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What Exotic Animals Cay You Legally Have as a Pet?

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Make sure you understand the unique challenges of owning an exotic pet before you adopt one

It goes without saying that owning a tiger is going to be much different from owning, say, a golden retriever. One of these furry friends likes to chase sticks and get tummy rubs; the other one eats up to 88 pounds of meat in one sitting.

That said, a quick online search makes both easily available for purchase online. But owning a pet of any kind comes with countless responsibilities, and taking on an exotic pet comes with additional obligations to consider before jumping into the wild world of pet ownership.

More: 10 Pets to fall in love with besides a cat or dog

Before falling hard for an exotic animal, be sure to check the local animal bylaw before making a purchase. “There may be fines and/or confiscation of the pet and possible euthanasia if a suitable place can't be found for it,” warns Kim Meehan, who sits on the board of and volunteers at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary. Everyone fondly remembers Darwin the Ikea monkey, who captured headlines around the world in December 2012 but was later taken from owner Yasmin Nakhuda and placed in a sanctuary after a lengthy legal battle. And far more tragic were the two New Brunswick boys who were killed by a 4-metre-long African rock python that had escaped its enclosure in a pet store underneath the apartment in which they were sleeping.

Every province except Ontario either prohibits exotic pets or regulates them in some fashion. So while it’s illegal to own a squirrel or raccoon in Ontario, there is no province-wide ruling against keeping a lion or tiger, for example. And even though other provinces have stricter policies, it isn’t always clear what species are permitted. In Saskatchewan, for example, no exotic animals are banned specifically, but the government has simply not been issuing permits for certain species in quite some time.

More: 7 Celebrities with surprisingly exotic pets

According to Catherine Gulliver, editor of Animal Law in Canada, the topic of keeping exotic animals as pets in Canada is clearly an interesting problem. “The problem is caused by Canada’s division of power between the federal jurisdiction and the provincial jurisdiction created by the BNA Act. Animals are considered personal property, but the provinces have jurisdiction over property. Each province has its own rules and legislation that govern animals in general. The problem stems from the fact that there is no standardization or uniformity of the laws governing all animals, including exotic animals, across Canada. Furthermore, exotic animals are not defined.”

To find out if an animal is allowed into Canada, go to Environment Canada's CITES site, and select Species Search List. In any event, one can import certain exotic animals to Canada directly from other countries with permits, so it’s really important to buy from a recognized local pet store or reputable breeder.

But just because there may not be a law preventing you from purchasing a certain reptile, it doesn’t mean it’s a wise choice.

More: 9 Exotic cat breeds every cat lover should know

All exotic animals require special attention beyond those of a pet cat or dog. Hopefully the pet store or breeder can provide this specific information. It is incumbent on the new owner to know the law and care of any animal, exotic or not. But Gulliver cautions, “The medical needs of exotic animals may go beyond the specific knowledge of the local vet.” Usually even run-of-the-mill exotics — the lizards, cockatoos and tropical fish found in your local pet store, potential alternatives to cats and dogs for allergic animal lovers — require special attention, so doing all your homework may not even prepare you for the true commitment needed. “It’s like the teenager that wants a tattoo. Before getting any tattoo, place a diagram of the tattoo on your bedroom wall. If after a month you still want it, go for it,” Gulliver says.

If the people who advocate on behalf of exotic animals seem unnecessarily cautionary, it’s because they have a very real understanding of the possible problems. For example, many of these animals do have special needs, from food to temperature and humidity. Meehan warns, “Most reptiles, if not cared for properly, will get metabolic bone disease and will have drastically shortened life spans as well as pain from poor diet and inadequate supplementation. Monkeys, other mammals and birds are often fed incorrectly and suffer dental issues as well as nutritional deficiencies.”

So doing your homework is necessary as well as sourcing a local vet to consult once you obtain your pet.

Originally published December 2015. Updated March 2017.

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