According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, approximately 56% of all U.S. households have pets, or “companion animals.” Cats and dogs are the most popular species, followed by fish, poultry, and other birds. Where there is close interaction, the possibility of injury follows. Animals do not always act the way humans expect. There are no comprehensive statistics on the numbers of people injured by all types of pets, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that nearly 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year. And a study published in the February 2010 issue of the Journal of Safety Research estimated that there are over 86,000 injuries every year due to falls caused by dogs or cats.
The legal issues raised by dog bites are fairly straightforward. Most U.S. jurisdictions have statutes that impose strict liability on dog owners for bite injuries. Some of these statutes apply to injuries other than bites, and some laws extend to other animals. If a statute does not apply to other domesticated animals, a person injured by a cat bite or a horse’s kick may still recover if the owner knew of the animal’s propensity to bite or kick.
While cats and dogs are enduringly popular, many animal lovers opt for more unusual pets. Approximately 7,000 tigers—more tigers than live in the wild in Asia—are kept as pets in the U.S. It is estimated that 15,000 primates, such as chimpanzees or orangutans, live with private owners. Such non-mainstream animals have been kept as pets for all of recorded history, as a way of displaying wealth, or as exotic curiosities. Many owners of these pets are drawn to the beauty of the animals, or a fascination with their behavior. There is no denying the allure of a wild animal; there is also no denying the legal risks faced by their owners.
For all their appeal, wild animals can and do injure humans. Chimpanzees are popular as pets, and some owners treat them as if they were their children. Their genetic makeup has a similarity to humans of 98.5%. They often exhibit human-like behavior, and when they are young, they are very appealing. As they grow older, however, their behavior can become more unpredictable. Attacks on humans by captive chimpanzees are common. In 2005, St. James Davis was attacked and mutilated by three chimpanzees while visiting a sanctuary near Bakersfield, California (ironically, St. James and his wife had gone to the sanctuary to visit a chimp they had raised for years). In Stamford, Connecticut in 2009, Carla Nash suffered near fatal injuries when Travis, a fourteen-year old chimp she had known for years, attacked her and mauled her face. Travis had been kept as a pet by his owner, and was a beloved fixture in Stamford.
Ownership of captive wild animals or “exotic pets” is prohibited in nineteen states. The prohibitions in six of these states—Connecticut, Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Ohio (effective January 1, 2014), and Washington—limit their prohibition to “dangerous” (Iowa, Ohio), “inherently dangerous” (Georgia, Kentucky), or “potentially dangerous” (Connecticut, Washington) animals. Most state laws give specific examples of the animals that are prohibited or restricted. Oregon, for example, prohibits the possession of an “exotic animal” unless the possessor has a permit. The term “exotic animal” is defined as cats (other than domestic cats) not indigenous to Oregon, nonhuman primates, canines (except domesticated dogs) not indigenous to Oregon, and any bear except the black bear (ursus americanus). The Oregon law does not cover other animals that have caused injuries to people, such as snakes.
State laws typically do not impose civil liability on animal owners for injuries caused by the animals, but that does not mean that an injured person has no remedy. The common law of most states allows a negligence action based on a statutory violation where the statute does not explicitly provide for a civil remedy. Such an action will be permitted if the court determines that the remedy will further the purpose of the legislation, and that the remedy is needed to assure the effectiveness of the enactment. The right to recover on an implied right of action is limited to the class of persons protected by the statute. Most state laws that prohibit or limit the possession of certain animals declare that they are meant to protect the “public health and safety,” but there are some exceptions. In Hawaii, for example, state regulations prohibit the unauthorized possession of certain animals, but the law is intended to protect “the agricultural, horticultural, and aquacultural industries, natural resources and environment of Hawaii.” If a person were injured by an animal whose owner did not have the legal authorization to possess it, the regulations probably would not give the injured person the right to bring a negligence action.
Most states would allow a person who is injured by a captive wild animal to bring an action based on strict liability, even if the animal’s owner had the appropriate permits. Strict liability is usually imposed when a person is injured by an activity that involves the risk of serious harm, that cannot be performed without the risk, and that does not usually occur in the community. In most jurisdictions, a person who owns or possesses a non-domesticated animal is strictly liable for the personal injuries caused by that animal. In this context, a non-domesticated animal is a member of a species that has not generally been domesticated (according to archaeologists, there are only thirty-nine species of domesticated animals worldwide), and that are likely to cause personal injury unless restrained. An owner may regard an animal as a pet, but the focus is on the attribute of the type of animal involved, not on the individual animal.
Keeping a non-domesticated animal is not a usual activity in most communities. It also poses a risk of serious harm. Non-domesticated animals are unpredictable, and there is a very real possibility of an attack, even by an animal raised in captivity (keep in mind that the evolutionary transition from wolves to dogs took thousands of years). The potential for harm from a non-domesticated animal is not just from possible attacks. Even properly handled and confined non-domesticated animals have been shown to transmit several serious diseases to humans, including hepatitis A, rabies, and tuberculosis. They may also transmit infections from worms or other parasites. Keeping a non-domesticated animal cannot be accomplished without such risks.
Ownership of exotic pets is an issue that has been the subject of an ongoing ethical debate. Advocates point to the joys of owning an unusual animal, and that the animals pose a minimal risk of harm if their owners are responsible. Opponents claim that the animals suffer when taken out of their natural habitats, and that they are difficult to care for. The potential owner of an exotic animal must also be aware of the legal issues involved.