Why our decision-makers must tackle the dangerous wild animal in the room

Born Free calls on all political parties to commit to a comprehensive review of the trade in and keeping of exotic pets in the UK.

A small crocodile sits submerged in water facing to the right of the image, with just the top of its head and eyes above the water

Crocodile © B Jaschinski

Born Free’s Captivity Research & Policy Manager, Chris Lewis, discusses new research into the keeping of dangerous wild animals and why, whoever is in power come July 5th, now is the time to address exotic pet ownership in the UK.  

Captivity Research Manager Chris Lewis

Published in the prestigious scientific journal ‘Animals’ on the 7th of May 2024, the paper entitled Private Keeping of Dangerous Wild Animals in Great Britain offers the first formal evaluation of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 (DWAA), which regulates the keeping of dangerous wild animals in England, Scotland and Wales, in more than 20 years.

Given that so much time has passed since the last review, it is perhaps no surprise that the paper identifies a number of issues including animal welfare concerns, out-of-date taxonomic listings and inconsistencies with other relevant legislation. The recommendations made in this paper reflect the fact that not all the recommendations which emerged from the previous review 20 years ago have yet been fully implemented.

The keeping of wild animals categorised as “dangerous” by private individuals such as pet owners, farmers, mobile animal exhibits, educational facilities and some sanctuaries, requires a licence under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Zoos, laboratories and, surprisingly, pet shops are exempt.

Licences are issued by local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. In Northern Ireland licences are issued by the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA) under The Dangerous Wild Animals (Northern Ireland) Order 2004. Born Free regularly requests data from local authorities across Britain on the number of licences issued and the animals to which they relate and publishes the figures on our Dangerous Wild Animals Map.


The paper shines a light on several areas of concern, not least, the lack of definition for an animal categorised as “dangerous” and inconsistencies with other regulations covering the keeping of dangerous wild animals, such as zoo legislation. Some categories of animals, such as constrictor snakes and large lizards, which are clearly dangerous, don’t currently require a licence. Also, the scientific revision of taxonomic names and the absence of regular updates to the list of species which require a licence, means that a number of species which previously required a licence may now not fall within the remit of the DWAA for no other reason than their official name has changed. Additionally, there were indications that local authorities may have granted licences without knowing the exact species of animal being kept, which would contravene the requirements of the Act.

The DWAA is based upon the assumption that it is possible to privately keep dangerous wild animals in a manner that minimises or eliminates risk to the public and in a way that does not undermine the welfare of the animals. The Private Keeping of Dangerous Wild Animals in Great Britain paper challenges this notion. In some respects, the issues identified go beyond dangerous wild animals and relate to all wild animals that are kept as pets.

It is currently legal to keep almost any wild animal as a pet in the UK, and the animal health and welfare requirements an owner must provide for are generic and non-specific, including those kept under the DWAA. This can result in significant compromises to the animal’s behavioural, nutritional, physiological, psychological and social needs.

The study identified that more than a quarter of all primates kept under a DWAA licence were the only one of their species at that location, suggesting that despite their highly social nature, the animals were being forced to live alone.

The Animal Welfare (Primate Licences) (England) Regulations 2024 is designed to improve the lives of thousands of primates kept privately in England. However, it does not ban their keeping as was promised by government.

Rather, it establishes a licensing system for primate keepers which comes into force in April 2026. Due to the General Election being called, the publishing of accompanying guidance, outlining the standards which licensees would be required to meet, has been delayed.
It is crucial that the next government ensures the standards are stringent, effective and enforceable, and that the bar for keeping these highly intelligent and social animals is set as high as possible. Anything less risks continued and unaddressed suffering. There are currently no plans for similar legislation in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales.

In contrast, a number of countries, including within Europe, have adopted or are in the process of implementing ‘positive lists’ for pet keeping. A Positive List system only permits the keeping of species that are on the list, based on certain criteria being met.

The European Commission recently initiated a feasibility study to investigate the possibility of an EU-wide positive list, while the Scottish Animal Welfare Commission has recommended the Scottish Government consider the implementation of such a system. Positive lists have the potential to significantly reduce the scale and scope of exotic pet trade and keeping, while also adopting a precautionary approach where doubts exist over the welfare, conservation or safety implications of keeping certain species.

Born Free is calling on all political parties to commit to a comprehensive review of the trade in and keeping of exotic pets in the UK, including the DWAA. Consideration should be given to a Positive List system based on criteria designed to determine whether welfare needs can be met, whether there are any conservation concerns, and whether the trade presents a risk to humans, other species or the environment.

A fox cub sitting in grass


Help put nature and animal welfare on the agenda in this general election. Write to your local prospective parliamentary candidates and show the UK’s political parties that their stance on nature and the welfare of wild animals, both free-living and captive, will influence your vote.

Use our simple template letter and choose from a list of seven key priorities that you want them to focus on – including the keeping of exotic pets.