What Is an Exotic Animal? – Are They Legal or Illegal to Keep in the USA

You may or may not be living under a rock if you have not seen or heard of Tiger King. I am late to the party, but began watching the new, short Netflix series last week. The documentary follows three exotic animal keepers, Joe Exotic, “Doc” Antle, and Carole Baskin, and their personal connection to “big cats” (tigers, lions, leopards, etc.). Each of them live extremely different lifestyles, but share one thing in common: love for tigers and other exotic animals.

The show has faced much controversy, while raising many questions. Exactly, what is an exotic animal? How and where do people get them? Aren’t they dangerous? Can one be tamed? Are they legal or illegal to keep?

Photo credit: http://fuuny-picturez.blogspot.com/2013/02/tiger-cubs-cute.html?m=1

An exotic animal, according to definitions.uslegal.com, is one “that is native to a foreign country or of foreign origin or character, is not native to the United States, or was introduced from abroad.”

Based on the description above, someone can get an exotic animal from many places. However, the species of exotic animal is important. If the species is rare, the more difficult it will be to find.

These animals can be found at pet stores, online sellers, breeders, and animal rescues. Almost all exotic animals are bought from one of these sources.

Exotic animals can be dangerous, depending on the species. For instance, chinchillas are practically harmless, where a Bengal tiger has the strength and power to take one’s life.

Photo credit: http://dailynewsdig.com/venomous-snakes-adopt-pet/

Exotic animals can be tamed, but again, it largely depends on the species. Attempting to tame a chinchilla versus a Bengal tiger, would be like throwing a stone versus throwing a boulder. It can be done, but it is imperative to understand the dangers of working with a wild animal.

Laws on owning an exotic animal vary state to state. One state may allow possession of a species, a second state may require a permit to possess said species, and a third state may not allow said species, period. To date, there is no federal law in regards to exotic animals. The link below gives an overview of each state’s laws on exotic animals:


Sources of information:



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