14 animals that are surprisingly legal to own as pets in the US

It’s legal to own a pet fox in 15 US states. Artyom Geodakyan / Contributor / Getty Images
  • Celebrities from Michael Jackson to Salvador Dali have popularised the idea of owning exotic animals as house pets.
  • From lions to tigers to bears, some of the exotic animals that are legal to own in the US will surely surprise you.
  • Though it may be legal to own some of these animals, many experts advise against it because of the special care these animals require.
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George Clooney and Miley Cyrus have happily called baby pigs their pets. Tori Spelling famously cares for a chicken named Coco who sleeps in her bed.

But those creatures are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unusual animals that are legal to privately own in the US.

The laws regarding exotic pet ownership vary by state. Animal rights advocates advise against keeping most wild animals in captivity, but that hasn’t stopped exotic pet lovers from legally owning everything from ferrets and foxes to more dangerous beasts like alligators, bears, and tigers.

Here is a list of 14 animals that are surprisingly legal to own in the US.

Salvador Dali owned a pet anteater — and you can too.


It’s been 50 years since eccentric artist Salvador Dali was photographed in Paris walking his pet anteater, but this unusual animal is still beloved by plenty of modern-day exotic pet enthusiasts.

Especially beloved is the 10-pound tamandua – the diminutive cousin of the giant anteater – which makes for a cuddly, non-violent companion in many states. Tamanduas love to gobble up termites and – you guessed it – ants, though this doesn’t make them an effective form of pest control, according to many experts.

The majority of tigers live as pets, not in the wild.


About 5,000 tigers live in legal captivity in more than a dozen states – many as privately owned pets – while the population of wild tigers has dwindled to about 3,890, according to the World Wildlife Fund.

Owning a pet tiger may sound thrilling – Mike Tyson sure thinks so – but caring for it can be a serious challenge. A tiger’s diet can consist of up to 88 pounds of meat in one sitting, and its enclosure should be as big as 40 square miles. While studies show tigers can peacefully coexist with people, any frustrated, cooped-up cat has the capacity to eventually lash out.

Foxes are as smart as dogs, and could be on the way to domestication.


It may sound odd, but over the years, wild foxes have been bred to live almost like dogs and cats – but not exactly, as they’re hard to fully domesticate.

Today, pet foxes are legal in up to 15 states, but the rules vary by breed. The most common, the fennec fox, is an adorably petite pack animal that is pretty docile – though it is still important to note that even these tiny furry friends are not fully domesticated.

Pet tarantulas can be quite the handful.


They might technically be warm and fuzzy, but tarantulas will balk at human handling and generally prefer a dark place to hide out until their next meal. That meal typically consists of other creepy crawlies like crickets, mealworms, and roaches.

While these supercharged spiders may not be your typical family pet, plenty of intrepid arachnophiles disagree – and it’s perfectly legal for them own tarantulas in many states.

An alligator is a huge commitment — and it might outlive you.


Believe it or not, it’s legal to privately own this notoriously deadly reptile in a number of states, according to FindLaw, including the unofficial home of the gator: Florida.

Pet owners tend to fall in love with baby alligators, which are less than a foot in length and virtually harmless. But adults can grow to be more than 11 feet long, weigh a whopping 1,000 pounds, and live up to 50 years, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute. Plus, their carnivorous appetite is practically insatiable – and pet owners can be seen as tasty meals.

Kangaroos are controversial, but they’re legal in some states.


Though kangaroos are indigenous to Australia, some have made their way into backyards throughout the US. Many animal advocates, however, are fighting back against the laws that allow private citizens to keep them as pets, arguing that inhumane conditions have led to too many kangaroo deaths at the hands of unprepared caretakers.

Wallabies, a smaller and more docile kind of kangaroo, are a bit more common in the exotic pet world – Elvis Presley briefly had a couple – but like their larger counterparts, they can also become dangerous when agitated,according to The Spruce Pets.

If you’re stressed out, consider a pet llama.


The cool, low-key llama is often recruited as a therapy animal, which is why it makes such a great family pet in the states where it’s legal.

A pet llama is loyal, affectionate, clean, and generally low-maintenance as long as it has plenty of outdoor space – and preferably a furry cohort by its side, as llamas are herd animals, according to Good Housekeeping.

Need another compelling reason to adopt a few of these cuties? It turns out llamas rival guard dogs in their ability to ward off predators, according to Mother Earth News.

Owning a skunk isn’t as stinky as it sounds.


Most domestic skunks have been bred in captivity, where they have had their scent glands removed at a young age, according to PBS. Some animal advocates have called the practice inhumane, as de-scented skunks likely wouldn’t survive in the wild if they got lost.

But those who call this surprisingly playful creature a pet in the 17 states where it’s legal know that a very well-fed skunk that gets a lot of attention, affection, and discipline likely won’t stray far from home.

A porcupine can be a pretty easygoing pet — but it can also be prickly.


Yes, it’s possible to pet a porcupine, and a number of states allow you to keep one as a pet. But safely handling this spiky rodent takes patience and skill. That lesson has been learned the hard way by one too many curious dogs who have found themselves on the receiving end of a quill attack.

Porcupines can be trained to a degree – and some even grow to be affectionate toward humans – but bear in mind they’re solitary creatures who can become violent when agitated.

Yes, boa constrictors can easily kill you, but they probably won’t.


Despite its ominous name, a boa constrictor is quite gentle when properly cared for. This usually involves custom enclosures with simulated tropical conditions and a diet consisting of pre-killed rats and mice on a weekly or monthly basis, according to The Spruce Pets.

Needless to say, this exotic, non-venomous pet is not for the faint of heart. But its docile nature – when not provoked, of course – has earned it legal status in plenty of states.

A pet cougar can be tamed, but it can never be domesticated.


Wildcats are just that – wild. Yet a number of US states allow you to keep them in captivity, according to Big Cat Rescue.

A popular choice for exotic pet owners is the cougar, which is obviously also a risky one.

Though a privately owned cougar will eventually grow accustomed to its owners, it can never be domesticated like a dog or a cat. The best you can hope for is a docile – and sometimes playful – pet that won’t crush you to death with its powerful jaw.

Two-toed sloths are the darlings of the exotic pet world — just ask Kristen Bell.


Actress Kristen Bell went viral in 2012 after she publicly burst into tears upon meeting a two-toed sloth. The internet largely agreed – these tree-dwelling creatures are irresistible. But they’re also high-maintenance creatures that are accustomed to wild, tropical habitats that can’t always be duplicated by pet owners.

Even though sloths are legal to own in several states, the Sloth Conservation Foundation warns not to mistake their slow-moving nature for comfort. Stillness is actually a defence mechanism they have developed to blend in when they feel threatened by predators.

A pet bear can be your best friend — or your worst enemy.


Oh my, you really can keep a bear as a pet in more than a dozen states – though that won’t be the case for long if the Humane Society has its way.

And while bears have been known to develop affectionate relationships with their human caregivers, there have been far too many cautionary tales of bears who snapped and mauled people out of nowhere after lifelong relationships. That’s because – pets or not – bears are wild animals with primal instincts that can be activated in the blink of an eye.

Owning a pet monkey is like raising a toddler for 40 years.


Sure, monkeys are cute and in some ways remind us of tiny humans – but that’s part of the reason they’re such a handful to raise as pets. Monkeys require constant care and attention, and many will live up to 40 years, according to the Primate Rescue Centre.

That means four decades of diapers, not to mention aggressive behaviours like biting and throwing faeces. Still, that hasn’t deterred exotic pet owners throughout the US from owning everything from mischievous capuchin monkeys (like Ross had on “Friends”) to high-maintenance chimpanzees (think Michael Jackson’s chimp, Bubbles).