Americans may say that it's "raining cats and dogs." But in the United States there is also a booming market for "exotic" pets. Illegal poaching and sales of exotic animals are a major part of the global illegal wildlife trade on the black market.
While some of the exotic pets sold in this country are bred in captivity, many of these animals are taken from the wild and sold, destined to live in backyards and basements instead of in their natural habitats.
Federal and State Wildlife Laws
The U.S. has signed onto international conventions intended to stop this trade, and a variety of federal laws have been enacted. In addition, each state enacts its own specific laws about protecting wildlife and limiting exotic pets.
In Oklahoma, these state laws are found at Oklahoma Statute Title 29, Section 4-107. Anyone considering possessing, breeding, buying or selling wildlife in Oklahoma should familiarize themselves with both federal and state laws on this topic.
What Is an "Exotic" Animal?
There is no one legal definition for the term exotic, but it almost always refers to an animal that naturally lives in the wild. A good rule of thumb is if it's not a cat, domestic dog, horse, fish or commonly available bird such as a parakeet or canary, consider it an exotic animal. Some animals are clearly included in this group, like giraffes, zebras, cheetahs, mountain lions, crocodiles, alligators, rhinoceros and bears.
The sales of exotic animals are booming these days, pushed in large part by social media, where "cute" or "cool" exotic wildlife pets are the subjects of videos and included in selfies. This has popularized the sale of wildlife and has also given sellers an easy place to advertise for sales.
Each year, millions of exotic animals are sold around the world, a practice known as the exotic pet trade, which is a multi-billion dollar business.
Problems With the Exotic Pet Trade
Exotic animals are wild animals that would usually live out their lives in their natural habitat but are, instead, sold commercially as expensive, unusual pets. Not all are stolen illegally from the wild.
Some exotic pets are bred in captivity, and arguments are made that captive breeding is an effective way to protect these species from illegal poaching. To this end, a number of countries allow this practice, including the export and sale of the young.
Still, countless animals that are living in the wild with their own kind are taken and sold as exotic pets. Sometimes these poached animals are used to breed other exotic pets, but others are simply wrongly labeled as bred in captivity and sold internationally. Some are simply smuggled out of the country and sold to the highest bidder.
Problems Caused by Poaching
Poaching devastates the populations of wildlife, including endangered species like African gray parrots. In addition, the capture and transport is risky to the animal's health, and some die during the operation.
Even those animals that are still healthy when taken, find themselves totally out of their natural element when sold as pets, unable to have the food they are used to in the wild and to move about or be with their own kind as they would in the wild.
National and International Laws on Wild Animal Trade
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an international agreement that provides guidelines for the signatory nations when it comes to banning or limiting wild animal trade.
The language of the agreement was determined in 1973, and the convention has been signed by 183 governments, including the United States. It represents an attempt to ensure that the trade does not threaten the survival of a species.
These days the need for such a convention is clear, since so many wild species are currently endangered. But at the time when CITES was first considered, the idea of regulating the wildlife trade to assist the conservation of the species was a new one.
Today, the international wildlife trade is a billion dollar business, ranging from live animals and plants to a huge array of products derived from them, and the populations are heavily depleted.
CITES at the National Level
While all signatory member countries are bound by the terms of the convention, each is free to enact its own laws as it sees fit to implement the goals of CITES at a national level. The United States has implemented the convention with:
- Endangered Species Act: Protects species in danger of extinction and also species likely to become endangered. The Act generally prohibits anyone from using, taking, possessing, selling or advertising for sale any of the listed species.
- Marine Mammal Protection Act: Protects all species of whales, dolphins, sea lions, seals, polar bears, walrus, manatees and sea otters. The law generally prohibits taking and/or importing of these marine mammals without a permit.
- National Environmental Policy Act: Requires all federal government agencies that interpret and administer U.S. regulations and laws to follow nine rules in a systematic, interdisciplinary approach to environmental decision making.
- Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act: Prohibits the taking, possessing,
importing/exporting, selling and transporting of bald eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) and golden eagles (Aguila chrysaetos).
- Fur Seal Act: Specifically protects the northern fur seal (Callorhinus ursinus) from the commercial sealing trade.
Oklahoma State Laws on Wildlife
Just as the United States is obligated to consider the CITES guidelines in implementing laws and ordinances, the states cannot enact their own wildlife or exotic pet laws without considering these federal laws. Federal laws are applicable throughout the country, so the animals specifically protected cannot be kept as pets in any state. But states are entitled to enact their own additional protections.
Oklahoma has both statutes and regulations addressing this issue. The core wildlife protection law is the Oklahoma Wildlife Conservation Code, found at Title 29 of the Oklahoma Codes.
It sets out the statutes dealing with taking, keeping, breeding and selling wildlife for any purpose. Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation is charged with managing and enforcing the law.
Commercial Wildlife Breeder's License
Under Oklahoma law, anyone wishing to possess or raise native wildlife for commercial purposes must obtain a commercial wildlife breeder’s license from the Director of the Department of Fish and Game. Exceptions are made for fish, amphibians, aquatic reptiles, aquatic invertebrates and exotic livestock.
Oklahoma Law for Bears and Native Cats
Oklahoma law also requires a license for residents keeping certain types of wildlife as pets. For example, anyone who is going to keep on their premises or under their control a native bear or native cat, including cougar or bobcat, that will grow to reach 50 pounds or more will need to get a commercial wildlife breeder's license.
These animals cannot be sold to anyone who does not themselves have a commercial wildlife breeder’s license.
Several other species of wild animals, notably snakes and reptiles, cannot be kept without a commercial wildlife breeder's license. These include:
- Venomous reptiles in the Elapidae family, including cobras and coral snakes.
- Venomous reptiles in the Hydrophidae family, including sea snakes.
- Venomous reptiles in the Viperidae family, including vipers.
- Venomous reptiles in the Crotalidae family, including rattlesnakes, copperheads and cottonmouths.
- Gila monsters.
- Beaded lizards.
Obtaining a Commercial License in Oklahoma
Anyone wishing to breed animals for commercial purposes or possess the animals covered by the Oklahoma law must first obtain a commercial wildlife breeder’s license from the Director of the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. This requires the completion of an application to be submitted to the department.
The director can issue a commercial wildlife breeder’s license only to individuals who prove that the breed stock or animals will be legally obtained and who appear to be acting in good faith.
If the director believes that the breeder is planning to use the license to violate any state laws, the application must be denied. The fee for the commercial wildlife breeder’s license is $48. This is also the fee for the annual renewal of the license.
Noncommercial Wildlife Breeder's License
Oklahoma also offers a noncommercial wildlife breeders license. It is obtained in the same manner as the commercial license and is required for anyone wishing to breed or raise noncommercial wildlife for noncommercial or personal purposes.
Personal use is defined in the law to include:
- Breeding wildlife for a hobby.
- Breeding wildlife for educational or scientific purposes.
- Breeding wildlife for personal consumption.
- Breeding wildlife to release on private property, except any bear or cat that will grow to reach the weight of 50 pounds or more.
- Caring for wildlife in order to rehabilitate sick or injured wildlife.
Again, the person must apply for a license from the director. They must pay a fee of $10 for a license and all renewals under this section.
Consequences for Violating the Act
A game warden can arrest without a warrant an individual for violating the wildlife laws in Oklahoma as long as they are in communication with a law enforcement officer or a wildlife enforcement officer.
All that is necessary is that the officer have visual or electronic perception of the incident. Perception by aircraft, radio or electronically enhanced night vision equipment is sufficient.
However, violating this law does not risk criminal penalties. Rather, a conviction can be punished by a fine of at least $500. If the person violating the law has a commercial wildlife license when they violate the provisions, that license will be revoked, and they will not be eligible to obtain a new license until after the date on which the revoked license would have expired.
How Fines Are Distributed
What happens to the fines collected? The regulations state that all money received from fines and forfeitures from those violating the Wildlife Conservation laws is split between two funds. When the money is collected by the court clerk, it is distributed:
- 50 percent of the fine goes to the county treasurer to be credited to the general fund of the county in which the violation occurred.
- 50 percent must be sent or transmitted by voucher to the State Wildlife Conservation.
Licenses for Domestic Animals in Oklahoma
In Oklahoma, certain wildlife species are exempt from import and export permits, commercial wildlife breeders licenses, noncommercial wildlife breeders licenses and commercial hunting area license requirements. The list is set out in Oklahoma Administrative Code, Section 800-25-25(3).
These are the listed animals:
- Cats, except native cats.
- Dogs, except native foxes and coyotes.
- Exotic tropical fish.
- Ferrets, except black-footed, Mustela nigripes.
- Guinea pigs.
- Domestic mice.
- Native invertebrates, except crayfish and all freshwater mussels, including Zebra and Asian clams.
- Migratory waterfowl.
- Pigs except for javelinas.
- Rabbits, except cottontails, jackrabbits, swamp rabbits, and other native wild rabbits.
- Domesticated rats.
- Saltwater crustaceans and mollusks.
- Sheep, except dall and bighorn sheep.
- Turkeys, except Rio Grande, Eastern, Merriam and Osceola.
- Sugar gliders.
- Fennec foxes.
- Most monotypic species or reptiles and amphibians not indigenous to Oklahoma.
- CITES: Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species
- Justia: Oklahoma Codes 2021: Title 29, Section 4-107 Commercial Wildlife Breeder's License
- National Geographic: Exotic Pet Trade
- Justia: Oklahoma Codes 2021: Title 29 Game and Fish
- Oklahoma Administrative Code: Section 800-25-25(3) Wildlife Rules
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.