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Lions and Tigers and Zebras, Oh My!

The following is a guest post by Clare Feikert-Ahalt, a senior foreign law specialist at the Law Library of Congress covering the United Kingdom and several other jurisdictions. Clare has written numerous posts for In Custodia Legis, including Revealing the Presences of Ghosts; Weird Laws, or Urban Legends?FALQs: Brexit Referendum; and  100 Years of “Poppy Day” in the United Kingdom.  

Sudan. Khartoum. Khartoum Zoo. Head of Zebra. Matson Photo Service, photographer [1936]. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Collection.//hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/matpc.17319.

Today marks International Zebra Day. My husband recently saw that a baby zebra was going to be sold at a local auction house and announced that we should get it. I have always heard zebras are not good pets as they are wild animals that bite and kick and can be quite nasty. I off-handedly mentioned it to my daughter’s horse trainer who said that if we got the zebra we would definitely have to train it so that it could be ridden as what is the point in having a zebra unless we can ride it.

I wondered if maybe I had misunderstood the humble zebra. There is a farm near me that has a couple in a field and there are a few around at some local petting zoos. (And we all remember the zebras that roamed free in Maryland last year.) At this point, I did a quick internet search and was reassured that I was, in fact awake and not in a parallel universe when a blog post from the Library of Congress’ Science Division popped up as the first hit, informing me that zebras cannot (typically) be domesticated. While the blog post also included some pretty cool pictures of zebra’s under saddle and harnessed to a carriage, I decided not to test my luck and conveniently forgot to register as a bidder for the auction.

This very brief experience of considering bringing a zebra to my farm did, of course, make me wonder about the legality of owning wild animals in England, beyond the general rule contained in Rylands v. Fletcher for any damage that might occur should it escape. Whilst a zebra isn’t on quite the same scale as a big cat in terms of general scariness, if you get bitten or kicked by one, you would be likely to remember it.

The laws in England provide that it is illegal to own many different types and breeds of animals. For example, in the dog family, four breeds (Pit Bull terriers, Japanese tosas, Dogo Argentino, and Fila Brazilero) are, with limited exceptions, banned as a result of concerns over the breeds’ aggressive tendencies. Raccoons (procyon lotor) are also banned because they are considered to be an invasive species that poses a threat to the native wildlife of the UK, and some have been able to escape from their enclosures due to “[t]heir inquisitiveness and intelligence, and the surprising dexterity of their forepaws.”

Private ownership of certain wild animals is permitted in England, but a license, issued under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 is required. The Act does not contain a definition of what constitutes a dangerous animal, but instead lists those that are considered to be dangerous in its schedule. These animals range from the Tasmanian devil to chimpanzees to leaping lemurs to lions and tigers, elephants, camels, ostriches, asses, and, of course, zebras. This list is kept under review and has been updated on a number of occasions, with the most recent amendment in 2007.

Individuals who wish to keep a dangerous wild animal must apply for a license from the local authority in the area they plan to house it. The application must include the species, number of animals to be kept under the license, and the location of the premises where the animal will be kept. The applicant must be over the age of 18, must not be disqualified under the Act, or must not have been convicted of any offense contained in a number of acts relating to the welfare of animals. Some local authorities actively attempt to dissuade ownership of these animals, with one prominently noting on the top of their licensing page: “[p]rivate ownership of dangerous species is not encouraged, nor is the ownership of primates or exotic species, all of which have special needs in order to ensure a fulfilled life.”

The law provides local authorities with the ability to grant a license to individuals who apply to keep dangerous wild animals if they are satisfied that:

  • the ownership of the animal is not contrary to public safety,
  • the applicant is a suitable person to hold a license,
  • the accommodation the animal is held in is secure and suitable for the type and number of animals it holds,
  • the animal will have food suitable for its needs, drink and bedding and be visited at regular intervals,
  • measures are in place to secure the animal in case of fire or other emergencies,
  • measures are in place to prevent and control the spread of infectious disease, and
  • the accommodation provides the animal with the opportunity to have adequate exercise.

To ensure that the accommodation the animal will be held in is suitable and secure, a veterinarian must inspect the premises where the animal will be held prior to the issuance of any license. During his or her inspection, the veterinarian must consider the animal(s) the application is seeking a license for along with any animals already on the premises, the possibility of intentional or accidental breeding of the animals, and the impact of this on the animals’ accommodation. In addition to the requirement for a license, applicants should ensure that they meet any planning permission for the setup of any required enclosures.

If a license is issued, it must include certain conditions that require:

  • the license holder to be the person who keeps the animals,
  • the animal to be kept at the premises specified in the license and should not be moved,
  • the holder to maintain an insurance policy that insures him or her against any liability for damage caused by the animal, and
  • any other conditions that the local authority sees fit, or any condition that it thinks are necessary or desirable to impose to ensure the animals are secure, adequately cared for and that zoonotic diseases are prevented.

Additional conditions may include restrictions on the species and number of animals that may be held, or any other restriction that the local authority feels is necessary to enable it to meet the objectives listed above. The local authority may vary the license at any time, such as by adding, varying, or revoking conditions, other than the required conditions. Once issued, the license is valid for up to two years.

If a person fails to comply with the license conditions, or keeps an animal on their property without a license, the local authority may seize the animal and destroy or otherwise dispose of it. The keeper or license holder of the animal is liable for any costs incurred by the local authority if they have to exercise their powers under this section. Anyone who holds an animal without a license or commits any offense under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 is liable, upon summary conviction, to an unlimited fine and may be disqualified from owning a dangerous animal for any period of time the court sees fit.

Certain exemptions exist to the licensing regime contained in the Act, such as with respect to dangerous or wild animals that are kept in a zoo that has a valid license under the Zoo Licensing Act 1981, at a place that is a “designated establishment” under the Animal Welfare (Licensing of Activities Involving Animals) (England) Regulations 2018, or at premises that conducts scientific procedures on animals within the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. Wild animals in travelling circuses were also exempt from the licensing requirements of the Act, until their use was prohibited in 2020.

A wild animal welfare charity recently surveyed local authorities and found almost 4,000 dangerous wild animals were licensed across Great Britain, including 11 lions, 8 tigers, 274 primates, two elephants, as well as zebras, wolves, and other animals. The operation of the Act has recently been criticized. A September 2021 joint report by two animal welfare organizations noted that while these organizations believe that the Dangerous Wild Animals Act provides “some degree” of protection from serious injury, the schedule is not extensive enough to include all exotic pets, the trade in which has recently rapidly expanded across England. The report also expressed concern over the risk of zoonotic diseases.

In conclusion, in England it is unlawful to own a zebra without a correctly issued license, in which the welfare of the animal and the safety of the public are paramount considerations. The zebra at the local auction near DC was sold for quite a significant amount, although I am not sure of what the going rate for a zebra usually is, but I was (thankfully) not the purchaser.

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