South Carolina Legislators Move to Limit Exotic Pets

By: - May 11, 2017 12:00 am

Mack Ralbovsky, left, of the Rainforest Reptile Shows, gets assistance from state game wardens Timothy Carey, center, and Wesley Butler as they remove a python from a Vermont home. Many states ban the private ownership of exotic animals or require that owners get licenses or permits.

© 2009 National Geographic

The South Carolina Legislature has passed a bill that would ban private citizens from owning, breeding or selling many types of exotic animals.

The measure, which now goes to the governor, would prohibit private ownership of big cats, apes and non-native bears, starting in January 2018. People who already own such animals before that date would be allowed to keep them if they register them with the state.

Nineteen states ban private ownership of dangerous exotic animals. If Gov. Henry McMaster, a Republican, signs the legislation, his state would become the 13th with a partial ban, allowing ownership of some exotic animals and prohibiting others. Fourteen other states require private owners to have licenses or permits. And five states, including South Carolina, currently have no law regulating private ownership.

Animal welfare advocates say exotic pets can threaten public safety when they escape and are at risk of being poorly cared for by private owners, some of whom put them in cages and enclosures that don’t meet the creatures’ basic needs.

But many exotic-pet owners, breeders, private zoos and sanctuaries say state bans can hurt efforts to protect the creatures, which need to be kept in captivity so they can breed. And, some argue, the states shouldn’t meddle with an individual’s decision about what kinds of pets to keep.

While it’s difficult to determine exactly how many exotic animals are privately owned, the Humane Society of the United States says they are part of a multibillion-dollar industry. Born Free USA, a wildlife conservation and animal welfare group opposed to private ownership, estimates that between 10,000 and 20,000 big cats alone are in private hands in the U.S.

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Jenni Bergal

Jenni Bergal covers transportation, infrastructure and cybersecurity for Stateline. She has been a reporter at Kaiser and the Center for Public Integrity.