Current State Big Cat Laws

In the United States, 50 states have 50 sets of laws and there is no direct federal law that prohibits dangerous exotic animals as pets. Alabama, Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Nevada have NO laws, allowing citizens to own whatever they want and however, they want. Other states require simple permitting of the exotic animal, while 21 states completely ban dangerous exotic animal ownership (big cats, bears, wolves, primates, and some reptiles). The level in which laws are enforced is inconsistent throughout the nation, with a lack of motivation and resources from law enforcement agencies to protect exotic animals.

*Note (law passed in South Carolina starting Jan 1, 2018 to ban private ownership.)

30 states require that exhibitors obtain a license, and ban pet ownership. The animals must be used commercially for legal licensing, promoting their exploitation and abuse. The governing bodies to protect exotic animals are the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA only enforce federal laws to regulate commercial animals for breeding and exhibiting.

With such a vast variety of interpretation of state and federal law, it is extremely difficult to enforce the restrictions within big cat ownership. Many facilities claim to be a wildlife sanctuary or refuge, but are just using this title to create a profit and exploit their animal residences. The inconsistencies within enforcement and regulation allows many animal abuse cases to go unnoticed or unenforced, leaving animals in abusive and neglectful situations. USDA penalties are weak and do not deter repeat animal welfare offenders. There is a laxity for punishing violators and allowed repeat offenders to continue their practices. For examples of USDA animal abuse cases, review: Caged Cats: Private Ownership of Lions and Tigers by Adele Young.

There is strong opposition of private tiger ownership by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the American Bar Association (ABA) (Nasser 197). This has not helped halt the exploitation of tigers and other big cats, as numbers of captive tigers continue to increase in the United States.

Video: Operation Snow Plow

USDA Roles

The USDA is a government regulating agency in charge of regulating food products and their safety for human consumption. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has a broad mission area including “protecting and promoting U.S. agricultural health, regulating genetically engineered organisms, administering the Animal Welfare Act and carrying out wildlife damage management activities” (About APHIS 2016).

Since this governing agency typically deals with food-related agriculture, it does not make sense that they are regulating a non-agricultural industry such as big cat management. Big cats are extremely different than farm raised and domesticated animals. A USDA inspection officer may not have the proper qualification and training as a member of the USFWS who manages endangered big cats (Young 551). According to Young, the USDA is understaffed and under qualified to handle the responsibility that comes with regulating captive exotic animals (554).

*To find licensing regulation information by the USDA and Animal and Plant Health Inspective Service, visit: USDA Animal Care Strategic Plan, 2016-2020 Regulated Businesses (Licensing and Registration).

Understanding USDA LicensingFeline Conservation Federation


Main Laws: 20AR Code Ch. 19, Subch. 5 Ownership and Possession of Certain Large Carnivores

There is a direct ban on ownership of large carnivores: African lions, tigers, hybrids, and bears after August 12, 2005, unless listed as exempt. Large carnivores are required to have liability insurance for $100,000 as well as signs at entrances.

Act 2226 was approved by Governor Huckabee in Spring 2005, regulating the ownership of African lions, Tigers, and all species of bears as well as hybrids. It does not allow permits to be issued for the ownership of these species after Feb 8, 2006. Those who have obtained the animals before this date must have a possession permit for that animal. The Association for Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), accredited institutions, nonprofit humane societies, veterinary hospitals or clinics, those with USDA Wildlife Exhibition permits, or Fish Commission Wildlife Breeder/Dealer Permits.

All owners must adhere to the AZA standards providing facility information, veterinary care, as well as plans of emergency with the sheriff to apply for a permit.

Lions, tigers, and bears have to be spayed or neutered before the permit is issued, unless it will endanger the animal proved by a vet.

There is a permit fee of $250 and owners must have liability insurance of at least $100,000.

It is illegal to import African lions, tigers, bears, or mountain lions into Arkansas. USDA Wildlife Exhibition Permit is required and only exception to this rule, and must possess a current Arkansas Game and Fish Commission Wildlife Importation Permit.

Mountain Lions (cougars/pumas/panthers)

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission is in charge of regulating possession of mountain lions (Puma concolor)

New permits are not available for mountain lion possession, and owners must have an AGFC Wildlife Breeder/Dealer permit or AGFC Mountain Lion Permit.

Fact Sheet: Captive Large Carnivores and Mountain Lions in Arkansas (November 2011)


Up to six bobcats can legally be privately owned in Arkansas without a permit.

For Other Laws Pertaining to Exotic Pets in AR: Arkansas State Laws

To View Laws in Other States: State Laws Governing Private Possession of Exotic Animals, Born Free USA

Federal Laws

There are very few federal laws in place that address captive wild animals. Those that exist primarily regulate the importation of wild animals and outline minimal care and treatment standards; they do not restrict of prohibit display or private possession of captive wild animals in the U.S. or regulate their breeding.

Animal Welfare Act 1966

The Animal Welfare Act was put in place to ensure the humane care and treatment bred for commercial sale (pets), use for research, or exhibited to the public. It regulates all possession of warm-blooded animals, excluding birds, reptiles, and amphibians. It does not regulate mice used in research or animals used for agricultural purposes. Licenses are required for exhibiting animals through the AWA. Breeders must comply with licensing and enforce only minimum care requirements. This Act is considered to be the most comprehensive regulatory law for regulating and protecting captive animals.

Exhibitors are required to minimize harm and risk to the public by providing sufficient distance and barriers. The animal must be under direct control under an “experienced trainer”, but the level of experience is not defined, with an uncertainty of who will meet this requirement. Exercise and training of the animals also have a series of minimum requirements, with the animal being provided with “enough space” and fed at least once every 24 hours.

Although the most comprehensive, this Act is unreliable in regulating exotic wildlife in captive settings. Additional regulations need to be put in place and demand greater animal welfare than the current minimum USDA requirements.

Resources on the AWA:

Animal Welfare Act , USDA APHIS

USDA Animal Care: Animal Welfare Act and Animal Welfare Regulations , USDA APHIS 2017

Commonly Asked Big Cat QuestionsUSDA APHIS

Endangered Species Act 1973

The Endangered Species Act provides protection to listed species of flora and fauna within the United States and internationally. It prohibits possession, import, and export of any listed species as threatened or endangered. Captive bred wildlife does not fall under this category. They are exempt due to the “educational value”, allowing circuses, roadside zoos, and wildlife exhibitions to remain in business. A captive bred wildlife permit allows for the ownership of listed species. The animal must be used in the course of commercial activity (for profit), opening a giant loophole for sale and commerce of endangered and threatened species in captivity.

Endangered Species Act OverviewUSFWS

Endangered Species ActNational Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Summary of the Endangered Species ActEnvironmental Protection Agency

The US Endangered Species ActWorld Wildlife Fund (WWF)

The Lacey Act 1900

The Lacey Act of 1900 makes it illegal to import, export, transport, sell, receive, acquire, or purchase any animal that was obtained in violation of federal law. It allows prosecution of illegally obtained wildlife in the United States and Internationally. This Act helps prosecute those who use captive-bred endangered species to trade their body parts. It also regulates the transportation of threatened and endangered species between states, but does not regulate transfer within the same state.

There are exceptions to the Lacey Act that weaken the regulations and rules. According to the William & Mary Environmental Law and Policy Review: Caged Cats: Private Ownership of Lions and Tigers, written by Adele Young. The first exception allows big cats to be owned as long as they are licensed by the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) (Young 538). With only the authority to license big cats that are being used commercially, it incentivizes those who own big cats as pets to breed and exploit their “pet” in order to keep them. Forcing licensees to exhibit their animals also promotes putting baby animals on display for photographs and cub petting. These requirements promote abusive and neglectful practices of big cats in order for commercial licensing.

The last three exceptions to the Lacey Act are for colleges, veterinarians, and state-licensed rehabilitators, allowing for transportation to approved individuals, and non-profit accredited wildlife sanctuaries (Young 538).

Information on the Lacey Act:

 Lacey ActUSFWS

Lacey Act Fact SheetAssociation of Fish and Wildlife Agencies

The Lacey Act: Protecting the Environment by Restricting Trade Congressional Research Service

Captive Wildlife Safety Act (2003)

The Captive Wildlife Safety Act is an amendment to the Lacey Act, this Act prohibits existing big cat owners in captive settings from moving their animals to different states. The species include: tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, jaguars, cheetahs, and subspecies and hybrids of these species. Entities which are expected from this amendment include USDA licensed facilities, research facilities, universities, and certain 501(c)3 facilities. Those not exempt are now allowed to donate, buy, sell, or transport listed felines across state lines. This Act does not regulate in-state transactions.

Captive Wildlife Safety Act Fact Sheet: What Big Cat Owners Need to KnowUSFWS

*Meaning that even if you reside in a state where there is a ban or partial ban on big cat ownership, this law can be avoided if the cat is part of a public show or attraction, “Many of the states that prohibit ownership unfortunately, exempt those who hold a USDA license.  This has become a huge ‘loophole.’”

Big Cat Public Safety Act

With regulations costing taxpayers millions of dollars, it does not relieve the animals of their suffering. The USDA regulations are not ensuring safety and animal welfare, and does not help to provide funding for the rescue of animals from abusive and neglectful situations. The only way to truly help exotic animals from ending up in the wrong situation is to ban all private ownership federally in the United States. Below is the description of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, its purpose, and what would be solved if it is to pass.

As an amendment to the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, the Big Cat Public Safety Act will help put an end to exploitation and backyard breeding of big cats in the United States. If this bill is passed, it will end the legal private possession of big cats federally. Key provisions of this Act end private ownership and breeding of big cats and limit exceptions of this rule.

Please visit the TCWR Advocacy Page and be the voice for abused and neglected big cats.

Ways to help with legislation: ­­­­­

Stop Private Ownership of Captive Big Cats, IFAW



Alexander, Kristina. “The Lacey Act: Protecting the Environment by Restricting Trade” 2014. Congressional Research Service

Federal Regulation of Wild FelinesFeline Conservation Federation

New South Carolina Law Will Make Private Ownership of Wild Animals Illegal, Seanna Adcox; The Post and Courier (2017)

Nasser, Carney Ann. “Welcome to the Jungle: How Loopholes in the Federal Endangered Species Act and Animal Welfare Act Are Feeding a Tiger Crisis in America”.

Young, Adele. Caged Cats: Private Ownership of Lions and Tigers, 38 Wm. & Mary Envtl. L. & Pol’y Rev. 535 (2014),