Pets you never knew were legal in the UK

The demand for wild animals as pets is growing, but what species can and can’t be legally kept in the UK? Born Free’s Captivity Research Officer Chris Lewis looks at current legislation and what it means for the many thousands of wild ‘exotic’ animals kept as pets.

Sadly, it is currently legal to keep almost any animal as a pet in the UK unless there is legislation in place which specifically bans the keeping of that breed or species.

Captivity Research Officer Chris Lewis

In the case of wild animals, species which are banned are identified on the list of invasive non-native (alien) animal species and include terrapins (Trachemys scripta), raccoons (Procyon lotor) and Siberian chipmunks (Tamias sibiricus). Individuals who possessed an invasive species prior to their listing are able to retain ownership of the animal on the condition that they do not breed, sell or release the animal. Separate legislation covers native UK species. The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 lists a number of protected UK native species which cannot be taken from the wild.

This approach is what’s known as a ‘negative list’ system and is clearly outdated and no longer fit for purpose.

Born Free is increasingly concerned by the number of wild animals being traded and kept as exotic pets, both legally and illegally.

Dangerous Wild Animals

While a few invasive or native species are illegal to keep, other species may require a licence.  For example, species listed in the ‘Schedule’ of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 are classified as ‘dangerous’ and require a licence to be kept. This includes elephants, big cats, giraffe, venomous snakes and more! The Act however is almost 50 years old and has failed to keep pace with the ever-growing trend of owning exotic animals as pets. Its intention was to make the keeping of dangerous wild animals a ‘wholly exceptional circumstance’, however trends indicate the opposite has been occurring in recent years.

In 2021, Born Free’s research discovered at least 320 wild cats, 158 crocodilians, 508 venomous snakes, two elephants and many other species classified as dangerous being kept privately in Great Britain. The Act is mainly concerned with public health and safety, and animal welfare is very much a secondary consideration. As Born Free’s research clearly demonstrates, the welfare of many species covered by the Act cannot be fully met in a captive setting and owners do not have the necessary qualifications, experience or facilities to meet those needs. Furthermore, the requirements of the Act have remained largely unchanged since its enactment, resulting in sections being out-of-date or inconsistent with other animal legislation.

Unregulated Species

Concerningly, there is currently no requirement for a licence to keep the majority of wild animal species in a captive environment in the UK. This lack of licensing or registration requirement makes it difficult if not impossible to accurately estimate the number of exotic pets being traded and kept today. This difficulty is clearly demonstrated by the huge discrepancy between estimates for the number of reptiles kept in UK households in 2021 by the Pet Food Manufacturers’ Association (1.8 million reptiles) and the Federation of British Herpetologists (8 million). Similarly, estimates of pet primate numbers have ranged from 5,000 to 9,000.

Legislation contained within the Animal Welfare (Kept Animals) Bill, currently stalled in the Parliamentary process, touts a ban on primate keeping, which is in fact a licensing system which will further add to the patchwork of legislation currently in place. Some species which do not require a licence are also classified within the greatest risk category in other captive settings. For example, large constrictor snakes and varanid lizards in zoos are categorised as posing the greatest risk to the public, but they can be freely purchased and kept in a private setting without any registration or licencing.

The Need for Change

Current UK regulation and policy in relation to the trade in and keeping of exotic pets is piecemeal and reactionary. The natural history, optimal husbandry and welfare needs of many species kept as exotic pets are incompletely understood by biological science, never mind those involved in trading and keeping them.

A number of countries, including within Europe, have adopted or are in the process of implementing ‘positive lists’ for pet keeping. In contrast to the current negative list system in the UK, a positive list only permits the keeping of species on the list. Such a system has the potential to significantly reduce the scale and scope of exotic pet trade and keeping, while also adopting a precautionary approach. Any species included on a positive list should meet criteria relating to animal welfare, conservation, human and animal health and safety and environmental risks.

Born Free is calling on the UK Government to consider and consult on its future approach to the trade in and keeping of exotic pets with the aim of ending the patchwork and inconsistent animal legislation within the UK, while also ensuring species which clearly cannot have their needs fully met in a captive setting are no longer traded and kept as pets.


Find out more about the dangerous wild animals being kept as pets in the UK:

Dangerous Wild Animals