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Back to Regulations Concerning the Private Possession of Big Cats

I. Introduction

This report surveys the different legal approaches taken by twenty-one countries* and the European Union in regulating the private possession of big cats.  All the countries surveyed are members of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).  Among them, China, India, Malaysia, Russia, Thailand, and Vietnam are tiger range countries where tigers still exist in the wild.  China, India, and Russia were found to designate wild tigers as state property.

The individual country surveys describe the legal provisions regarding keeping big cats in captivity, the requirements for licenses, and permission for breeding.  Many surveys also discuss the procedures for accreditation of zoos keeping such animals, trade in wild animals, and penalties for violations.

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II.  Private Possession of Big Cats

Among the twenty-one countries surveyed, twelve were found to have legislation at the national level specifically prohibiting or restricting the private possession of big cats, by regulating certain species of big cats; a family or subfamily that big cats belong to; predators; or rare or endangered species, with species of big cats living in the country being listed.  In most cases, the prohibition or restriction on keeping big cats in captivity comes from each country’s wildlife protection or animal welfare laws.  The provisions of England and Denmark were found to be contained in a single piece of legislation regulating dangerous animals. 

  • In Austria, big cats cannot be kept anywhere except in qualified zoos.  This restriction applies to all members of the Pantherinae subfamily as well as to cheetahs and smaller wild cats, except for native wild cats (felis sylverstris) and lynx.  These zoos are most likely to be owned at the municipal level, which would hardly qualify for private ownership. 
  • In Brazil, the law requires that keepers of exotic fauna pertaining to the panthera felidae family, which includes lions, tigers, and jaguars, to register with the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Renewable Resources and meet certain requirements.
  • In China, four species of big cats are listed under the top state-protected wildlife category: tigers, lions, clouded leopards, and snow leopards.  In order to keep these animals in captivity or breed them, licenses from the state wildlife management authority are required.
  • In Denmark, no animal species that may present a danger or that are particularly difficult to keep in an animal-welfare friendly manner, including all species of predators (with certain exceptions that do not include big cats), may be kept by a private person.
  • In Greece, the possession of wildlife, including wild cats, without a permit is prohibited.  The law prohibits holding and keeping wild animals within Greece as personal or household pets.
  • In England, the ownership of dangerous wild animals is permitted, but the owner must obtain a license for each animal held.  All cats, including the bobcat, caracal, cheetah, jaguar, leopard, lion, lynx, ocelot, puma, serval, and tiger, are subject to the ownership restrictions.  The wild cat, pallas cat, little spotted cat, Geoffroy’s cat, kodkod, bay cat, sand cat, black-footed cat, rusty-spotted cat, and domestic cat are excepted.
  • In India, the private possession of endangered cats, including cheetahs, clouded leopards, fishing cats, golden cats, Indian lions, leopards, panthers, marbled cats, snow leopards, and tigers, is prohibited unless the person has a certificate of ownership for a wild animal he or she possessed at the commencement of the wildlife protection law, which was enacted in 1972. 
  • In Japan, big cats, including tigers, are listed as dangerous animals that may cause harm to the life, body, or property of humans under the animal welfare law.  Those who care for them must first obtain a permit from the prefectural governor.
  • In Malaysia, tigers and other species of large cats are listed as “totally protected” wildlife under the law.  Special permits are required to keep such animals, including in a zoo or for the purposes of breeding.
  • In Russia, keeping species listed as rare or endangered in captivity and their release back into the wild requires the permission of federal authorities in charge of environmental protection.  All subspecies of big cats that live in Russia are included in a government-approved list of animals and plants recognized as rare or endangered.
  • In South Africa, three animals in the cat family, namely, the cheetah, lion, and leopard, are categorized by the national biodiversity law as “vulnerable species.”  As a result, their possession in private homes is restricted and permits are required.
  • In Thailand, private persons are prohibited from possessing protected wildlife, including big cats such as tigers, except where the person owned such animal before the current wildlife protection law became effective in 1992.


National Laws and Regulations of Countries Prohibiting/Restricting Private Possession of Big Cats




Enacted/ Adopted



Regulation on the Keeping of Wild Animals




Administrative Act (Portaria) No. 108




Wildlife Protection Law




Statutory Order on Private Persons Keeping of Certain Animals




Dangerous Wild Animals Act




Joint Decision of the Ministers of Finance and Economy and Rural Development and Food on Trade of Species in Wild Fauna and Indigenous Flora




Wildlife (Protection) Act




Act on Welfare and Management of Animals




Wildlife Conservation Act




Federal Law on Wildlife



South Africa

National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act




Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act


Source:  Based on information provided in the individual country surveys included in this report.

Mexico has published guidelines applicable to keeping big cats in captivity.  The private possession of big cats is allowed, but owners must register with Mexico’s environmental authorities and are subject to guidelines applicable to keeping big cats in captivity.

In Canada, the provinces and territories have the primary responsibility for protecting the welfare of animals, including exotic wildlife.  The possession of exotic wildlife as a pet in a private home is restricted in every province except Ontario. 

In the following countries where regulations specifically addressing big cats were not found, keeping big cats in captivity may be subject to certain restrictions generally applicable to keeping wild animals or dangerous animals:

  • Under Costa Rican law, all wildlife that is in the possession of zoos, breeding farms, rescue centers, and public or private institutions, or in private hands must be registered.  Keeping wildlife in captivity is prohibited unless it comes from a wildlife management site legally established for reproduction with the goals of conservation, reintroduction, or commerce.
  • Israeli law requires an owner or a person who controls or cares for animals to inform the city veterinarian of the local authority of the types of animals and the location of their captivity. 
  • Norway’s regulations on exotic animals make it illegal to keep alien (exotic) mammals in captivity as livestock, pets, or otherwise, although an exemption from this ban may be granted in order to exhibit animals in zoos if certain requirements are met. 
  • Spain enacted a law on potentially dangerous animals in 1999 as a response to the increasing number of attacks by animals in the 1990s.  In order to possess any animal considered potentially dangerous under the law, an administrative license must be obtained from the municipality with jurisdiction over the applicant’s residence.  The law, however, does not include any specific provision on big cats.
  • The animal protection law of Turkey stipulates that persons who take ownership of or look after an animal are liable for sheltering the animal and for meeting the animal’s needs, and for “taking care of their health and taking all necessary precautions with regard to the health and safety of people, animals and the environment.” 

Map: Private Possession of Big Cats and Wild Animals

Private Possession of Big Cats and Wild Animals

Source:  Map created by Law Library of Congress intern Andrew Walz.

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III.  Licensing Requirements

Wherever licenses or other forms of permits are required for the private possession of big cats, keepers must satisfy the requirements prescribed by law.  Public safety is specifically emphasized in the law of England, where the following findings are required: (1) the ownership of the animal is not contrary to public safety; (2) the applicant is a suitable person to hold a license; (3) the accommodation the animal is held in is secure and suitable for the number of animals it holds; and (4) measures are in place to secure the animal in case of fire or other emergencies and that the animal will be adequately exercised.  Japanese law also requires the structure of the facility be strong enough to prevent the animal from escaping, with the specific requirements in this regard depending on the animal.

Austrian law prescribes detailed specifications for the living conditions of big cats in zoos, which address the size of living spaces, temperatures, access to exterior space, landscaping, etc.  For most big cats, the exterior space for a male and a female or for a female with young must measure 500 square meters with an additional 10% of space required for each additional adult animal.  For tigers and jaguars, bathing basins are required.  China’s requirements, on the contrary, appear to be general: determined premises, necessary equipment, sufficient funds, personnel, and technology, and secured sources of food.

The length of the licenses varies in the countries surveyed.  In England the licenses are provided on an annual basis and expire on December 31 of the year in which they are issued, while in South Africa the permit to possess a big cat in a private home may be issued for a period of fifty years.

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IV.  Breeding of Big Cats

The breeding of big cats in private possession is possible in a few of the countries surveyed, including China, Malaysia, South Africa, Russia, and Vietnam, subject to licenses or other permission. 

Three countries that have been accused of operating tiger farms where stocks of tigers are bred for human utilization were surveyed: China, Thailand, and Vietnam.  In China and Vietnam, it is legal to keep and breed tigers in facilities that are licensed or otherwise permitted by government.  As of 2010, China had as many as six thousand tigers kept in about two hundred facilities licensed by the government to domesticate and breed tigers.  In Vietnam, as of 2012, it appears that there were eleven registered tiger farms, including public facilities and zoos.  A regulation sets conditions for farms that breed and rear animals, including tigers.  The wildlife protection law of Thailand allows breeding of protected wildlife to be undertaken by the government for educational or academic research purposes, or for the operation of a zoo.

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Laney Zhang
Foreign Law Specialist
June 2013

* The countries surveyed are: Austria, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Denmark, Greece, India, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, Malaysia, Mexico, Norway, the Russian Federation, South Africa, Spain, Thailand, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Vietnam.



Last Updated: 12/30/2020