human impact and safety of un-predictable behavior but the ethics of captivity should also be considered. Is it ethical to limit an animal’s instinctual behavior because we require it to have manners?

While I couldn’t find any primary research on the effects of the exotic animal trade on conservation, I also did not find any writing (primary or others) supporting exotic animal ownership. Two papers express their concern about the injuries resulting from exotic pets, both in the U.S. and Europe [5, 6]. Two others discuss the ethical concern associated with keeping exotic animals captive and exploiting them as products [1, 7]. These ideas are highlighted by an article from National Geographic  [8] discussing greed and human irresponsibility with these animals. A consensus among writers warns against the private ownership of such animals. As a society, it is our burden to decide which animals we are inclined to protect, whether it is the exotic pets in the trade or the native species that could be impacted by the irresponsible release of exotic pets. The effects of releasing exotic animals into unnatural environments are largely unknown, and it is unlikely someone predicted the Burmese python having such an enormous effect in the Everglade ecosystem. Therefore we should tread on the side of caution when determining when it is appropriate to obtain exotic animals and consider safety, ethical values, and conservational impacts.



[1] Hess, L. 2011. Exotic Animals: Appropriately Owned Pets or Inappropriately Kept Problems? Journal of Aviane Medicine and Surgery.  Vol 25, Issue 1, pp 50-56.

[2] 2010. Big Cats Kept as Pets Across U.S., Despite Risk. National Geographic. URL:

[3] Mazak, V. 1981. Panthera tigris. American Society of Mammalogists. No. 152, pp 1-8

[4] Lorenz, K. 1950. The comparative method in studying innate behavior patterns. Symposia of the Society for Experimental Biology 4 (Physiological Mechanisms in Animal Behavior). Pp 221-254.

[5] Lazarus, H.M., Price, R.S., Sorensen, J. 2001. Dangers of Large Exotic Pets from Foreign Lands. Journal of Trauma-Injury Infection & Critical Care. Vol 51, Issue 5, pp 1014-1015.

[6] Schaper, A., Desel, H., Ebbecke, M., De Haro, L., Deters, M., Hentschel, H., Hermanns-Clausen, M., Langer, C. 2009. Bites and stings by exotic pets in Europe: An 11 year analysis of 404 cases from Northeastern Germany and Southeastern France. Clinical Toxicology. Vol 47, No. 1, pp 39-43.

[7] Warchol, G. L. 2007. Transnational Illegal Wildlife Trade. Criminal Justice Studies: a Critical Journal of Crime, Law and Society. Vol 17, Issue 1, pp. 57-73.

[8] 2015. Big Cat Bans Enacted. Big Cat Rescue. URL:

13 thoughts on “Rethinking Exotic Pet Ownership

  1. mberne

    As an exotic pet owner I see both sides to the argument. Although I do not own a tiger, I have snakes and have never thought about them in the same context. I do think that the size of a pet could have a lot to do with regulations on it. it is much much easier to provide an adequate habitat for a snake than is a tiger, which in the wild requires acres and acres of space and a substantial amount of food (with a highly specialized diet) to thrive. We also have a house cat, which have very similar instincts as large cats and I can assure you I would never want a 400 pound cat in my home due to their behavior. I think it depends on the species and the size of them and their requirements as an animal to live happily.

  2. Gabe

    Great blog! Big cat ownership is a HUGE issue in the US. Somewhere around 20 sanctuaries around the US are dedicated to removing big cats from private homes. However, as you pointed out, in many states it isn’t illegal to own the cats. In my mind, part of the responsibility lies with zoos, aquariums and other “nature education” agencies to spread the message.

  3. Lisa Angeloni

    For conservation purposes, I think it’s really important to consider a species ‘invasiveness’ when making decisions about pet trade regulations. Some species may be more likely to establish breeding populations if they escape. Predicting invasiveness is an active area of ecological research. For example, in the exotic bird trade, the species that are most likely to become invasive are the ones that have been directly captured from the wild, not the species that have been commonly bred in captivity (perhaps because they’re less successful at surviving and breeding in the wild — see “Carrete & Tella 2008. Wild-bird trade and exotic invasions: a new link of conservation concern? Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 6: 207–211”). Similarly, another recent study tried to predict invasiveness of exotic pet reptiles in Florida: “Fujisaki et al. 2010. Risk assessment of potential invasiveness of exotic reptiles imported to south Florida. Biological Invasions 8:2585-2596”.

  4. Amy D'Arcey

    It depends on what the potential consequences of the animal escaping and the ability of the person to provide adequate care for the animal. If a tiger gets loose in Colorado it may not last long but it could definitely cause some problems and likewise there’s really no way for a person in a normal residence to provide a decent life for a tiger. However, a python can have it’s needs met in captivity to a large extent and if it got loose in Colorado it couldn’t survive a winter to breed and become invasive. In Florida though that’s not the case and they are invasive. I really think it depends on the species and the place as to whether it’s ok to keep exotic pets. And obviously there are some animals that cannot be domesticated or kept in a way that fulfills their basic needs outside of a sanctuary or zoo.

    Nice post, this is an interesting topic!

  5. sberg

    I never believed that a snake was an exotic animal, but I do see your point that they are exotic animals too. I really liked your article! Also we don’t know if releasing all these exotic animals would do to our ecosystem that’s for sure. It could really be either good or bad and it just depends on the species.

  6. ematth

    Exotic pet ownership is a tragically fascinating subject. I’m sure all of us, at least once in our life, as young, uneducated animal lovers, wanted to take home an exotic animal that we saw at a zoo or sanctuary, or even in the media. I know I went through a huge monkey phase when I was in elementary school after traveling to Belize with my family where pet monkeys were quite a common occurrence. But as educated individuals, it is difficult to break the mindset of those focused on owning an exotic animal, unaware of the impacts they could inflict on that animal, or even an entire species. I think an even greater issue is exotic animal trade in the black market. I once volunteered at a wildlife sanctuary that focused on rehabilitating animals that had been confiscated from illegal wildlife trafficking. It brought to light how extensive this network is, and how difficult it is to stop. I agree with you that I think education is key. Education on the risks of innate behavior could also deter exotic animal lovers from the desire to own one as a pet.

  7. amajor

    I would have to say that I am somewhat caught in the middle when it comes to the subject of owning exotic pets. I, and I’m pretty sure that a great deal of others, had heard of the horror stories of irresponsible exotic pet owners, from the tiger that was found in a New York City apartment to the Muskingum County Animal Farm incident (in which 56 exotic animals, most of them large carnivores, were released on October 19, 2011). And I will NEVER forget about those incidents and will strive to make sure that such exotic animals won’t so be easy to get from people who don’t know what they’re getting themselves into or are just idiots about the whole deal. But, at the same time, I also do know that there people who known exotic animals that are really smart about the whole thing and know better than to force an animal to be what it can’t be. I actually know a man who’ve kept a lioness in his house and property here in Colorado (before the ban on private ownership of big cats came into effect here) for over a decade and he NEVER had an incident (he had experience with a load of exotic animals and he even knows Jack Hanna, a famous animal person). And he has told me that he knows people who didn’t listen to his advice on keeping big cats (which is to treat the animal as a companion and not as a pet) and they either got hurt really bad or they had to send the big cat to a sanctuary when it got too big. While I don’t believe that everyone can or should have an exotic animal, I do know that there are people who are qualified and are responsible enough to be able to have such animals. This is a great article by the way.

  8. reneev

    I think owning exotic pets (tigers, lions, bears, etc) is never a good idea. Those animals don’t need human interaction to have good lives, in fact they probably have better lives without it. Tigers don’t need/want to be cuddled and loved by people, they need space to run and trees to climb and rub against and toys and friends to play with. Owning a snake is one thing, but keeping a big cat in an apartment is not only unsafe, but unfair to the animal.

  9. mplatt

    When it comes to the animal welfare side of the exotic pet trade I believe there is a more visible line that can be drawn. Exotic snakes are often not seen as an issue because they are easier to care for while there are many more cases of “animal abuse” in large carnivores such as tigers because they take more resources to keep healthy and happy. I agree that this is a tricky topic to cover but as someone who cares about animal welfare I agree that there should be stricter laws and regulations on the exotic animals that are often found sick, injured, or dying due a lack of understanding or the inability of how to care for them.

  10. vgarduno

    I think it also depends on what is considered ‘exotic’. For example, both hedgehogs and sugar gliders are ‘exotic’ pets which are legal in the US, but one is native, and one is not. Also, sugar gliders require much more care, and are generally much more suited to experienced owners, whereas a hedgehog could be considered a ‘beginner’ pet. I think that to effectively regulate ownership, there should be multiple classes, rather than just ‘exotic’ or ‘not exotic’. Additionally, I think that to be allowed ownership of an animal in a higher class (invasive, aggressive, or care-intensive), there should be some kind of permitting system, and people should have to take classes on how to properly care for these animals, the dangers of keeping them, and so on, to discourage people getting these sort of pets on a whim.

  11. leorah

    I also think that an animals potential for invasiveness should be considered when a state makes regulations on exotic animals. Many exotic species are introduced to new locations all the time, but only a few actually take hold, and then even fewer become invasive. But there are a number of characteristics that are somewhat typical of invasive species, including wide environmental tolerances, rapid reproduction, fast growth, anti-predatory defenses, generalist consumers, etc. States should consider these characteristics when deciding how to regulate different exotic animals.
    Another example of this is the lionfish invasion of the Atlantic. Aquarium owners are often particularly guilty of releasing new species into an environment, and current DNA analysis suggests that the lionfish invasion, for example may stem from a single introduction in Florida. Oops on that person.

  12. Savimay

    I think if you “love” an exotic animal like a tiger you would never lock it up in a living room. It is so unnatural and ALL of the animal’s natural behaviors are taken from it. It kind of reminds me of a quote I heard once. If you think a flower is beautiful don’t pick it. If you pick that flower it will never be able to reproduce, it will never be able to fully bloom, it will never become fruit, it will cease to be what it was meant to be. I see owning exotic pets in the same light. That animal will never be able to have offspring, or grow and develop how it was naturally intended to. And I agree with everyone that the ability of the pet to become an invasive species is also an important conservation issue as seen with the lion fish and python in Florida.

  13. Lacey Humphreys

    We have a Ferruginous hawk at the raptor center I volunteer for who was raised by a women. She ended up having to surrender her because it became dangerous for her to keep her. There is only one handler at the center who is allowed to take care of her because she is too dangerous to humans. When a predatory animal begins to associate humans with food, they do not care if you bottle fed them as a cub or candled them as a chick, they are predators and they will use any means possible to get food if they are hungry.

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