Following our recent revelations that increasing numbers of dangerous wild animals are being kept by private owners in Britain, and the broadcast of Britain’s Tiger Kings: On The Trail With Ross Kemp (ITV, March 30th and April 6th 2021), we have been inundated with questions. In order to answer as many of the points that have been raised as possible, we have created a list of Frequently Asked Questions which our team of experts and veterinarians have responded to. We hope this helps.
Sadly yes. There is no prohibition on keeping most species of wild animal as pets in the UK. However some species, considered to be potentially dangerous, require a Dangerous Wild Animal licence from the Local Authority.
The species for which a DWA licence is required are listed in the ‘schedule’ of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act which can be found here. It contains many of the species one would expect, including large mammals like elephants and rhinos, big cats and other carnivores, bears, and many reptiles including crocodiles, alligators and many venomous snakes.
Many species, including some that any right-minded people would consider to be dangerous, aren’t listed on the DWA schedule and don’t require a licence. They include, for example, komodo dragons, other large monitors, and large constrictor snakes. They also include numerous species considered dangerous were they to be held in a zoo, such as some deer species and some large birds of prey.
We believe it is far too easy to obtain a licence. The degree to which checks are carried out, and by whom, vary enormously between Local Authorities, but in many cases they are minimal and subjective, and may be carried out by people who don’t have detailed knowledge of the needs of and potential dangers posed by the species concerned. While some of the animals are bred in this country, information about wildlife imports from the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) recently revealed that over 48 million individual wild animals were legally imported into the UK from 90 countries between 2014-2018.
The licensing process requires the applicant to demonstrate that their animals are properly contained so as to prevent escape and protect the public, but this does little to protect the owner or anyone else visiting the property, and animal welfare provisions within the Act are rudimentary. Furthermore, there is long-standing concern about widespread non-compliance with the Act, especially with respect to venomous reptiles and invertebrates. The demand for wild animals as ‘pets’ can also put pressure on wild populations of threatened species.
The exotic pet trade involves a huge and varied range of species, with vastly differing physical, psychological, social and environmental requirements, and for many species we don’t yet understand these requirements in full. In practice it’s really difficult to see how private individuals can adequately provide for most of these animals in captive conditions here in the UK. At the very least, species that can be kept should be restricted to those where it can be shown that their welfare needs can be (and are) satisfied, and where there are no adverse consequences for species conservation, public and animal health and safety, or the wider environment. Some countries, such as Belgium, Luxembourg and Norway, have introduced ‘positive lists’ of species that can be kept, and this is something the UK authorities might consider.
Domesticated animals such as cats, dogs and horses have been selectively bred over many generations to live alongside humans and are genetically distinct from their wild ancestors. Wild animals have not, and possess complex behavioural, environmental, social, nutritional and other welfare needs. As such they are not suited to a life in captivity. As a result, these animals can suffer from poor health and welfare when kept in captivity, and the fact that they retain many of their natural, wild behaviours while being kept in stressful, unnatural, confined environments, can make them potentially more dangerous.
We don’t have exact figures, but a number of incidents have been reported involving species which currently require a Dangerous Wild Animals licence, and some that don’t but clearly should. Just last year, a hybrid Savannah cat escaped in Hampstead, London, while a seven-foot-long Boa constrictor appeared in someone’s back garden and then turned on its rescuer, biting his hand and wrapping itself around his wrist on the Isle of Sheppey. There have been other troubling stories where a woman was bitten in the eye by a python at Mayfair club and almost blinded, while a man in Hampshire was killed by his 8ft African rock python. In 2011, a man died after being bitten by his king cobra.
Records held by the RSPCA report that their specially-trained exotic animals officers rescued over 4,000 exotic animals in 2018 alone. Due to the nature of the animals, owners may fail to report escapes or attacks for fear of the animal being removed or their licence revoked. It is important to remember that these incidents are not the fault of the animals but of a regime that permits them to be kept in this unnatural way.
We are advocating for an end to the private keeping of dangerous wild animals as pets, and regulation of the keeping of all species of wild animals to ensure their welfare needs can be provided for. Clearly this may mean that some animals currently in private hands that would be affected by any restrictions, and that cannot be relocated to suitable sanctuaries, would need to remain with their current owners. However, this should only be allowed on the condition that they wouldn’t be bred from, that regular inspections take place to make sure they are not suffering unduly, and that, after they die, they would not be replaced.
Keeping and breeding animals in captivity fails to address the threats species face in the wild. The prospects of reintroducing captive born individuals into the wild is incredibly low. In some situations, taking animals from the wild to be traded as pets is putting wild populations under increased pressure. Proactively managing and protecting species in their natural habitats is the only way to ensure long-term protection for endangered animals.
As a minimum, we are calling for a comprehensive review of the regulation of the private keeping of wild animals in the UK. New regulations should include full consideration of: whether the welfare needs of individual animals can be met; whether owners have the necessary qualifications and experience; a guarantee that the trade is not likely to compromise conservation of species in the wild; due consideration of potential environmental concerns (such as the establishment of invasive species through escapes, the deliberate releases of unwanted pets, and the possible spread of zoonotic diseases); and confirmation that there is minimal risk to the health and safety of animals or people.
Please support Born Free’s campaign by writing to your MP, and signing our petition calling on the Government to review and reform laws on the private keeping of Dangerous Wild Animals.
If you are concerned about dangerous wild animals being kept in your local area, you should write to your district or county councillors (https://www.writetothem.com/), detailing your concerns, ask whether the necessary local authority checks have been made and licences issued, and if so what criteria were followed by the inspector. Use our interactive map to see DWA information for your local area.
Born Free has prepared a range of information and ways that you can take action on the issue of dangerous wild animal ownership in the UK. Please use the buttons below to see more.