Life gets more exciting when you live on the wild side. For most people, that means taking adventurous vacations or refusing to settle for the status quo — not necessarily choosing an unusual pet. However, if the domesticated cat or dog isn’t interesting enough for you, you might be tempted to try to raise a boa constrictor, an unusual rodent, or even a large cat. But when it comes to owning exotic pets, you might be in for more than you realize.
Many pet owners aren’t prepared for the responsibility of owning an exotic pet. Some even find themselves on the wrong side of pet ownership laws in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has some say over the pets Americans can own. But individual states have their own laws, too. Some states allow almost anything that creeps, crawls, or slithers, while others forbid almost all pets except domesticated cats and dogs.
General laws about exotic pets
Hawaii has the strictest pet ownership laws because its ecosystem could be disrupted by invasive species. PetHelpful reports the tropical state has the most restrictions. It goes so far as to quarantine even domesticated cats and dogs when they first enter the state. (That way, it can ensure they’re not carrying rabies.) Guinea pigs, domesticated mice, and select species of birds and turtles are permitted on the islands, though certain species are restricted.
On the other end of the spectrum, five states don’t ban residents from owning exotic pets — even lions, tigers, and bears. Nevada, Wisconsin, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina each have lax laws when it comes to pet ownership. If you’ve always dreamed of owning the animals you can usually only find in zoos, those are the states where you stand the best chance.
An estimated 65% of American households own at least one pet. So it’s not surprising we’ve gotten creative with our choice of animals. The American Bar Association reports the exotic pet trade is worth between $10 billion and $15 billion in the U.S. alone. Still, some pets are more widely shunned than others. If you want to own any of the fascinating exotic pets ahead, you might run into problems.
Some species of bats are federally protected animals. That means it’s illegal to kill them, even when they wind up inside your home. But if you’ve always dreamed of having your own bat cave or working on your echolocation skills, you’ll have a tough time in the United States. Those same federal protections also make it illegal to capture wild bats for domestication.
Transporting bats within the U.S. requires a permit from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And you can only transport a bat if you’re affiliated with a legitimate sanctuary, scientific organization, or registered establishment for educational programming. In other words, the U.S. makes it very difficult to get a bat as a pet.
If you’re seriously batty for these creatures, keep this in mind: Bats can live up to 25 years. But that life expectancy shrinks to just one year or less if they’re in captivity.
2. Big cats
Simba and Mufasa were fun to watch. But owning your own lion — or tiger, or leopard — is pretty difficult to achieve when you live in the U.S. Twenty-one states in the U.S. ban all dangerous exotic pets. And big cats fall into that category. The previously mentioned five states –Nevada, Wisconsin, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina — don’t require a permit. They generally allow big cat ownership. And some states, including Pennsylvania, Texas, and Montana, allow it if the person obtains a permit.
Other states, such as Florida, refer to big cats and other large animals as Class I Wildlife. That classification refers to animals that pose a serious danger to humans. Such states don’t allow Class I animals to be owned legally for private use. But you can obtain a permit for commercial purposes.
3. Sugar gliders
Sugar gliders have gained a reputation as a cute, nocturnal relative of the flying squirrel. But several states have prohibited their residents from owning these animals as pets. This could be because of the large, aviary-like space they require. Or regulators might have considered all of the noise these little animals make. Whatever the reasons, they’re illegal in Alaska, California, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Utah.
Additionally, states, such as Pennsylvania, require a permit to keep a sugar glider, PetHelpful reports. California, a state known for its strict pet-ownership laws, believes sugar gliders could be a threat to natural ecosystems. So it bans the animal completely, citing the threat to native fish, wildlife, agriculture, and public health and safety.
You might think anyone willing to have a skunk in their home has gone off the deep end. But plenty of people in the U.S. think these animals make wonderful pets. Nonetheless, even if you have a skunk’s scent glands surgically removed, there’s no guarantee you’ll be allowed to own one.
“Skunks should be considered illegal until verified otherwise,” PetHelpful advises potential owners. According to a 2008 report from PBS, only 17 states allowed the people to own skunks as pets. Keep in mind cities and municipalities might also have their own rules about pet ownership, particularly regarding such unpopular animals. So check with your local government before deciding a skunk can take up residence in your home.
In most states, alligators are best left to golf courses and wild marshes, not your backyard. FindLaw reports you can’t own alligators without at least a permit — or at all — in many states. If your state does allow you to own an alligator, you must provide an enclosure that keeps the animal in and potential intruders out. You also need to take full liability for owning such a creature. Even a small bite from an alligator can prove deadly.
Plus, you’ll need to allow local wildlife authorities to regularly inspect your alligator’s habitat. Experienced personnel not only can help keep your pet from escaping, but can also monitor your alligator’s welfare.
They’re tiny, spiky balls of fun. But not every state is keen on allowing hedgehogs. Surprisingly, these little bundles of quills are controversial among animal experts and animal activists. Some say hedgehogs’ nocturnal nature makes them unsuitable for human entertainment and companionship. But others think they make great pets.
You can’t own a hedgehog in New York City and in some other municipalities. States including California, Arizona, Georgia, Hawaii, and Maine also prohibit residents from keeping these little animals as pets. Hedgehog Central, a site that advocates for the understanding and enjoyment of these creatures, also reports Pennsylvania forbids private ownership.
7. Slow lorises
Slow lorises are small primates native to Northeast India and Southeast Asia. Even though you can purchase them in other countries, such as Russia and Japan, PetHelpful reports it’s illegal to export them. Even if you were to acquire a slow loris, it’s unethical to do so. They are typically captured directly from the wild. Then, they get transported in horrible conditions. And often, they have their back teeth painfully removed.
It’s unlikely you’ll even see slow lorises in zoos, at least anywhere in North America, as they’re not easy to breed or take care of. (That means they don’t make easy animals for pet owners to care for either.) You might see sweet videos of them on the internet. But keep in mind those owners likely do not live in the states.
Many people believe penguins need the arctic temperatures to survive. But that’s not actually the case. Many breeds happily live in milder climates. However, that doesn’t mean you should trade in your parakeet for a penguin. SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment explains all 18 species of penguins are protected. Even if you do obtain a permit to interfere with penguins and their eggs in the wild, you have to report the specimen to the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research for approval if you want to collect it.
An international treaty, called the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, also regulates the trade of certain wildlife species, penguins included. And a few species of penguins, such as the African and Galapagos, are listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Because penguins are so carefully protected, there’s no way you’ll be able to own one in the states as a pet.
Owning a primate gets tricky in the U.S. Some states might allow it. But most do not. Interestingly, The Guardian says about 4,500 primates are privately owned in the U.K. That number includes apes, lemurs, and bush babies. Some of these are owned by trained professionals. But most are kept by regular pet owners, as it’s technically legal to have one in the U.K.
Even if you’re dying to have a marmoset on your shoulder in the U.S., we heavily advise against it. Certain states, including the Carolinas, Georgia, Kansas, and Oklahoma, don’t have laws to prevent primate ownership. But Business Insider says most other states either prohibit it or will only allow you to own such animals with a special permit. The upshot? You should probably just leave the monkeys at the zoo.
10. Fennec foxes
Never heard of a fennec fox before? You’ll definitely want one after you see photos of their huge ears and small, furry bodies. According to the San Diego Zoo, this breed of fox is the smallest of them all. That seems to make them desirable to those longing for exotic pets. Although some states might technically allow them, they often get sold illegally. That can result in habitat loss in their native Sahara and North Africa.
A surprising number of states do allow fennec foxes. And they’re relatively common as far as exotic pets go. Still, according to Born Free USA, some states have much stricter laws than others about owning any type of exotic animal.
Not all of the pets that are illegal to keep in the United States are actually uncommon pets. Some, such as ferrets, seem pretty ordinary, but they might actually put you on the wrong side of your state’s pet ownership laws. As PetMD reports, ferrets were once banned in many U.S. cities. But many legislatures repealed those laws in the 1980s and 1990s, when ferrets became popular pets.
However, you still can’t legally own a ferret in California, Hawaii, or Puerto Rico. Individual cities, including New York City and Washington, D.C., still prohibit them. You need a permit to own a ferret in Rhode Island. And if you live in Illinois or Georgia, you don’t need a permit to own a ferret, but you do need one to breed them.
The American Ferret Association has the state-by-state details. Just know ferrets aren’t truly domesticated animals and will revert back to their wild state if they escape. Plus, they can carry rabies and canine distemper virus. And ultimately, they are predators with very sharp teeth — even if they’re small.
12. Tokay geckos
Ferrets aren’t the only exotic pets Hawaii bans its residents from keeping. The Aloha State prohibits pet owners from having geckos, too. Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources explains geckos caught in the wild in Hawaii are legal to keep “as long as they are not the non-native Tokay geckos or any of the Day geckos, which are listed as injurious wildlife and whose import is illegal.” These species are insectivores that have changed Hawaii’s ecology.
Reptiles Magazine notes the Tokay gecko is common in pet stores across the U.S., even ones that don’t specialize in exotic pets. But this “beginner’s gecko,” though easy to take care of, is willing to bite just about any hand that comes into their domain. Plus, they usually end up in the United States courtesy of an unethical pet trade industry. For those reasons, you might want to pick a different pet — even if you don’t live in Hawaii.
13. Quaker parrots
The Quaker parrot, also known as the monk parakeet, have comical personalities and an energetic nature, according to The Spruce. They also form strong bonds with their owners and have “exceptional talking abilities.” Sounds delightful, right? Not if you live in one of the many states that prohibit residents from owning these birds as pets. Petcha reports in California, Wyoming, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Pennsylvania, these birds are illegal to own.
In other states — including Colorado, Georgia, Kansas, Maine, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Virginia — they are legal to own but subject to restrictions. Georgia, for instance, prohibits them as pets but allows them with a breeder’s license. Maine requires a permit but is reportedly “reluctant to issue any.” And Ohio allows them if you trim their flight feathers. Many states want to prevent large colonies of free-flying Quakers from forming and destroying vegetation.
14. Bengal cats
When you think of illegal exotic pets, you probably don’t envision a lazy cat sprawled out on your couch. But you’ll need to rethink that assumption if you want to own a Bengal cat, a hybrid that originated from a cross of a domestic cat and small Asian leopard cat. You’ll have a hard time owning these cats in numerous states, including New York, Georgia, Massachusetts, Iowa, Alaska, Hawaii, Delaware, Connecticut, and Indiana. Individual cities, such as Seattle and Denver, also ban them.
Bengal cat owners might also find themselves in trouble with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency considers the breed a “wildlife hybrid” and requires special permits to import or export Bengal cats. Bengal cat owners have petitioned the agency to consider their animals a domestic breed because these domestic cats are many generations removed from the wild Asian leopard cat. (There’s been no luck so far.) PetHelpful notes though Bengals don’t exactly behave like wild cats, they are very active and intelligent and do have some behavioral quirks.
15. Wolf hybrids
On the topic of hybrid animals, wolf hybrids also count as exotic pets many states don’t want their residents to keep. The Bark reports wolf-dog mixes, also referred to as “wolfdogs,” are the most misunderstood and mismanaged animals in America. “Advocates say they can be wonderful pets, while opponents argue that they’re unpredictable, untrainable and inherently dangerous. They’re permitted in some places, forbidden in others.”
The federal government officially classifies them as domestic pets and leaves their regulation to individual states and municipalities. States including Alaska, Connecticut, Georgia, Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Wyoming prohibit private ownership of wolf hybrids. Other states have restrictions on private ownership. They set minimum standards for enclosures and have strict rabies laws that could result in an animal being euthanized if it bites someone.
We wouldn’t recommend trying to bend the rules to bring a wolf hybrid home. As The Bark notes, the average dog owner isn’t fully prepared for the demands of the animal.
Additional reporting by Nikelle Murphy and Lauren Weiler.