Keeping Captive / Exotic Wildlife
"Can I have a de-scented skunk as a pet in Massachusetts?" "I saw a wolf/dog hybrid for sale on Craigslist, is it legal to have one in the state?" "I just moved to Massachusetts and own a prairie dog. I see this animal requires a permit in Massachusetts. Will you issue me a permit for my pet?" The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife fields these and similar questions from people with an interest in keeping some kind of wild or exotic wildlife as a pet.
Massachusetts' regulations regarding the possession of wildlife are among the strictest in the country. The goal of these regulations is to protect both the interests of wildlife and the public. Some people already have an animal and may be disappointed or frustrated to learn they cannot lawfully keep it in Massachusetts. To avoid such problems, it's important people know about the laws before they acquire an animal or before they move to Massachusetts with an illegal animal. The Division recommends prospective pet owners to consult with a veterinarian to determine what species is suitable for their household's abilities, lifestyle and commitment to pet care.
The Division of Fisheries and Wildlife has regulatory jurisdiction over all vertebrate species in Massachusetts except for domestic animals. In some instances, such as species on the federal endangered or threatened species list, migratory birds, or marine mammals, authority may be shared with the federal government or another Massachusetts agency.
Massachusetts pet stores are inspected and regulated by the Department of Agricultural Resources, but the stores must follow state laws regarding the animals that they may sell. Purchasers can reasonably assume that an animal for sale in a Massachusetts pet store may be lawfully sold and possessed.
Do not assume that animals for sale in other states, including those states adjoining Massachusetts, are legal to keep in Massachusetts. Similarly, be wary of animals advertised for sale on the Internet or in newspapers. These animals may be lawful to own at the point of origin, but not in Massachusetts.
DFW has statutory responsibility for all freshwater fish, reptiles and amphibians, birds, and mammals, regardless of whether they are native to Massachusetts or occur elsewhere in the world. In some instances, such as species on the federal endangered or threatened species list, migratory birds, or marine mammals, authority may be shared with the federal government or another Massachusetts agency.
The DFW does not oversee or regulate marine (saltwater) fish, which are under the authority of the Division of Marine Fisheries, nor does it regulate invertebrate animals (with some exceptions for endangered, threatened, or special concern species). Some towns may have municipal bylaws which prohibit certain invertebrates such as tarantulas or other venomous spiders, or which further regulate the keeping of animals which MassWildlife otherwise allows. Check with your city or town to comply with both state and local laws, if any.
For purposes of possession, DFW groups animals in the following categories:
- wildlife requiring a DFW permit
- wildlife exempt from DFW permits and
The following information provides a definition of these categories and offers a list of the relevant wildlife in each group.
Any species in this category requires a DFW permit and may not be kept as a pet. Examples of animals requiring a permit include endangered and threatened wildlife, venomous snakes, crocodilians, monitor lizards, monkeys, African servals, sugar gliders, skunks and raccoons. Permits for animals in this category are issued only for certain scientific, educational, commercial, or other specific reasons. Permits are not issued for keeping these species as pets. Permits in this category are issued only for certain scientific, educational, commercial, or other specific reasons. . Applicants must be able to demonstrate that they are actively engaged in the activity for which they have applied for or received a permit. (See 321 CMR 2.12) The only exception is for a prohibited animal for which there is proof it was in the owner's possession within Massachusetts before July 1, 1980. This exemption is granted only for the life of that particular animal.
Wildlife included in this category includes any animal listed in any category of the Red Books of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, any category of federal endangered species law or listed on the Massachusetts list of endangered, threatened, and special concern species.
Other groups of wildlife which may not be kept as pets and require a DFW permit include:
Tilapia: which are often kept in indoor aquaculture
Snakeheads: These fish are on the federal list of injurious wildlife. Importation and interstate transportation is prohibited by federal law.
The following fish are expressly prohibited and may not be liberated
in waters of Massachusetts: Grass Carp (White Amur), Piranhas and related
Walking Catfish and related species.
Only those species listed on federal and state threatened and endangered species lists require a permit. (See weblinks above)
Turtles: Spotted Turtles, Argentine (Chaco) Tortoise, Gopher Tortoises and related species, and the Pancake Tortoise all require a permit because of concerns for their conservation.
Snakes: Emerald Tree Boa, Green Tree Python. The Reticulated and African Pythons, all Anacondas; Black Rat Snake and venomous snakes require a permit because they are considered potentially dangerous.
Crocodilians: All crocodilians including, alligators, crocodiles, caimans and gavials require permits.
Lizards: Regulations regarding the possession of lizards are quite
detailed. Some generalities regarding which species require a permit
are listed as follows:
- Rare species, Florida Sand Skinks, Solomon Islands Ground Skink,
- Chameleons, Monitor Lizards,
- Gila Monster and Beaded Lizard, and any other lizards not specifically listed.
- Gekkos (rare species and the Big Bend Gekko)
Rare species, migratory birds found in the United States and Canada, and any other bird native to the United States or Canada. Permits may be issued for the aviculture of certain waterfowl and game birds.
These are wild species which DFW allows anyone to keep without the
need for a permit. These animals may be possessed, maintained, propagated,
bought, sold, or imported and are exempt from most state requirements.
Included in this list are all of the wild species that are legal to
sell in pet stores. These animals must be obtained from a lawful source,
may not be captured or taken from the wild in Massachusetts, and may
not be liberated to the wild. (M.G.L. c. 131, § 23 and 321
In order to be listed as exempt, the animal (or group of animals) must meet the following criteria:
- Accidental release will not adversely affect the ecology of Massachusetts;
- The animal in captivity, or if escaped, poses no substantial danger to humans, either from injury or disease;
- Proper care of the animal is no more demanding than the care of common domestic animals; and
- Trade in the animals has no significant adverse effect on the wild population of the animal in any of its natural habitats.
All "aquarium trade" fish except for rare species on state, federal and international lists. Aquarium trade fish include the Goldfish, Koi (Japanese Carp) and Guppies. (see 321 CMR 9.01 for definition) The Fathead Minnow and the Bluntnose Minnow may be kept as a pet, but require a permit when sold as bait for fishing.
All amphibians may be lawfully kept except rare species on state, federal and international lists.
Turtles: All turtles, except rare species on state, federal and international lists and those listed as Wildlife Requiring a Permit.
Snakes: Regulations regarding the possession of snakes are quite detailed. (321 CMR 9.01) Some generalities are listed as follows:
- All boas and pythons may be kept without a permit except rare species on state, federal and international lists and those species listed as requiring a permit.
- Other snakes exempt from permitting are Shield-tailed Snakes and Sunbeam Snakes;
- Worm Snakes (except rare species), Thread Snakes, and related species;
- Brown and Redbellied Snakes, Garter and Ribbon Snakes, Glossy Snakes, Green Snakes, House Snakes,
- Kingsnakes and Milksnakes, Rat Snakes (except rare species),
- Water Snakes, and the Western Hognosed Snake.
Lizards: Regulations regarding the possession of lizards are also quite detailed (321 CMR 9.01) and generalities are listed:
- All skinks (including the Solomon Islands Prehensile-Tailed Tree Skink);
- False Club-tailed Lizards, Girdle-tailed Lizards, Plated Lizards, and Rock Lizards;
- Most Teiid Lizards; Some Lacertid Lizards and Lateral-fold Lizards;
- All Gekkos (except rare species and the Big Bend Gekko);
- Several iguanids, including Basilisks, Collared and Leopard Lizards, Common (Green) Iguana, False Iguana, New World Chameleons, Spiny Lizards, and Tree and Bush Lizards;
- some Agamid Lizards, such as the Bearded Water Dragon,
- and most Night Lizards.
- Blue, Button, or Coturnix Quail;
- Pigeons and Doves;
- Waxbills and related species;
- Finches and related species;
- Weaver Finches, except the Red-billed Dioch and related species;
- Parrots and related species;
- Toucans, Aracaris, and Toucanets;
- Starlings and Mynahs, except the Rose-Colored (Pink) Starling.
Only the following 11 mammals (or groups) may be kept as pets:
- Four-toed (African Pygmy) Hedgehog;
- Chinchilla, derived from captive stock;
- Deer Mouse and White-footed Mouse;
- Egyptian Spiny Mouse;
- House Mouse;
- Norway Rat;
- Southern Flying Squirrel;
- Striped Hamster.
Wildlife Which May Be Taken From the Wild In Massachusetts and Kept As Pets
The following reptiles and amphibians are the only native Massachusetts wildlife species which may be taken from the wild in Massachusetts and kept as pets with a maximum of two animals of each species. DFW permits are not required, but these animals may not be sold, bartered, or exchanged. (321 CMR 3.05)
Frogs & Toads--American Bullfrog, American Toad, Fowler's Toad, Gray Treefrog, Green Frog, Spring Peeper, Pickerel Frog, and Wood Frog.
Salamanders & Newts--Eastern Red-backed Salamander, Mudpuppy, Northern Dusky Salamander, Northern Two-lined Salamander, and Eastern Newt.
Snakes--DeKay's Brownsnake, Eastern Gartersnake, Eastern Racer, Eastern Ribbonsnake, Milksnake, Northern Watersnake, Red-bellied Snake, and Smooth Greensnake.
Turtles -- Eastern Musk Turtle, Painted Turtle, and Snapping Turtle
Domestic animals are those kinds of animals which have undergone a process of selective breeding in captivity and have consequently been changed both physically and behaviorally from their wild ancestors, while still maintaining a close genetic similarity to them. Animals were domesticated for companionship, transportation, food, pelts or fibers, hunting, or as guard animals. Wild animals raised in captivity (even over many generations) which have merely become tame or accustomed to people are not domestic animals.
All animals or groups of animals on the Domestic Animals list below may be possessed, propagated, maintained, imported, bought, sold, or otherwise disposed of without the need for a MassWildlife permit or license (321 CMR 9.02). If a specific animal is on the list, it is classified as a domestic species and is not regulated by DFW. If an animal is not on the Domestic Animal List, it is legally classified as a wild species regulated by DFW. However, in some instances, persons may need to comply with certain local or state laws regarding dog licenses M.G.L. Ch. 140, § 137 or municipal agriculture or zoning bylaws, or with requirements of the Massachusetts Department of Food & Agriculture pertaining to livestock and farm animals. Contact the Division if you have any questions about the following lists of domestic animals.
Domestic geese, ducks and muscovy
Captive-reared Mallards acquired and properly marked in accordance with the provisions of the Code of Federal Regulations;
Common Coturnix or Coturnix Quail;
Peafowl (Blue Peafowl)
Domestic turkey, including breeds and varieties derived from the Wild Turkey, but not including captive or captive-bred Wild Turkeys or pen-raised or game-farm Wild Turkeys;
Common pigeon or Rock Dove
Domestic dog (for hybrids, see below)
Mink, propagated in captivity for 2 or more generations (M.G.L. Ch. 128, § 8B)
Domestic ferrets which have been surgically neutered or spayed and rendered incapable of breeding (M.G.L. Ch.131, § 77)
Domestic cat, including the Pixie Bob and Bengal Cat (for other feline hybrids, see below)
Domestic ass, including mules, burros, and donkeys
Domestic swine, but not including Wild Boars or free-living wild pigs or swine
Domestic Water Buffalo or Carabao
Domestic goat and sheep
Domestic hamster (Golden Hamster)
Laboratory rat and mouse
Domestic rabbit, (not including so-called "San Juan" rabbits)
STATUS OF CANINE/FELINE HYBRIDS:
Wolf/dog hybrids or other hybrids between domestic dogs and any wild canine species are legally classified as wildlife and may not be kept as pets. After 1994, permits for these types of animals are issued to research or educational entities, not to pet owners. Although there are no simple tests to confirm that a particular animal is a wolf/dog hybrid, the DFW uses a suite of physical and behavioral characters, very similar to the ones used by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which together provide a good basis for identification. The only exception is if the animal was in the owner's possession on or before January 1, 1994 and registered with DFW no later than July 31, 1994. (M.G.L. Ch. 131, § 77A)
Any feline animal which is a hybrid between a domestic cat and any wild feline species, is not considered a domestic animal and may not kept as a pet in Massachusetts. Savannah Cats documented to be from the F4 generation or greater are considered in Massachusetts to be members of a recognized breed. Breed recognition is by any national or international cat breed association such as The International Cat Association (TICA). The Savannah cat is a relatively new breed that originated from crossing the African Serval (a wild cat species) with the domestic cat (usually a Bengal). Individuals from the F1, F2, and F3 hybrid generations are not considered to be domestic cats under Massachusetts law and are not lawful to possess as pets. (MGL:131, sec 77A)
REMINDER: The above information is only a summary and people should refer to the appropriate Mass. General Laws (MGL) and the Code of Massachusetts Regulations (CMR) for details.