Captive Animals and the Law

Captive Animals and the Law

Did You Know?

  • Illegal trafficking in rare and exotic wildlife is a $10-$20 billion dollar business around the globe.
  • Most states do not keep accurate records of exotic animals and have no laws governing their captivity.
  • Since 1990, there have been more than 123 documented attacks on humans by captive large cats in the United States.
  • In captivity, the average lifespan of an orca is one-third the lifespan of a wild orca. A 103 year old orca, “Granny,” was recorded residing off the coast of Vancouver Island.

Failing to Protect Animals in Captivity


Federal Laws

Very few federal laws protect the millions of wild animals who live in captivity in aquariums, circuses, theme parks, and zoos in the U.S. The primary federal law, the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), regulates licensing, housing, exhibiting, transporting, and caring for captive wild animals. It was adopted by Congress to protect “warm-blooded” animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or publically exhibited—like tigers, lions, elephants, bears, and nonhuman primates. But it excludes protection for birds, rats, and mice, farmed animals, and “cold-blooded” animals. Furthermore, it establishes only minimal standards of care for licensing exhibitors. It does not restrict the display or private ownership of captive wild animals or prohibit the use of controversial bull hooks, whips, electrical shock, or other devices commonly used in circuses. The USDA inspects circuses as infrequently as once a year and local inspectors are often inadequately trained to look for signs of abuse and neglect.


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The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international treaty adopted by the U.S. in 1975 that regulates wildlife trade for all joined nations. It prohibits the trade in living or dead wildlife for some endangered species and bans the import of certain species for commercial purposes. The Endangered Species Act (ESA) protects fish, mammals, birds, and plants listed as threatened or endangered in the U.S. and beyond. It outlines procedures for federal agencies to follow regarding listed species, as well as criminal and civil penalties for violations. Neither law, however, directly addresses living conditions for captive animals.

State and Jurisdictional Laws

Some states offer little to no protection for captive wild animals, although strong state laws have been a useful way to protect exotic animals. Some states require licenses, and others have bans on owning and displaying captive animals, but some have few guidelines at all. Some states ban the private possession of large cats, wolves, bears, dangerous reptiles, and most nonhuman primates. No state law prohibits circuses or any specific species from being involved in performance.

Local Laws

Increasingly, local jurisdictions are adopting ordinances that ban or restrict the display of captive wild animals, and some cities prohibit circuses. Local laws are often most effective in governing the private possession of exotic animals.

Abuse as Entertainment


Animals used by the multi-billion dollar display industry—like those found at SeaWorld and the Miami Seaquarium—include orcas, bottlenose dolphins, and sea-lions. Orcas in the wild exist in tight-knit family groups and can travel over 100 miles in a single day, yet captive orcas are kept in small pools for entertainment in which they cannot dive and must swim circles in shallow tanks. No laws prohibit the display of orcas in captivity, and the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) allows the capture of wild orcas for the purposes of “education” and entertainment.

Private Possession

Many wild animals may be kept captive in private homes as pets. Common animals kept as pets include lions, tigers, cougars, ocelots, servals, wolves, bears, alligators, snakes, and nonhuman primates. These wild animals are dangerous by nature and cannot be domesticated. A largely unregulated trend is the hybrid breeding of wild cats with housecats, with predictably disastrous consequences.

Trading in Wild Animals

Every year, thousands of animals enter the captive wild animal trade. These animals are either “surplus” from roadside zoos; captured from their native habitats; sold at auctions, pet stores, or over the Internet; or come from backyard breeders or the black market.

Models for Improvement

Michigan has prohibited the private possession of big cats, bears, and wolf hybrids. Meanwhile, Pasadena, California has banned animal acts in traveling shows and circuses; so have Provincetown, Massachusetts and Richmond, Missouri.

In England, a ban on the use of all wild animals in circuses goes into effect by the end of 2015. Other countries like Greece, Peru, Costa Rica, Sweden, Austria, Bolivia, Singapore, and China have instituted similar bans. Costa Rica was also the first country to close all its zoos. In 2009, India banned elephants from being kept in