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Back to Regulations Concerning the Private Possession of Big Cats

I.  Introduction

The problem of big cats being held privately became known in Russia in the 1970s, when the family of an architect with two minor children living in a typical Soviet-style three-bedroom apartment in the South Caucasus adopted a lion cub left without maternal care from a local zoo.  The family became well-known throughout the country, writing books and making movies about keeping a lion as a family pet.  After the lion was killed by a police officer in 1974, when it ran away during filming and scared people on the street, the family acquired another lion and a puma; however, in 1980, both animals were terminated after they brutally attacked the wife of the owner and killed their fourteen-year-old son.[1]

Presently, it has become popular among owners of Russian food establishments and other local businesses to keep bears and big cats in cages or on leashes next to the restaurants with the purpose of attracting more customers.  It is also common for former circus or zoo employees to use wild animals for street performances.  In most of these cases, the animals are not registered, there is no veterinary control, and those who possess the animals do not acknowledge their ownership if approached by the authorities.[2]

Three types of big cats, namely, the Far Eastern leopard (Panthera pardus), snow leopard (Uncia uncia), and Siberian tiger (Panthera tigris altaica), are native to Russia.  It appears that in the wild their population is small and ranges from between twenty-five and forty Far Eastern leopards[3] to about 240 tigers.[4]  All subspecies of big cats that live in Russia are recognized as endangered species and are included in the so-called Red Book of the Russian Federation, a government-approved list of animals and plants recognized as rare or endangered.[5]  The formal protection of rare and endangered species in Russia is regulated by federal legislation and international agreements ratified by the Russian Federation.  The governing document in this area is the Federal Law on Wildlife, which established basic principles for the protection and preservation of wild fauna, government control in this area, the involvement of interested organizations, rules for the usage of animals, and principles of administrative and criminal responsibility for violations of animal protection legislation.  Presently, the State Duma of the Russian Federation is considering the Bill on Responsible Treatment of Animals.[6]  If adopted, the measure would particularly govern the treatment of animals used in cultural events and entertainment—for example, in zoos, circuses, etc.  It would also provide for legal liability for acts contrary to the principles of ethical and humane treatment of animals.[7] 

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II.  Taking Big Cats from the Wild

Any activity that leads to a reduction in the number of animals recognized as endangered species and the deterioration of their environment is not allowed.[8]  Hunting endangered species is allowed only in exceptional cases specified by Russian legislation.  The Government Regulation on Taking from the Wild Animal Species Listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation of January 6, 1997, lists such situations, which include the extraction of animals for purposes of their conservation, monitoring their population status, regulating their numbers, ensuring the health and well-being of animals, maintaining human health safety, and preventing threats to human life and epizootic diseases.[9]  Taking such animals, including big cats, from the wild can only be done pursuant to a permit issued by the Federal Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.[10]

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III.  Keeping Big Cats in Captivity

A.  Possession of and Trading in Big Cats

The government is the owner of all animals living in the wild within Russia.  However, once wild animals are legally obtained by an entity (e.g., zoos, sanctuaries, research institutions, etc.) or an individual they become the property of that person, and may be under private, state, municipal, or other forms of ownership following the ownership regime of the institution.[11] 

The law does not prohibit the possession of big cats and does not regulate the treatment of these animals specifically; however, it regulates the trade in species listed as rare or endangered, keeping them in captivity, and their release back into the wild.  These activities require the permission[12] of federal authorities in charge of environmental protection.[13]

Individuals and legal entities interested in obtaining such permission must go through a complex procedure that involves submitting an application with multiple attachments to the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment.  The list of required documents includes a copy of the articles of incorporation for legal entities, documents justifying the appropriateness of the intended use of the animals, an official determination of the designated government-run research institute for nature conservation, approval issued by a regional branch of the Federal Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment, and, if necessary, documents from other competent organizations that prove the admissibility of the use of the claimed wild animals.[14]  Additional requirements for the content of documents submitted by applicants can be established.[15]  All operations undertaken with respect to wildlife in violation of existing federal and regional legal provisions are invalid.[16]

B.  International Trade in Big Cats

Russia is a party to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), signed in Washington, DC, on March 3, 1973.[17]  This Convention was adopted by the Soviet Government,[18] and Russia as a legal successor to the USSR is likewise a Party to CITES.  In July 1975, big cats were included in Appendix I of CITES, which means that all trade in big cats must be in accordance with the provisions of article 3, which does not allow the trade of such wild animals for primarily commercial purposes.

The Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources (Rosprirodnadzor), which holds the status of CITES Administrative Authority in the Russian Federation,[19] controls all export and import operations related to those species covered by the Convention on the Russian territory.

C.  Breeding

Keeping wild animals listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation in captivity and breeding them are allowed with the permission of the authorized federal authority,[20] which in this case is the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources.[21] 

The process of obtaining such permission is quite complex and requires submission of a significant number of documents.[22]  The application must include

  • a documents stating the origin or proof of acquisition of the claimed wildlife,
  • documents demonstrating the conditions for keeping animals in captivity and breeding,
  • a description of the system used for marking or labeling each individual animal,
  • the registration of animals bred in captivity, and
  • information on the training of employees involved in husbanding and breeding the wild animals listed in the Red Book.[23]

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IV.  Legal Requirements for Zoos

Most Russian zoos are owned by federal and regional government authorities and are under the authority of the Ministry of Culture.  Private zoos are also allowed by Russian legislation.  Despite the fact that the law mainly regulates aspects of state zoos operation,[24] the establishment of private zoos is in line with the Law on Wildlife and other legislative provisions in this field.[25]  Private zoos can be established and be in operation as long as they comply with the requirements of wildlife legislation regulating such issues as taking animals from the wild, and keeping, breeding, and trading them.  The requirements of regulations addressing sanitary conditions, veterinary practices, fire hazards, and other safety concerns[26] must also be met.  All zoological collections and rare animals held in the possession of private individuals, legal entities, museums, research institutions, or educational institutions, among others, are subject to mandatory state registration regardless of the type of property.[27]  A specially issued government regulation defines the procedure for creating, keeping, enlarging, and exchanging these collections.[28]

A significant number of Russian zoos, including several private zoos, are members of the Eurasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (EURAZA).[29]  In turn, EURAZA is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA),[30] which in November 2003 adopted the Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare that applies to all WAZA members.[31]  According to the WAZA’s Code of Ethics, animals should be protected from conditions detrimental to their well-being and the appropriate husbandry standards must be followed.[32]  The Code states that where wild animals are used in presentations, these presentations must deliver a sound conservation message or be of other educational value, focus on natural behavior, and not demean or trivialize the animal in any way.  If there is any indication that the welfare of the animal is being compromised, the presentation should be brought to a conclusion.[33] 

In line with these requirements, zoos should create proper conditions for animals to meet their physical and psychological needs.  The Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources monitors zoos together with other government agencies responsible for different areas of sanitation and public safety.  All of them have the right to request the correction of found violations or close the zoos.[34]

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V.  Penalties

The Law on Wildlife provides that legal entities and individuals engaged in keeping in captivity and breeding wild animals must treat them humanely and comply with respective sanitary, veterinary, and zootechnical requirements.  Failure to comply with these requirements results in administrative and criminal responsibility in accordance with the laws of the Russian Federation.[35]  Illegally obtained wildlife, including big cats, are subject to uncompensated seizure and, where possible, return to their habitat.[36]

Administrative liability for the destruction of rare and endangered species of animals listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation that diminishes the habitat of such animals or causes their death, as well as taking, purchasing, selling, or transferring such animals without proper authorization or in violation of the conditions stipulated by a permit or otherwise in violation of the established order, is punishable by a fine in an amount approximately equal to US$100 for individuals and US$15,000 for legal entities.[37]

According to the Criminal Code of the Russian Federation, the destruction of habitat of the animals listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation that causes the death of such animals is a felony punishable by imprisonment for up to three years.[38]  The Criminal Code also punishes cruelty to animals, including both animals living in the wild and those kept in captivity.  A penalty in the form of correctional labor for up to one year or imprisonment for up to six months is prescribed for this crime.[39]

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Peter Roudik
Director of Legal Research* 
June 2013 


* This report was prepared with the assistance of Law Library intern Svitlana Vodyanyk.

[1] Byrap Imanov, Tragediia Sem’i Berberovykh [Tragedy of the Berberov Family], Trend (Apr. 6, 2010), http://www

[2] Andrei Moiseenko & Larisa Kaftan, Tsirk Uehal, a Klouny Spilis [Circus is Gone and Clowns Are Drunk], Komsomolskaia Pravda (Oct. 17, 2003),

[3] World Wildlife Fund, Conservation of the Far Eastern Leopard: Draft Strategy (2011), http://www (in Russian).

[4] Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment of the Russian Federation, Strategy for Conservation of the Amur Tiger in the Russian Federation (2010), available at resources/publ/book/eng/444 (in Russian).

[5] Regulation No. 158 of the Russian Federation Government of February 19, 1996, Sobranie Zakonodatelstva Rossiiskoi Federatsii [SZ RF] [Russian official gazette] 1996, No. 9, Item 808.

[6] Bill No. 458458-5, text and information available at the official website of the Russian Federation State Duma,

[7] Id. 

[8] Federal Law on Wildlife of April 24, 1995, art. 26, SZ RF, 1995, No. 17, Item 1462.

[9] SZ RF 1997, No. 3, item 385.

[10] Order of the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment, No. 123 of April 30, 2009, /node/5883 (Ministry’s official website, in Russian).

[11] Federal Law on Wildlife art. 4.

[12] Id. art. 24.

[13] Trade in animals listed in the Russian Red Book, including big cats, is regulated by Government Decree No. 156 of February 19, 1996, on Issuing Licenses for Trading Animal Species listed in the Red Book of the Russian Federation, SZ RF 1996, No. 9, Item 807.

[14] Id.

[15] Id.

[16] Federal Law on Wildlife art. 58.

[17] Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), Mar. 3, 1973, 27 U.S.T. 1087, T.I.A.S. 8249, 993 U.N.T.S. 243, disc/text.php, as amended, June 1, 1979, T.I.A.S. 11079, and Apr. 30, 1983, http://www.cites. org/eng/disc/gaborone.php (Gaborone Amendment).

[18] Resolution of the Council of Ministers of USSR No. 612 of August 4, 1976; Resolution of the Council of Ministers of the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic No. 501 of September 8, 1976, published as amended in Sobranie Postanovlenii Pravitelstva SSSR (then the official gazette) 1990, No. 14, Item 78.

[19] Decree of the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation, No. 47 of February 27, 2008, published in Biulleten’ Aktov Federalnyh Organiv Ispolnitelnoi Vlasti [Bulletin of Executive Regulations, official publication] 2008, No. 25. 

[20] Federal Law on Wildlife art. 12.

[21] Regulations of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources, adopted by Resolution No. 400 of July 30, 2004, of the Russian Federation Government, SZ RF 2004, No. 32, Item 3347.

[22] Procedure for obtaining a permit for keeping in captivity and breeding animals listed in the Red Book is provided by the Administrative Regulation of the Federal Service for Supervision of Natural Resources approved by the Order of the Ministry of Natural Resources of the Russian Federation, No. 279 of October 30, 2007, available at

[23] Id. art. 2.4.4.

[24] Model Statute on State Zoological Parks adopted by the Order of the Ministry of Culture of Russia No. 473 of July 16, 1993 (unpublished), available at;base=EXP;n= 309141.

[25] Article 26.10 of the Federal Law on Wildlife provides that wildlife taken from the wild in the prescribed manner may be under private, state, municipal, or other forms of ownership.

[26] Requirements are stipulated by Safety and Sanitation Rules for Zoos, approved by the USSR Ministry of Culture on July, 25, 1973 (unpublished), available at;base=LAW; n=129693.

[27] Federal Law on Wildlife art. 29.

[28] Government Regulation No. 823 of July 17, 1996, SZ RF 1996, No. 31, Item 3718.

[29] A list of zoos that are members of EURAZA is available at the EURAZA website, (last visited May 31, 2013).

[30] See the website of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), (last visited June 4, 2013).

[31] The text of the Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare is available at the WAZA website, en/site/conservation/code-of-ethics-and-animal-welfare (last visited May 31, 2013).

[32] Code of Ethics and Animal Welfare art. 3.

[33] Id. art. 2.

[34] See, e.g., Model Statute on the State Zoological Park adopted by the Order of the Russian Federation Ministry of Culture No. 473 of July 16, 1993 (unpublished), available at doc;base=EXP;n=309141.

[35] Federal Law on Wildlife art. 26.

[36] Id. art. 54.

[37] Code of Administrative Violations of the Russian Federation, art. 8.35, SZ RF 2002, No. 1(1), Item 1.

[38] Criminal Code of the Russian Federation art. 259, SZ RF 1996, No. 25, Item 2954.

[39] Id. art. 245.

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Last Updated: 06/30/2015